When I graduated from university at 22, my friends would have bet all their salary packages that I’d be the first of us to get married. I would’ve agreed. A year or two of work first, of course, but then the natural, obvious next step for me was holy matrimony.
I come from a conservative family background. My father is tradition-minded. I’m my parents’ only daughter and the eldest girl among all my cousins on our patriarchal side. I’ve known this trifecta of truths since I was a child, so I knew the expectation was for me to find a man from our community, matched to the finest knots and threads of sub-caste and gotra, marry him at 25, and have our first child by 27.
(I was so certain that when, at 25, I went on my first European holiday, I named the Facebook album “Jaa Simran, jee le apni zindagi”.)
I’ll admit it: I’d bought into this life plan. I wanted to settle down. There’s literally no Bollywood wedding song that I don’t know all the moves to, and yes, I fully intended to tie a lock on that special love-holding bridge in Paris on my honeymoon with a husband who adored me.
Through most of my twenties, this assumption that it was time to settle down made me view and analyse each of my partners through a lens of permanence. I wasn’t rushing men to wedding registries the morning after our first date, but I subconsciously assumed we’d end up there, pretty soon, hopefully. My friends jokingly called me a “Raanjhana-type” girlfriend, putting 200% into any relationship she jumps into, almost instinctively.
The presumption that “this is the one!” – this had to be – drove my everyday behaviour in each relationship. I would go to great lengths to keep things up and running and joyful between us. Propelled by the underlying thought that every relationship could become something big and permanent, I gave it my all, each time. The choice of partner was secondary.
From actively making plans around what my partner wanted to do every single weekend, to considering a job that paid less than his to dispel his family's insecurities, I made every compromise asked – or even mildly suggested – of me. I even casually overlooked one partner’s cheating, because I preferred that reality to one in which I was alone.
Each relationship began with incredibly high hopes and ended with me sobbing on the phone with a close friend, insisting it’s not fair, nothing ever works out for me.
Now, at 30, I’ve spent a decade jumping from one relationship to the next, while nearly every one of my friends and classmates has gotten married in the meantime.
For most of this run, I had company on the track of alternating singleness, monogamy, and casual sex. But as our twenties drew to a close, most of my remaining women friends suddenly converted their ongoing romances to marriages. In one particularly cursed year, when I was 28, four of my closest friends boarded the marriage train all at once, like it was the last one to ever appear on our platform.
As I flew from New Delhi to Bengaluru attending weddings, coordinating jewellery with sari blouses, memorising sangeet choreography via WhatsApp videos, and layering mehendi over fading mehendi, I found myself having to defend my singleness to more and more people. As if constantly explaining myself to a disappointed family wasn’t enough, each friend who tied the knot demanded reassurance that, really, I’m happy the way I am.
“But you’re touching 30, Preeti.”
“Come on, nobody can be happy alone.”
“We’re getting impatient for your wedding!”
I got better at convincingly playing aloof, but felt increasingly wrecked by the pressure to settle down. My self-esteem hit incredible lows. I went to unreasonable lengths to try and look “prettier”. I beat myself to death about my acne and saw three top-of-the-line, expensive dermatologists in a single month. I joined a gym and was much harder on my body than my doctors advised. I developed an unhealthy relationship with my arthritis, convinced it made me an imperfect bride.
At times, I resented and envied my married friends for having found the anchor I hadn’t. I spent several sleepless nights weeping that nothing was going according to plan.
All this coupling up had an unforeseen effect on my social life. My friends had much less free time, and in what was left of it, they now socialised by default in twos. (Though most of them still go out of their way to accommodate me and my tribe, and make it look absolutely effortless if we were to spend all weekend lying around in their house like furniture.)
I love my friends’ partners – and I am now in much thicker friendships with some of my friends’ spouses than with them – but I miss having relationships with people, rather than with couples. For instance, it took me a while to get used to my friends, individual human beings, always speaking for a duo. “Oh, we still need to catch up on Oscar movies”, “We haven’t tried that new sushi place yet”, and “Let me see if we’re free that night”.
As our wedded friends became less available, all of us remaining singles began gravitating toward one another. We may only have been acquaintances a year or two ago – familiar faces from campus, colleagues who were always cordial, neighbours whose names I didn’t know – but what binds us together now is familiarity with the fleeting but deep flashes of loneliness that emerge from being, living, staying, and especially sleeping alone. We turn up the volume on books, TV shows, films, hobbies, food, work, and record these songs over our lives’ unexpectedly blank tapes.
We revel in and talk about the joys of not having committed to a family but nonetheless discuss grownup thrills like the most cost-effective brand of ready-to-eat pasta sauce, how much cleaning the kitchen really needs, and how much we allow ourselves to drink alone at home. We discuss the frivolousness of Tinder and yet we keep the app alive on our phones.
It’s these people, the other Remaining Last Singles, who’ve taught me to embrace the chaos of singleness as an active choice, rather than as a consolation prize in lieu of stable, committed, married life.
We keep intangible scorecards over our “getting laid” game and have, over time, managed to alienate our sexual needs from friendship, our friendships from love, and our love from the burden of conventional labels. We are best friends with our exes, making romantic designs on old friends, hooking up with acquaintances in other cities, and constantly restructuring our notions of who is who and what is what.
Some days, I feel such contentment in this self-made silo that I wonder about the generation that’ll turn 30 next. Casual sex is ubiquitous. Intimacy – physical, emotional, and intellectual – is increasingly detached from monogamy. Will they aspire to it at all? As I settle more and more comfortably into being single, I’ve found myself questioning the urgent need I once felt to find something more permanent.
There are days I don’t feel the need to explain myself any more, not to an angry family, nor to concerned friends, nor even to my own conditioning.
I tell myself that when there’s a confluence of good timing, my own willingness, and the right person coming by, a permanent relationship is still a choice. A choice I’ll make when I’m ready for it and when I want it, rather than when and because it’s expected of me.
Now, to fill the days and hours freed up by singleness, I often pack my bags to travel alone, to destinations of only my choosing, immersing myself in adventures that I’m interested in, on the days I want. As my closest still-single friend once said, "There is a lot of freedom to be had in being alone, only if you choose to have it."
I took this to heart and one of the best things that came of it was that I began to write poetry. I’ve gone from Mumbai to Pune to Chicago to New York performing my poems, experimenting with stand-up comedy, seeing the best improv shows every city has to offer, and attending art festivals in Scotland and Barcelona. I have made a strict ritual of taking five days off work every year to attend the Mumbai Film Festival and soak myself in about 25 films, alone.
My colleagues often ask me how I manage to invest so much of myself and my time into poetry. The truth is I have that much of myself free to invest.
I was taught to chase love, told it was the gold standard of a content life. All I have now is several real, varied, first-hand experiences of what love can look like. In the never-ending cycle of wanting to fit in and enjoying free self-discovery, I haven’t attained any deep wisdom. But I have had several sudden and sweet episodes of peace. Delivering a deeply personal poem in a room full of strangers, confidently. A contented train-ride alone. Realising over beers and stories that an acquaintance has become a close friend. Sudden and sweet moments that remind me that perfect happiness can come in small doses.
And in those moments, being The Last Single doesn’t feel like being a leftover. It feels like a life choice, made by design, as valid and rewarding and settled as “settling”.