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Celebrating solo

More people are choosing to stay single or partner on their own terms. And startups in areas from food and realty to living and dating are responding by redesigning offerings to accommodate those coming in, in ones

Madhusree Ghosh

We’re having conversations with bots; treating our plants like they’re children (check out #plantmom on Instagram); seeing celebrities like Emma Watson talk of “self-partnering”. There’s a new edge to the idea of being single.

It helps that singles today can log on to rent-a-friend apps for temporary platonic company; turn to Tinder, Bumble and their various counterparts for actual dates.

And it helps that businesses are reformatting their offerings to accommodate those turning up in ones. Companies like Tribe are setting up co-living spaces designed for the solo urban migrant; your shared living space comes with a pre-made social fabric — events, get-togethers, movie and game nights; co-working company, WeWork, now has WeLive settlements where members can live.

From the backpacker to the lone woman biker, travel companies offer packages called Women Solo Travellers and Singles Travel Group.

At restaurants in metros, menus are being tweaked to offer degustation or single-serve meals that let the solo diner enjoy a varied, multi-course meal. The Botticino at the Trident Hotel in Mumbai has a goldfish named Antonio, whose bowl they place on the table for solo diners who would like a little company.

“Financial independence has been a deciding factor, of course, especially for women,” says Kalpana Sharma, editor of the 2019 book, ‘Single by Choice’, which featured the stories of 12 women, aged 27 to over 70, who chose to remain unmarried. “If you have a career, you have the opportunity to move away from parents’ choices and make your own. Expectations of romance leading automatically to marriage ease. Though we are talking, of course, about the urban, educated, upper-middle-class, the change is still significant.”

India has 71 million single women, according to the 2011 Census. While this includes widows, divorcees, and people separated from their husbands, as well as those who never married, the number itself jumped 39 per cent between 2001 and 2011.

Vidya Nair, a 29-year-old advertising executive from Mumbai, describes herself as deliberately single.

“I didn’t see a matching of effort; I was always putting more into the relationship, so I decided I would rather be single and focus on myself — at least until I found a partner that didn’t feel like a compromise,” she says. “As the numbers of singles grow, and many of the people in my social circle are single, there is a sense that perceptions are changing. It’s no longer assumed that if you’re single, it’s because you’re not desirable. This is especially important for women, who have a harder time going against societal expectations.”

Friends on rent

How is this translating in the goods and services markets? Thomas Cook India says they saw a 30 per cent rise in solo travel last year. “Single-serve orders are 25-30 per cent of Zomato’s order volume and it’s a number that has been rising steadily over the past two years,” says Mohit Sardana, chief operating officer at the food delivery app. Its competitor Swiggy responded to demand by launching Swiggy Pop, a special menu of discounted, one-person portions.

Apps like Meetup or RentAFriend are responding to a need of a different kind. They offer to link you with a person of the same gender or opposite gender, not for a date or hookup but just for company — typically, to go for a movie, event, workshop, or just a cup of coffee.

Founded in 2002 in Manhattan, Meetup predates Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter. “The platform helps people get away from their computers and make connections in real life. Today, Meetup has more than 330,000 groups in over 190 countries, and holds events every day around the world,” says spokesperson Jeanine Mioton.

There are currently 11,061 Meetup groups in India, including Delhi Singles Who Love To Travel, and Living Single and Loving It.

India is currently Tinder’s largest market in Asia, and one of its top five markets for growth globally, with an average of 7.5 million daily swipes recorded in 2019.

The why

“When you’re single, the only person who can disappoint you is yourself,” says Muktadhara Ray, 34, a software engineer from Pune. “That rarely happens, and it’s one of the things about being single that I find a great relief.”

Ray says she particularly revels in solo travel. “I started travelling alone only six months ago. It’s so freeing not having to depend on anyone else. You can make your own itinerary, plan each day as you want,” she says. “Costs are higher, and certain things like meals and hikes can get lonely. But I’m enjoying it overall.”

In other conversations with young singles, being able to get to know oneself, and being able to define and find happiness for oneself were cited as key reasons.

Sociologist Souvik Mondal points out that, in addition to rising economic independence for both genders, another big factor in the rising population of the soloist is increasingly demanding work hours. “There is simply less time to fill,” he adds, “and there is a sense that every minute of leisure time available should be made the most of to chase and achieve one’s own dreams.”

Shivya Nath, 31, is a good example of that lifestyle. A solo traveller and blogger, she was 23 when she quit her job as a social media strategist for the Singapore tourism board, so she could travel full-time.

“The more I travel, the more I realise that there are a thousand ways to live your life. But most people only choose one,” she says. “The work-home-sleep schedule tends to breed boredom and an absence of purpose and meaning. The only recourse society seems to suggest is to have a kid. But think deeper about it and you’ll find so many ways to get a lot out of life. Work for the environment, fight for animal rights, teach someone a skill, learn a language, chase a forgotten dream, take some risks.”

What about loneliness?

The travelling and Instagramming, apps and endless newsfeeds can make you feel like your little world is crowded enough, and complete, but it’s important to also have in place a strong set of friends, and a social circle, says Sharma.

“In my experience, a lot of single women, including myself, reach out and create our own community, which consists of both friends and family. It’s a conscious building of alternative family,” says Sharma. “It also depends on your personality. You could be a married woman and still be alone. Many single people who move cities because of a job, live with other single people, build shared lives together. As you get older, it does become a problem. But if you have created this community, you already have a backup you can reach out to.”

Reaching out is crucial, adds psychologist Pallavi Burkhay.

“As it is, the social fabric of togetherness has changed from ‘we’ to ‘me’,” she says. “A lot of us wear masks online and offline. There’s more pressure to be happy, so we’re putting up fronts for partners, friends, colleagues. In such a situation, it is even more important to have a close circle with whom you can be yourself.”

(HT Media)

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