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Status: Single, 40 and unperturbed

After authoring Faraway Music, Sita’s Curse and You’ve Got the Wrong Girl, bestselling author, lifestyle editor and PR professional, Sreemoyee Piu Kundu is trending for her path breaking offering ‘Status Single’. The book sheds light on the difficulties women to face when her status doesn’t fit well into the Indian context. In an insightful conversation with NT BUZZ she talks about her life, and the struggles and survival of several other women in India and more

Danuska Da Gama I NT BUZZ

Sreemoyee Piu Kundu is single. She turned 40 in December and threw a huge bash. While she wanted to break away from the stereotype and celebrate her life of surviving, moving forward, overcoming pain, bad decisions, wrong men, lost career opportunities, health troubles, friendships now extinct with courage and determination, the invitees were more interested in attending the ‘real occasion’ or ‘the big day’. Though she agrees that life as a single woman in India is a struggle, her book ‘Status Single’ is hard-hitting and real, one that has stories of all types of women: urban, rural, divorcees, disabled and LGBTQ, who are single and successful in their own ways.

Excerpts from an interview

  1. What were the challenges you encountered from researching for the book to getting it published?

I wasn’t hoping for a self-help book or a motivational mission statement – claiming that 40’s are the new 20. I sought a no holds barred telling of the lives of middle class working women, like me – who dealt with crippling body issues, grappled with being taunted and probed in the arranged marriage market and unceremoniously rejected, dated via virtual apps and met strangers for coffee; were unabashed about their sexual choices, were doing well in their workplaces, and yet couldn’t find a place on rent, or have an abortion where a grim-faced, opinionated gynecologist always asked for a male relative to accompany her, often making slanted value judgments – linking everything to her personal life, instead of ensuring her organs were nurtured. I wanted to bring out issues of women who after divorce grapple with regressive comments in family circles; where a victim of domestic violence is told not to return home as that may affect her younger sister’s matrimonial prospects; where disabled women are told by disabled boys that they want ‘fair, good-looking…’ normal girls in other words; where transgender or single women fight for custody of their children when they ditch the patriarchy trap by buying sperms and have a child via IVF; where care-giving of ailing parents is often dumped on the single daughter who stays back.

As a single woman, I have used social media and my columns to express my trials and tribulations; these have gone viral. That’s when my agent asked me to consider doing a full length novel on my life –I didn’t want it to be autobiographical– so I got a cross section of single women in India and their real truth.

I interviewed 3,000 urban women in a span of a year, and while each story is different, the aloneness of a single woman and the marginalisation of the entire community is something that I could relate to. Usually, I would share the theme for the chapter on social media and instantly women would reach out to me – I guess somewhere we all need each other, because unlike support groups for single parents or LGBTQ women, there are no dedicated communities for single women – there is a huge lacuna we are looking at. Status Single was thus a platform which I hope becomes a pillar of change. I want this book translated into a movement and to this effect I have formed a community online on Facebook called #statussingle.

However, while editing as I started sharing transcripts of the interviews 20 per cent of the women pulled out because they found it daunting that personal saga was now a book; and this after first agreeing to be case studies. Many feared social ostracisation.

  1. It’s tough being a woman in India, much more single, divorced, or widowed. Comment.

The biggest challenge in being single and successful is the assumption that you must be arrogant, outspoken, choosey or ambitious. A close college friend recently asked, if I was lonely. Also, I have had married female friends promise to ‘introduce me to someone nice,’ eligible. I think maybe women and society at large are threatened by a confident, good looking, well maintained, successful woman who’s not batting her eyelashes in desperation, waiting for that elusive ring on her finger.

Being single challenges the age-old script of patriarchy and male validation, and it’s never going to be easy in this country to be the ‘other’, just like gay people. We are a marginalised community whose voice is never really registered. Also, as a single child I have found that the fear of being left alone in this world is daunting. Women have fed their insufficient and fragile egos with the looks, achievements, wealth of their husband, wearing the title of ‘wife,’ like a crown, and then adding ‘mother,’ like winning a jackpot.

I think it’s very challenging for a single successful woman to even exist in social media with a slew of happy family albums, baby shower shoots and women revealing every inch of their married life. That and the real aloneness and void, failure of romantic relationships, health problems post 40, superficial new age friendships and perils of being on your own in the most daunting life circumstances is tough.

I’ll be honest I feel bad at times when my mother is lectured on how me being a Manglik is the reason I haven’t found a man yet or how she was conned to cough up a lakh to enroll on a matrimonial website, etc. I have dreaded being alone among married couples whose discussions have the commonality of nannies, in-laws, homework; long lonely weekends without anyone to hang out, being chased by married men wanting fun, traveling alone and missing that special someone to share life with. It’s not a cake walk, but then I would rather battle and survive my single life than be in a dysfunctional marriage or be a married man’s mistress. It’s what I tell myself – personal dignity before all else.

  1. Unfortunately our family sometimes understands the least about our choices and worry more about what neighbours and extended family would think, rarely about their own child’s happiness and choices. Isn’t it?

One of the defining moments in the book for me was when I received mail from an 87-year-old father, Om in Nasik whose oldest daughter was a victim of dowry harassment and marital rape. Every time she reached out to her parents, fearing social stigma and the troubles of possibly getting their two younger daughters married, they kept asking her to adjust, impregnate herself to fix the abusive and dysfunctional marriage. In 2012, his daughter went missing and after a week-long search, her body was found in a river. The post mortem revealed vaginal injuries and burn marks on her neck and arms. It has been six years and Om has been fighting for justice. ‘I am a failed Indian parent,’ he said when we spoke, crying. I think his pain and his journey for justice is a seething testament to where as a society we fail our daughters.

Given the looming divorce rates, open marriages and infidelity in India; that 74 million women are now single, parents must raise daughters not on a staple diet of fairytales but on super girl comics, like Wonder Woman. Girls need to be made self-reliant, emotionally strong and sexually open, to treat marriage as a life state, and not an all-pervasive character certificate.

  1. In India, women are made to think of others first and then the self; this often affects our decision making. Tell us how should women put themselves first in pursuit of their own happiness?

A woman should be more than a daughter, sister, wife and mother. I think we are caught up in a suffocating bogey trap of role playing, idealised by patriarchy, religion that pin down a woman to a narrow box where her identity is always a prefix to someone or something else. Happiness, desire, lifestyles, career and relationship choices are never ours alone and we often hear the stifling adage that a daughter is ‘paraya dhan,’ and is always seen as a ‘bojh,’ with most families craving for a ‘vansh ka chirag’ – a male heir to secure the line of inheritance. I think the way forward is surely for gender sensitisation and encouraging parents to look at the larger picture for their daughter’s future and happiness. That begins with focus on her education and financial empowerment. Encouraging daughters to live alone, in hostels to begin with, to start saving money, learn the ropes of banking, taxation and financial planning, invest in their own property, and have a life of their own where a life partner becomes a worthy companion and not a meal ticket or an old age insurance plan.

Which chapter do you hold close to your heart and why?

It’s difficult. But I love the one on motherhood, because I have always wanted children, and also having been raised by a brave single mother who remarried a man 13 years younger, a South Indian, from another community and city, going against society and relatives, I think this chapter with myriad forms of motherhood is a tribute to my own mother – her strength of character, perseverance and fight for dignity.

  1. Of the several women you spoke to, whose story you felt most for?

There are many stories in Status Single and I cannot really choose because to me all 3000 women are brave enough to speak about their life. However, I am sure more single women nee do come out and speak up about the horrors of staying single in India when you refuse to settle down and conform to a larger social majority – when women celebrate their 40th birthdays with as much of enthusiasm as a wedding or a baby shower, when they can claim same rights and respect as a married couple, adopt or become mothers via IVF, when divorced women take a shot at happiness again, or start over a first generation entrepreneur, when women rent apartments easily or aren’t labeled for their lifestyle choices and when society just backs off and doesn’t look at a single woman like a slut or a saint– I think that’s the awareness and the eventual change I hope Status Single makes. The story that I hold very close to my heart is of transgender single mother Gauri Sawant who adopted a five year old orphaned daughter of a sex worker in Mumbai, after her mother died of AIDS. Gayatri now 16 proves that a mother is not defined by her uterus alone. Another one, Nita Mathur was haunted by rejections in the arranged marriage market and because she was always asked if she was a virgin by prospective suitors living alone in Delhi underwent a hymen reconstruction to restore her virginity – a surgery that is on the rise as women are desperate to fit into the marriage ready bill and get a ‘Barbie doll’ vagina.

  1. Your cover has words that women are often labeled with; which of these words, do you feel, would break the zeal and confidence of a woman wading through her own choices?

The cover of the book is crowd sourced and we had almost 10,000 responses collated from social media where women across India shared the most common labels that are reflective of the stereotypes they have to face. So, you will see words like slut, selfish, sar phiri, akeli, abala, ambitious, NGO type ki, nyakachandi, randi, egotistical, alone, depressed, divorced, single mom, in many Indian languages, as well. These are hardly flattering terms and perhaps a reality check of 21 per cent of our national population.

(The book will be launched today at Literati Bookshop, Calangute 7 p.m. onwards. Wendell Rodricks will be in conversation with the author along with panelists Shilpa Mehta and Ayesha Baretto)

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