Earlier this year, the Malayalam movie Archana 31 Not Out hit the screens. The Aishwarya Lekshmy-starrer revolves around a 28-year-old school teacher who does everything in her power to make an arranged marriage happen for herself. She hires the village broker and astrologer and repeatedly rearranges her schedule to meet with suitors. Thirty ‘alliances’ come and go and when at last, the thirty-first match works out, she pays for the whole shindig with her hard-earned money, only to find out on the night before the wedding that the bridegroom has eloped with his girlfriend. Shattered though she is, she allows the festivities to unfold as planned. She dresses up in her wedding attire, cuts the wedding cake, accepts the gifts and asks the guests to join her in celebrating her narrow escape from what would have been a miserable life with a man who desired someone else.
While this is not exactly sologamy, it is still a representation of a woman flipping a patriarchal ritual on its head and using it to affirm her selfhood instead—something 24-year-old Kshama Bindu from Vadodara went and did outright a couple weeks ago. Times of India reported that Bindu’s mehendi-ed hands—which would have borne her husband’s name in a regular wedding—read ‘just a girl who care enough to try (sic)’. Something about that is immensely heartening.
Single-by-choice women have been a growing tribe in India for years now, even though the larger society still has trouble adjusting to this. It is one thing for unpartnered women to quietly go about their business, it seems, but a whole other thing for them to celebrate their non-compliance with patriarchal norms so brazenly. The backlash that led Bindu to scale down what was originally meant to be a full wedding ceremony replete with pheras in a temple to a small event at home, is proof of that much.
And yet, scores of women continue to exist all over the country, going about their lives and celebrating their selfhood in quieter yet deeply significant ways.
Author, poet and illustrator Sharanya Manivannan says, “On my 30th birthday, I experienced by chance an unusual ritual wherein I tied a thaali around a rock symbolising the goddess at my paternal ancestral temple (which is non-agamic), encouraged by the priest to do so. It meant something to me at the time—meaning I ascribed it based on my beliefs and desires both personal and political—and it doesn't have much meaning to me now. It's a sweet memory.”
Over time, the author claims to have moved on to honouring deeper rhythms related to nature and “to only retain what makes sense of that which is widely prescribed”. Rituals in this sense are pockets of time that are entirely about one’s peace and well being. “I like to begin my days with centering and grounding rituals like meditation; coffee and floral or herbal tea mark meaningful pauses in my day that both body and mind desire; my day and night skincare regimes are rituals too. Each of these is so simple that many don't even think of them as rituals—but they are,” she says.
For Thanuja Singam, a 30-year-old transwoman, vlogger and dental hygienist based in Germany, the right to exist as a woman in the world came at the cost of immense physical, mental and emotional pain. Having transitioned at the age of 15, she faced gender dysphoria, bullying and hostility to such an extent that self-love became a far cry. “I hated everything about myself for years and gave all my love to the men I thought would give me the love that I needed,” she shares.
In 2015, Singam was in a relationship that almost led to marriage before she realised continuing down that path would break her. “That is when I decided to walk away and focus on loving myself. I moved into an apartment on my own and started taking care of myself without factoring a man’s needs into my daily routine. I ate what I wanted and got 8, 10, 15 hours of sleep depending on what I needed that day. I started dressing up with great care. I started wearing makeup for myself and not just to please a man. I looked at myself in the mirror and said nice things—these simple rituals healed me,” she says.
This month marks 10 years since Singam underwent her Sexual Reassignment Surgery, and she intends to come to India for a commemorative ceremony with her chosen family of fellow transwomen. She says, “There is usually a small pooja and an elder transwoman would tie a thaali around my neck. Even though I generally identify as a spiritual atheist, I do set store by these rituals in my community.”
Relationship coach and sexuality educator Pallavi Barnwal prefers quiet self-reflection and conscious direction of inner energy over symbolic gestures and loud ceremonies. “I feel like such gestures are often a sign of insecurity and need for external attention and validation,” she says.
Speaking of her own rituals, she says, “My line of work requires me to understand my vulnerabilities and be aware of my shadow. Therefore I make it a point to take one mental health course and/or read a book on mental health every month. I have a yoga practice that has helped me feel healthier than I did in my twenties. I seek intimacy in healthy ways and maintain an active sex life.”
Most importantly of all, she swears by learning to be comfortable with oneself in solitude. “This demands that we do intentional shadow work (working to align the unconscious mind with the conscious awareness) and know who we are outside of what we can do for others,” she says.
Indumathy Sukanya is an artist and independent journalist based in Bengaluru