Spinsters, becharis and crazy cat ladies: How unmarried women in India deal with being single as they grow older
Three women open up about age, marriage and loneliness
Standing with a broker outside an apartment I was about to see, I overheard his phone call with a prospective landlord. “They’re sisters. No, both spinsters.”
I paused there, clutching my pearls. Why does the word spinster affront us so? Because it conjures up witchy visuals of black cats and angry middle-aged women. Tidbits through pop culture and all the subtexts in dinner party conversations have come together in our imagination to create images of repressed, unhappy wenches, ‘past their prime’.
Narrating my tale to a friend over a Zoom call, her aunt Anu* chimed in. “Welcome to the club! I’ve been called a spinster for the last 20 years because I never got married,” she laughed.
No matter the strides she made in her banking career, coupled with her adventures around the world, people still waited for the day she’d finally declare she was getting married. “My career and happiness didn’t matter. For friends, family and society, I’d only be ‘fulfilled’ when I got married or had a baby, preferably, both.”
I’m a 21-century working woman who prefers to see herself as ‘self-partnered’ like Emma Watson. Even though I’m seeing someone, that doesn’t necessarily mean marriage or dependence on them, emotional or financial.
I’m in that in-between age in society’s eyes where I’ll be transitioning from a single woman to a spinster. It seems that once you reach your mid-thirties, the inherent optimism of the word ‘single’ no longer applies to you.
It insinuates possible coupledom in the future, and you level up to meet your next target – motherhood. But cross 35 and you join the club of spinsters, whose wife material for Timmy aunty’s ladla beta diminishes with each passing year.
After tracing its etymological roots to an occupational description (‘spinster’ originally referred to women who spun thread and yarn) to seeing its modern usage for middle-aged, unmarried women, like many of my millennial behens, I sought solace in endless social media scrolling.
And stumbled across a hilarious post Victorian-era newspaper clipping.
In 1889, a magazine asked women a seemingly simple question – “Why am I a spinster?” Some of the answers that Dr Bob Nicholson, Historian of Victorian pop culture, shared are just lajawab.
“Because I do not care to enlarge my menagerie of pets, and I find the animal man less docile than a dog, less affectionate than a cat, and less amusing than a monkey,” responded Miss Sparrow, a personal favourite.
While it was a competition meant for women to send in the best answers, I wondered what responses today’s women might offer to this antiquated notion of spinsterhood. Are unmarried women aged 35+ still battling society’s pressures about what their life should be like?
I raised my spinster bat signal — Ok, cat signal, that’s the stereotype after all — to draw others out for a chat about singlehood, life, love and more.
“Marriage doesn’t make me successful, my medical degree and practice does”
“I was at a dinner event for medical experts, hosted by an NGO and I was speaking to one of the top benefactors about completing my first major health drive. Even though it’s been two years, I still think about their response to me. ‘So, what next? Now time for marriage?’”
Thirty-nine-year-old Dr Nazia Sultan worked day and night for almost a decade to become a paediatric trauma specialist. She’s at the top of her game and every healthy patient she bids adieu to fills her with joy, yet she’s consistently questioned about her personal life or lack thereof.
Sultan wonders why her contentment with work is not enough for people. She doesn’t feel that she sacrificed having a family to have a career. There just wasn’t any time to meet people when she was in medical school. Even when she did, it just didn’t work out.
“Why must women be made to choose and then questioned if we pick our job?”
Her family has been tremendously supportive of her work and achievements, but there are still questions of the possible ‘settling down’.
“My mother still sends me the odd biodata here and there, but she’s mostly given up,” says Sultan. What she does feel bad about are the taunts her mother gets from lesser understanding family members.
“For a lot of people of that generation, getting the girl married meant you don’t have to worry about her anymore. She has a husband to look after her and provide financial stability. But I probably earn more than any man my family has offered up. I don’t think their ego will be able to handle my bigger paycheque.”
Sultan has come to terms with her extended family referring to her as the ‘career wali’ ladki of the lot. As far as she’s concerned she’s plenty ‘settled’ in life and, in fact, bringing more into the world as a doctor.
“I was the only Miss in the staff room and it confused the children”
For Mamta D*, it wasn’t about picking work over a family. For her, it was simply not having met the right person. “I turned 41 earlier this year and while others have expressed that I’m ‘past my prime’, I think there’s still time for me,” she says.
Witnessing her parents’ turbulent marriage while growing up, she’d sworn to herself that she would wait for the right person, even if it meant straying beyond patriarchal ideas of the right age for women to marry.
“Perhaps my standards have been high, but I’m not going to compromise either,” she says, noting that she sees a lot of herself in Aparna Shewakramani from Indian Matchmaking. “I’ve had many Sima aunties asking me to bend.”
She has felt left out, though, attending friends’ weddings, baby showers and subsequent namkarans. At their bi-weekly, pre-lockdown brunches she’d find herself sitting on the sidelines until the complaints about spouses and in-laws ended.
What hits her the most are the comments from the kids at the school she teaches at. “They’re so used to ‘good morning Mrs X and Mrs Y’ that when they come to me, they’re stumped. They ask why I’m the only Miss among all the ‘older teachers’ in the school,” she says.
She doesn’t blame their young unfiltered minds but admits that the yearly practice of explaining her singlehood to a fresh batch of 5th graders stings a bit every time.
“Oh, I’m definitely one of the most popular spinsters in our community. My parents’ friends and relatives can’t understand why I won’t just get off my high horse and settle down. ‘There are still bachelors out there for you, you know Mrs Y’s son just got divorced, why don’t you meet him?’ The pressure is definitely still there.”
Mamta does worry about the future and the loneliness makes her wonder how long she will truly hold out.
“I work with kids every day but I have no desire to have any of my own. But a partner that I can connect with and grow old with, that’s something I still want.”
“Once you enter your 40s, the dating pool becomes a kiddie pool”
Shweta* has been burned before when it comes to love but she’s still looking for a life partner. It’s been six years since she ended her engagement when she learned of her fiancé’s infidelity. Heartbroken, it took time for her to start trusting people again.
“My parents were very supportive when my engagement ended but a year later, they were raring for me to get married again. My mother even made me a profile on matrimonial sites to look for a prospective partner,” she says. “They said ‘you tried love marriage and see how that worked out, now let us take over and we’ll find you a good match’.”
She’s still seen as the bechari whose engagement ended, but she’s glad she found out before she made that commitment. “I’m damaged goods according to all the aunties, who will want their son to marry me now?” she laughs.
Shweta’s grown a thick skin and a sense of humour when it comes to the personal inquisitions. Her determined mother regularly presents her with prospective grooms that some relative somewhere conjured up.
When dating apps entered the Indian market, she was thrilled. She saw this as an avenue to date people from outside of her and her parents’ social circles. But there was a strange obstacle in her way that she couldn’t wrap her head around – her age.
“I’m 42 and the men I’d speak to would be around the same age and they’d always ask why I was unmarried. No kids? Never married? Wants a relationship but not direct marriage? Kuch toh gadbad hai, something has to be wrong with her. Like, hello! You are also the same age, single and on this app, how are we different?”
Men assumed that because of her age, she’d want to dive straight into marriage, and if not, that was more suspicious.
“My biological clock is ticking after all,” she says. “If I’m not fertile enough, no aunty wants to risk not having grandchildren. I’ve also been told that I should ‘settle’ for divorcees and men who already have children.”
While she jokes about it, having children is something she’s thought about a lot. “My parents are getting old and all they want is to see their grandchildren – my mother reminds me of this quite frequently. Sometimes I feel like I am depriving them of a certain joy and maybe my time is running out. I could hit menopause in a few months, but I could also find a partner before that, right?” she says.
Gendered expectations of marriage and motherhood have been deeply ingrained in us from a young age. Shweta feels those pangs but is determined that that one correct swipe could lead her to an open-minded and loving partner. Till then she’s happy to spend her time working, looking after her parents and playing with her nephews and pets, no matter how much her amma grumbles.
“My aunt once said ‘If you don’t make some adjustments ,then you will end up a spinster like Tabu. Who will want to marry you then?’ I felt like saying excuse me, chachi, have you seen Tabu? She’s a goddess.” I’d gladly take that glow up too.
* Names have been changed on contributor’s request