warning - long post
As a tween, teenager, twenty year-old, whenever I read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I could immediately identify myself with Elizabeth . It turned out I was not the only one. Almost every girl who read the book did not want to be the pretty and nice (boring?) Jane. For obvious reasons, no one could even think of themselves as one of Elizabeth ’s other sisters. It sounded good, being rude to Mr Darcy and then having him fall for you hook, line and sinker. Especially when he was tall and handsome (a memory that only got enhanced by Colin Firth’s portrayal in the BBC series) and had class and lots of money. Ah, perfect life.
Sadly, I turned twenty seven, without seeing Mr Darcy in the horizon and began to notice the much ignored Charlotte . Charlotte was blessed with average looks, brains, some family money and overall a decent personality (After all she was Elizabeth ’s friend). Unfortunately she chooses to marry the insufferable Mr Collins. When Elizabeth visits her house later on, Charlotte makes it fairly clear that the marriage has not brought her any joy in terms of companionship but she is grateful for the comfort of a home it has given her. With some careful maneuvering, she ensures that she and Mr Collins don’t spend much of their time in the same room. Even reading about Charlotte makes one want to cry.
Yet, why is it then that every Indian girl who has reached the magical Charlotte age of twenty seven, so keen on marrying, even if it is Mr. Collins ?
Maybe the answers lie in the Indian society of the last generation, which is not substantially different from the English society of the novel. The operative words being ‘the last generation’.
We grew up watching our aunts, older cousins and sundry female relatives tread the path of holy matrimony, when they turned the right age. The unfortunate few who did not find a mate were consigned to the jobs of being teachers and staying with their brothers after their fathers died. Or becoming hostel wardens. Or (gulp) came to a Bad End, having fallen under the clutches of evil men who exploited ‘frustrated’ older single women. I cannot recollect a single woman who stayed by herself, had a career and had a life.
My generation has it better. More women were getting into professional courses and the average middle class family expects its daughters to study, as much it does its sons. You can even have careers that are more demanding than being a primary school teacher. Yet, when the golden age of 25 has been reached without a groom in sight, it is panic time. Panic among parents, the extended family, friends of the family, triggering off a panic attack in the girl till she agrees to marry the first bloke who comes along. If he turns out to be Collins, so be it. But atleast she has the comfort of holy matrimony.
No one stops to question this logic, least of the girl – Is marriage at the ‘right’ age still so important that you marry Collins? After having worked hard to get into schools, colleges and jobs you deserve, is it necessary to settle down for less when it comes to marriage? We seem to be producing more women engineers, MBAs and all other professionals than before. But when it comes to marriage, it is time for the blinkers to come and follow the sell-by date set by some vague society standards.
And when this happens, the few who hold out, either out of choice or compulsion, suddenly realize they are clueless about what to do next.
You had enough classmates around you, preparing for GMAT or cracking the CAT. You had friends who feverishly discussed their preferred first jobs with you. Then, bang, all of them get married and lead a very different life from you. You have neither role models, nor peer groups to get a cue from. What next?
Well, I would think, maybe it is time to think. For the first time in your life, here is a chance to be yourself. Finally you don’t have a peer group that tells you what you ought to be doing now. You are not married at 25. This automatically means, you don’t have to have a kid at 27, buy a house at 28 and have a second kid at 30. Alright maybe the bit about the house is not true. But we will come to that later. Instead of constantly moaning about how you must be the most unattractive person on earth, and how you will die being eaten by Alsatians, here is the time to do all the things that you were good at or interested in – travel, dance, sing, write poetry, take Spanish classes, learn animation, do photography, volunteer at a primary school. The list is practically endless. You have the time and money to do what you want. It is a tragedy of human race that when we are given the opportunity to have all the adventures we want, instead of grabbing it with open hands and letting loose our imagination, we cry in anguish at having missed out on joining the stereotype.
So, your parents and peer group are aghast and keep asking you when your ‘real’ life is going to start. Maybe it is time to turn around and say that this is your real life and it does sound more interesting at times. The problem with the definition of ‘real’ life is that it usually means ‘all of us are doing it. So we must be right’. Which means pampering husbands and producing babies is real life. But climbing mountains and rappelling down them is not (Boy, don’t you ever go around thinking that is not real. It is as real as it gets. Especially when you look down).
There are of course the immediate problems – who do you travel with, who do you go for a movie with, what if you want to have a random coffee? This is where it is time to remind yourself the differences between the last generation and this. There are enough travel groups you can go with and women-only travel groups if you please. Unlike the last generation when being single meant you were ostracized from the average middle-class society, you will be pleasantly surprised to discover that once your friends recover from the initial flush of marriage, they are more than happy to hang out with you. And really, watching a movie or drinking coffee alone is not something you will be shot for.
Enjoy being yourself. You are more interesting than you think.
The other funny thing which the unmarried twenty-seven years old do is to ignore their careers. Somewhere deep down you think that your time will come anytime now – should I really take that transfer when six months down the line I could be asking for another transfer if I get married? I hate my job but do I really want to quit when six months down the line I anyway have to quit when I move to the U.S. ? Wake up, girls. If there is no one in sight, then maybe it is a bit silly to plan your life around an unpredictable event? Firstly, being married is not the ‘big change’ to do course correction in your jobs. If you think you need to do it, then the sooner you do it the better. Secondly, you have reached where you have after putting in a lot of effort. If you don’t respect that, no one else is going to. Including your boss who will decide your pay and the guy who shows up to ‘have coffee with you’. And finally, so what if you moved jobs just now and decide to move again when you get married? This is hardly the day and age of ‘permanent’ jobs in PSUs. Instead of one job change this year, you have two. Big deal.
Don’t ignore your career. It is going to be around for most part of your life.
And while we are it, I may as well add about the house. Savings and finances infact. For some reason, being single automatically dissuades women from investing in shares, opening FDs or acquiring property. This is yet another hangover from the last generation, where most women held onto low-paying jobs till they got married or anyway had jobs that would not be enough to put food on the table. Today, a lot of us earn enough to support ourselves and more. So perhaps it is time to be grown-up about money. So you do get married two years down the line. What do you expect? Your husband to manage your overdue credit card bills and exploding wardrobe? If you end up meeting someone who cashed out totally in the last internet boom or inherited tons of family wealth, then life is good. But more likely, he is also a hardworking guy in a normal job and fiscal responsibility is something that you both bring to the table?
Money is good. Single or married.
I must confess that for all the talk on how it is time to look inward and doing things that you most want, it is not easy being the odd one out in a group. Whenever you meet up with your friends (all married), you look on while they indulge in couple talk and act. Yet, step back for a minute and think of how it would be if the situation were switched. You won’t be the one feeling like an aberration. So maybe it is good to make new friends who are single too? You made new friends when you went from school to college, when you shifted house, when you found a job. Yet, when our current friends move onto a different phase of life, we hanker to get into that phase, rather than find people who are in the same phase of life as us. Maybe you are not ready to get married but you still do since everybody around you is?
It is not that difficult making friends as you grow older. It is just that we are in fewer situations where we meet new people. Remedying that is easier done than said. Two years after I moved to Chennai, I was still wallowing in the ‘I have no friends’ syndrome. Then I joined a series of classes – aerobics, dance and eventually Salsa, and now some of my best friends are from that bunch. This is more than I expected (touch wood). But really, what you are looking out for is not ‘best friends’. Just someone who can go for a movie with you. Or someone who can meet you for a brief coffee.
Having alteast some friends who are like you is important.
And I am not even going to end by saying that like a muse who appears when you are looking out for it not directly but through the corner of your eye, the right guy will appear when you are busy leading your life and not made searching for him the mission of your life. For some of us, it could happen and that is great. For some of us, being alone may work out best. But then, that has been my point all along.
You don’t have to be Elizabeth or Charlotte. You can just be you, perhaps?