I explained patiently, again, that there was no madam available and that I would be approving my own modular kitchen, cabinet colours and all.
He nodded and said, “But we can wait few days if needed for madam.”
When it finally dawned on him that there was no madam at all, he was aghast. I don’t know what shocked him more—that a man might approve a kitchen design, or that I lived alone or that a man who lived alone wanted a kitchen.
A recent story in The Guardian about the global rise in living solo says while countries like Sweden have the most number of singletons (47%), the countries where single person households are growing the fastest are Brazil, China and India.
Apparently that statistic has not percolated its way down to the kitchen design store at our furniture mall in Kolkata.
Living solo has usually been regarded as something profoundly abnormal, especially in a culture where a parent’s job is not done until the children are “settled,” ergo married. We like to think we were designed to live communally even if it’s in shared misery. Our saas-bahu television soaps with their feuding extended families hammer that point home endlessly. Living solo carries with it the pathos of abandonment—the lonely widow sitting alone in front of a flickering television watching those soaps of great bickering families, her own children long gone to America and Australia, leaving her easy prey for robbers and thieves.
But as Eric Klinenberg, the author of Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, points out, “Living alone, and being alone are hardly the same, yet the two are routinely conflated.”
In fact, who is truly more alone here? The couple sitting across each other at the dinner table, completely wordless, each engrossed in their own BlackBerry or the single person, alone at home, juggling four chats on Facebook and MSN messenger?
Klinenberg spells out all the reasons why so many more of us are living on our own today. More of us can afford it. We have better internet. But most importantly we are viewing it not as a sign that we are losers but as “an investment in the self.” “Today, young solitaires actively reframe living alone as a mark of distinction and success,” he writes. This is the natural progression of what Emile Durkheim, the late 19th century sociologist, called the “cult of the individual” which was marked by the transition from the tight-knit rural community to a more anonymous urban one.
When I first moved to America as a graduate student, I could not wait to live alone. It signified freedom, independence, and a sense of my own space—something I’d never known in India. The feeling of liberation of a town where no one knew your name was utterly enthralling. Not having to answer to where you were going and when you were coming back (even to a roommate) was exhilarating. Of course it also meant no more hot meals ready when you came home exhausted, bathrooms that didn’t clean themselves, and laundry that kept piling up in the corner.
Yet as a society, the West is still geared towards singletons. In the United States you can do almost everything online. Dishwashers and vacuum cleaners are commonplace. You are apt to be far more isolated if you don’t drive rather than if you live alone.
How alone is alone?
In India, first, you have to rejigger the very definition of living alone. My uncle, a bachelor, lived alone after my grandmother died. In our family lore, he was always held up as the cautionary tale of what happens if you do not get married. The fact is he lived “alone” with a cook and a maid and a mixed breed dog, not to mention the washerwoman next door whose children ran around the house all day and his electrician friend from across the street who visited every day. It is also a fact that he outsourced the management of the household to my mother who took hisaab every day from the cook about how much oil he had bought and how much fish.
If you do try to live truly alone in India, society seems to actively conspire to thwart you.
The postman doesn’t deliver anything anymore. Everything from magazines to bills to checks comes by courier. Make that a wide assortment of couriers. Unless someone is around to sign for you, nothing will ever reach you. Unless someone is at home, nothing will get repaired, nothing will get painted.
The doorbell rings all day long and it always tolls for thee. There’s the cable guy, the electric meter check guy, the water filter guy, the inverter battery servicing guy, the furniture delivery guy, the ironing guy and the you-are-screwed-if-you-miss-him gas cylinder delivery guy. “Sir, I am standing outside your door and ringing the bell for a long time,” says the air conditioning service man plaintively. “But I am in a temple in Chidambaram,” I tell him. “I told you to call before you came.”
“ I know. But there is no one else at home, sir, to let me in?” he asks.
Even the traffic signals are against single living. “Please cross the road carefully. Remember someone is waiting for you at home,” intones a mournful female voice all day long in various languages at the traffic light near my apartment. As if one should immediately fling oneself into the path of an oncoming minibus if one was going home to an empty apartment.
Perhaps the only thing that is singleton-friendly are our sabzi markets. You can still buy a few potatoes, a handful of onions, loose spices, two eggs and even a single cigarette. You don’t need to get a shrink-wrapped value pack of a dozen apples and watch them slowly molder in your refrigerator.
Do you cook?
But the biggest hurdle to living on your own is that we are a culture that actually thrives on this sense of dependency. We need this sense of interdependency to function, to feel alive. In a country of a billion-plus, we both crave to get away and at the same time are addicted to the warmth of a human body. An Indian friend who broke up with his partner in America said he could not bear the thought of coming home to a dark house. He put out an ad for a roommate not because he needed the money but because he needed someone, anyone to be there.
That could be spouse, roommate, mother or maid. Anytime I talk about living alone, the first amazed question is always the same. “But what do you do about food? Do you cook?”
Yes, I do when I need to. But it’s also true that try as I might, I am only a part-time soloist. I spend a chunk of the week at my mother and sister’s place because it’s incomprehensible that after years abroad on my own I’d now live in the same city as the family and still not physically be with the family. When I come back after three days, it’s almost the same as when I came back after a year abroad.
American friends would tell me that living with someone was such hard work, so much adjustment, all that divvying up of kitchen cabinets and bathroom shelves. But it’s really not half as tough as trying to live alone in India. Now that you have to really work hard at.
Sandip Roy is the host of New America Now, a news magazine show on KALW 91.7 FM, produced by New America Media. This article was first published in First Post.