In late 2019, on completing a decade of being single, Bengaluru-based author Sumaa Tekur decided to celebrate the milestone. Not by throwing a party for one, but marking it in a more indelible, tangible way—by writing a book. It took her four years to pen it. Titled Table For One, the book, released last year, was laid out as a “solo living manual for the curious Indian woman”.
“I had never planned to be single, I just went along with the flow. During those years, I had dated, had been in relationships too, but when I realised that I had hit upon the 10th anniversary of being alone, I felt that it would be worth writing about it,” says Tekur, 45.
“In the Indian context there were very few books that spoke about celebrating the single life and living alone,” she says, adding that she wanted to address the living arrangement that the single life entails, of having your own physical space to do what you want. “As a woman, we are constantly fed the notion that your identity is complete and valid only when you are coupled up.”
Late last year, social scientist Bella DePaulo, who has authored several articles and books on the single life, published Single At Heart. It uses anecdotes and research to show that “a powerful, healthy, happy life is possible not in spite of being single, but because of it”. In a Time magazine article in December, DePaulo exhorts singles to “gleefully reject the idea that putting a romantic partner at the centre of your life is something you have to do, something that everyone wants, or that it is the normal, natural, and superior way to live.”
Single people are often caricatured as grumpy bachelors, commitment-phobic players, or sad old cat ladies. At weddings and family functions, the single person is the curious object for “well-meaning” uncles and aunties. “How come you are still single?” is a question that every single person in the country has fielded. Books like DePaulo’s or Tekur’s serve as assurances for those who have seemingly missed the marriage bus. They are also a sign of the times.
More people—particularly women—are choosing to be single today. In a 2023 piece for The New York Times, titled Why Aren’t More People Marrying? Ask Women What Dating Is Like, New York-based journalist Anna Louie Sussman cites a survey of more than 5,000 Americans about dating and relationships, in which nearly half the college-educated women said they were single because they had trouble finding someone who meets their expectations, versus one-third of men. In India, a 2020 YouGov-Mint-CPR Millennial Survey found that one in four young adults in India does not want to marry. Conducted online and covering a sample of 10,005 respondents across 184 towns and cities, the study results showed that 19% of millennials and 23% of Gen-Z were not interested in marriage or having children.
Women today are opting out of pursuing traditional milestones like marrying at a certain age or having kids by a certain age. We are calling this behaviour ‘timeline decline’,” says Samarpita Samaddar, India communications director of the dating app Bumble. Sharing data from a 2023 Bumble survey conducted among 2,038 adults in India, she says, “Twenty-six per cent of the women surveyed said that they didn’t feel rushed to accomplish things by a certain age.”
Two reasons for this change are that women today are seeking financial independence and want to focus on their career. Being financially independent gives them the freedom to choose their partners. Thirty-six per cent of women respondents said that they were ready to wait it out for as long as it took to find the right partner to marry. As Samaddar puts it, “Women in India are owning their agency to choose and date on their own terms.”
Mumbai native Ishani Chatterji, 32, is representative of the demographic Samaddar is speaking about. “In the past eight-nine years, I have attended the marriages of all my girlfriends, I have been that bridesmaid from the Katherine Heigl movie 27 Dresses,” says Chatterji. Unlike Heigl’s heroine, she is clear about not wanting to get married. Not surprisingly, her response to the question if she is living a glorious single life is a resounding yes.
“I love travelling alone, I go to all these festivals on my own, but mainly, I have realised that I am perfectly fine with the idea of living alone in a home with an unmade bed,” she says.
So what exactly does a flourishing single life look like?
A Conscious, Responsible Life
Living alone requires you to work through the fear of being on your own forever, says Bengaluru-based dancer and jewellery designer Deepti Sudhindra, who is in her 40s. She is quick to kill any misconception that the lifestyle entails absolute freedom. “Being single by choice means living consciously every step of the way,” she says.
For her, this meant making health and fitness a top priority once she hit her 30s. “With extraordinary freedom comes extraordinary responsibility to take care of yourself,” says Sudhindra. One of the first independent choices Tekur made was to get a place of her own. “It helped me negotiate my space and my terms of living with my family,” says Tekur, adding that financial planning is a crucial component in the scheme of things. “Financial independence is important whether you are married or single, but it’s doubly more when you are the only one paying the bills.”
For Sudeep Bhattacharya, 42, living alone is a great opportunity for introspection. “The constant pressure to find someone can be so overwhelming, it can lead you to settle for people who are wrong for you. I’d highly recommend that everyone date themselves for a while to know what they want in a partner,” says the Bengaluru-based photographer. “You need to learn to tolerate your own company before you expect someone else to.”
Being single doesn’t mean they are leading absolutely serious or lonesome lives. In fact, the singles I spoke to revealed that they lived fuller, more contented lives that were packed with a lot of travelling, supportive friends, loving pets, and a dating life too.
Ambarish Sonari, 37, has been single since he moved to Bengaluru from Delhi in 2012. And if he hasn’t felt the need for a partner, it is because he loves his job as a stylist, has supportive family members who constantly check up on him, and has a full social calendar. Tekur echoes Sonari when she says, “If you are consciously single, it is important to have a social support system, whether it’s in the form of family, friends, or neighbours.” Citing her own example, she talks of the efforts she put into nurturing healthy friendships with her neighbours. “It took years to build the relationships but today, I am very good friends with them and I know I can turn to them during emergencies.”
It was the absence of a network for singles aged 35 and above that got Bengalurean Ashwini Jaisim, a social media strategist, to start The Singles Club India (TSCI) online two years ago. “Being single in your late 30s, 40s and 50s is a lot different from when you are in your 20s. Most of your close friends are married or are living away, you have parents and kids to take care of and loans to pay. It’s a phase of life when you need support,” says Jaisim, who is in her mid-40s.
TSCI’s Facebook page describes it as a space for singles over 35 to “network, share stories, seek advice, seek information, make new friends and ultimately make new connections.” The 742-member-strong FB group has singles of all hues: from the never-marrieds to those who are divorced or have lost their spouse. While it has an active presence on FB and Instagram, Jaisim plans events ranging from vineyard tours to karaoke evenings and sit-down dinners in Bengaluru every few months. She has planned a singles mixer night in Bengaluru on Valentine’s Day.
About why she conducts these events, Jaisim says, “It’s not like all singles are happy all the time. And there are people like recent-divorcees who are completely lost and find themselves having to start their lives from scratch. These meet-ups help members realise that there are others just like them.” Jaisim’s idea seems to be working because new friendships, and even relationships, have blossomed out of them. That she receives requests from people in other cities to host similar events shows there is a need for platforms where singles can meet and make new friends at any age.
Never Say Never
As for the elephant in the room—their dating lives—the singles I spoke to said they were open to it. “It’s not a door that I have completely closed,” says Bhattacharya, who admits to dating off and on. Bhattacharya reveals that his nonchalance towards modern dating and dating apps has to do with the “seeming illusion” they offer of countless choices. “When you are not clear about what you want in a partner, you are going to keep swiping away looking for the next best guy or girl.”
“Every few months, I do get on apps to meet guys but I can’t find myself going beyond two dates. It’s not worth it,” says Chatterji. Sonari admits to getting on Grindr every once in a while, and getting bored in two days. Besides an attitude of overfamiliarity from his matches—“they talk to you like they have known you forever merely by seeing your photos,” Sonari rues—experiences of being catfished too have made him wary.
While their dating lives may be ho-hum, Bhattacharya, Chatterji and Sonari’s thoughts align when they say that one of the most positive aspects of being single by choice is that their lives are not dictated by the absence or presence of a romantic interest. It is but one aspect of their life. “Can we normalise a person’s choice to be single? If you allowed people to partner or marry whenever they wanted to, everyone would make happier choices,” says Chatterji.
In this vision of an ideal world, DePaulo has the last word. In her article for Time, envisioning a future world for singles, she writes, “Every adult will forsake forever the temptation to pity or patronise people who are single, and will instead appreciate the profound rewards of single life. Adults who are naturally drawn to single life will not be asked to defend that choice ever again. Millions of happy single people will realise that they are happy and thriving not in spite of being single, but because of it.”
In other words, it’s time for well-meaning uncles and aunts to change “that” question they always ask their unwedded nieces and nephews, no?