In January of 2012, I woke up alone. For a host of reasons involving children in higher education, looming eldercare, and an uncertain job market, my husband now worked in a different country. He would visit every few months. This arrangement was supposed to last a year. Owing to a series of unforeseen circumstances, as I write this it's been nearly four.
After a brief period of adjustment, I learned that I wasn’t alone in my aloneness. Never before have there been so many “single” women in India, unmarried, divorced, widowed, separated or in long distance relationships. A recent survey showed that there are now 71 million single women in India, a 39 % increase over the past decade.
And yet nothing about our culture, or the way we live, teaches us to be alone. Bollywood’s heroines rarely have characters or conversations beyond their relationships with men – Bechdel test super fails. They so seldom have professional ambition that when they do, it’s considered subversive. Queen was revolutionary for having a female protagonist who embraced being alone. TV ads show us men purchasing insurance and cars and homes, while women are marketed oils for their husband’s health, detergents for their kids’ clothes, and chai for the family. Everywhere, domestic couplehood is emphasised as the happy way for women to live. Indeed, the only way to live.
I had to find a different way.
I didn’t have to look far for role models. I come from a line of women who lived well into their late nineties, outliving husbands by decades. My mother was 64 when my father passed away six years ago. She is contemplating, very possibly, 30 years on her own.
She fills her days to the brim with gardening, music, family, charity and, recently, the internet. Every few months, she travels across India, often with other single women, to remote places like Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. She took a tragedy and turned it into an opportunity. I know there are days she misses my father deeply. I also know that this is what it means to seize life by its throat, with or without a companion.
This, then, was what I wanted to do.
The initial stages of being alone were much like the stages of grief. First, there was denial. I simply refused to accept my dependencies, refused to learn the household tasks that had fallen in my husband’s domain. Then there was anger. Why do I have to go to a goddamn PTA meet on my own? Then bargaining. If the job market looks up, I will donate thousands to charity. Then Bridget Jones-style sadness, singing “All By Myself” with a bottle of wine. And finally, painfully, acceptance: I am alone, and you know what, there are worse things.
First, I had to concede that I was far less independent than I’d imagined. I knew nothing about car insurance, was baffled by printer cartridges, and had no idea which TV service man to call. There was a whole list of chores I had dismissed as “computer stuff” and never bothered to learn.
For a year, I was distressed. “Nothing works!” my children shrieked. By the second year, I had begun to accept that there would always be something in my house that needed fixing – a leaky tap, a defunct printer, a loose TV connection – but I was learning. “Deal with it,” I told the kids. They did.
Around me, I saw several women struggling with the effects of having gone straight from their father’s homes to their husband’s. My elderly neighbour had to borrow money from me when her husband was away; having spent 40 years taking money from her husband’s wallet, she didn't know how to get cash from a bank. Another friend confessed that she had never travelled alone. “First my father, then my husband won’t let me,” she said. At the bank, a young student away from her family asked me how to fill out a cheque deposit form. “Usually my father does it,” she said. I came to realise that men and women are taught select skills, bound into codependence with shackles called “love” and “family” and “culture”.
In your forties, friends your age have less time for you. It’s nothing personal. People are hemmed in by PTA meetings, jobs, elderly parents, traffic, doctor’s appointments, weekend brunches. You can feel resentful about this, or you can learn to enjoy your time with yourself.
Still, even when I learned to be alone, it seemed to disconcert other people. Relatives began to drop worried hints about how married couples should be together. “Separating the family is not good… Not a good idea at all.”
Bank managers were most bemused. “Madam, you have husband?” they’d ask, and look horrified when I responded that I do, but I handle my own finances. What sort of man leaves his wife to manage the finances? It has taken me four years to get them to email me, and not just my husband, on important financial communications.
There were whole weeks I would go without talking to an adult. Three is not company when two of those are sulky teens. I discovered Twitter. Here were my people: wise-cracking, cynical, sarcastic, so different from the sugary sentimentality of Facebook. After a brief dalliance with outraged political Twitter, I found folks who tweet on books, music, food, travel – the solaces of singlehood.
Now, I enjoy solo-eating. Initially, I would put up with being seated at a noisy table near the kitchen. Now I don’t. I demand a decent table, and stare down waiters who stare at me. Rather than try to bolt down my food as quickly as possible and leave, I make an occasion out of it. When you think about it, a lovely, languorous afternoon meal is a luxury. I discovered the pleasure of cheap mid-morning movies in completely empty theatres. No screaming kids, no rustling packets of popcorn.
Of course, there were times when I would really, really, have liked company. When staying in a budget Delhi hotel (mistake), I was alarmed by the leering manager’s constant enquiries. “You are alone, madam?” He looked like he might turn up in the middle of the night. It was too late to find another hotel, so I dragged a chair across the door and spent a fitful night with one eye open. Nothing happened, of course. But I now travel with pepper spray and a padlock.
At other times, solo travel opened me up to huge discoveries. Travelling alone in Sri Lanka, I decided at the last minute to strike out for hill country on my own. In my former life, I would have waited until the man in my life was free. Or at least consulted him about itineraries. Now, there was no man and I began to find that freeing. I did things my husband would probably have not enjoyed, exploring back streets, visiting temples, eating dubious and grimy food from street vendors.
You can do all this, of course, and still have the long evenings to fill with the children fast asleep. It frightened me. Was there enough trashy TV and wine to fill them all? It took a while for me to realise that time and silence were gifts to cherish.
December, 2015: I wrote a non-fiction book (with a co-author) in six months. When it was published, I began a novel. For years I had been telling myself I had no time to write one. Now I was tired of that lame excuse. Thinking about what my protagonists would do or say felt like having other people in the room. I finished my novel in a little over 18 months. Through it all, I read more than ever. I finished nearly 120 books last year.
I expect my long-distance marriage to end next year. I will be glad to be with my husband again, but I am also grateful to have had an opportunity to learn how to be alone – to overcome it, to love it. I know these lessons will stand me in good stead. When the children leave, when friends move away, if – the great unmentionable – my husband passes on. Then I shall be alone again, as we all must. I don’t imagine it’ll be easy. But at least I know I’ll be fine.