No country for single women
For many young people, India is a land of opportunity. Male or female, if you're well educated and resourceful there's the chance of a well-paid career. Just one problem, says Suruchi Sharma - if you're a woman, you must marry by your mid-20s.
"Single? Why, what's your age?"
"Okay, that's too bad. How are you managing it? Couldn't find anyone?"
Welcome to the conversation that a single woman in India, in her late 20s, faces almost all the time. Yes, it's a big deal if you're 28 and unmarried. You're looked upon as a big failure. I am serious.
I live in Mumbai, the biggest metro city in India. I belong to a typical urban middle-class family. My life is the same as that of many young women who move away from home and pursue their dream of an independent life.
How does it feel to be living in the city on my own? It's awesome! I'm independent with a lifestyle I used to dream of. Indian women are getting the chance to grow, to prove their worth and shine. We struggle with gender bias at every step of the ladder, but we find a way out and advance.
But there is one pressure that just refuses to leave us alone, a question that follows us everywhere: "What are your marriage plans?" In India, a girl's identity revolves around her marriage. As children, we are all raised to understand that we must end up with the right partner, and must go to a nice family as a daughter-in-law.
Even today, arranged marriage is normal in India. Parents find you a suitable match and you get married. In some cases the bride and groom don't have a say. In some cases they get to meet once or twice. In a few cases, they can take time to get to know each other and decide. In all cases, you are a part of a tradition where you have to try to like someone.
Everything we learn is taught to us bearing in mind our future role as a wife and daughter-in-law. We learn how to cook, how to do household chores, to behave ourselves and maintain the right image. The moment the "image" part gets problematic, our prospects of getting decent grooms are affected.
If you look at any matrimonial website (a common trend in India these days) you will find the terms "family-oriented", "homely", "not too much into career" - these are the qualities in a bride people most often look for.
Everyone wants a wife who will be a home-maker first and a career woman second. Every family wants a daughter-in-law who will respect elders, and give up on her career the moment other more important things like her husband's transfer, children, and other emergencies pop up.
To be an ideal woman in a man's life, you must have the best education possible, a pretty face, and a sound career and yet be willing to put it all on the back burner.
The reason I am single is quite simple - I have yet to come across my Mr Right.
I might sound like a person who is against marriage. I am not. I love the idea of being married. I believe in this institution and I look forward to being married one day to the right guy. This is where the problem starts, with that phrase "the right guy".
At 28, ideally I would have been married for a couple of years.
By Indian standards, I've left it late and I am probably at the bottom of the pyramid of eligible women. But I still don't find the idea of "settling for" someone appealing.
Everyone reminds me how I should make compromises and lower my expectations. As long as the man has decent looks and a respectable career and family background I shouldn't complain.
I don't see it that way. Everyone around me may tell me a man is perfect for me, but I feel it's me who gets to decide.
He might be earning a lot, might belong to the best of families and might be a nice person, but if I don't find him compatible to talk to or to be with, I can't picture being married to him. I don't subscribe to the idea of striking a compromise right at the advent of my married life. The adjustments and compromises should be made in the marriage, not while finding the person you want to be with.
There is a stigma associated with a woman who is single. When a woman says she is single by choice, it's more or less assumed that she is not respectable.
There have been many occasions when I have tried to rent an apartment in a good locality and been refused. People don't like to rent apartments to single, professional women. They are afraid that someone like me will behave immorally - have loud parties, have men to stay overnight, be a bad influence on the surrounding families. No-one can imagine that I might be an ordinary person with a perfect social life and a normal, healthy lifestyle.
Property owners are always looking for a chance to evict us. The slightest of errors and we are asked to leave. We can't live a normal lifestyle. There are rules and regulations for everything. And if by any chance it happens that a male friend comes to drop you home one day, you're immediately branded a prostitute.
Essentially, if a single woman lives an independent life, away from her family it's assumed she may have loose morals.
The more I keep living this life, the less chance there is of finding a good husband from a well-respected family. At times I wonder whether I should just give in and marry the next guy who is more or less suitable, in order to spare my parents.
I am lucky that my family is extremely supportive. My parents stand by me when it comes to waiting for the right guy to come along, but they too face extreme pressure from relatives and everyone in their circle. "When is Suruchi getting married?" They get asked this question every day, and it makes them anxious. They begin to wonder if they are doing the wrong thing by letting their daughter make her own choices. They worry about my well-being. They are not sure that Indian society will allow me to live happily if I remain single.
There were cases where people told my parents that educating their daughter and letting her become an independent person had been a grave mistake. Now their daughter has high expectations and getting her married has become so difficult! I can't thank my parents enough for shouldering that burden. They are a great support but I keep wondering what to do to make it easier for them. I am much less worried about myself. I know that being with the wrong man would be far worse than being by myself.
As long as I remain in this society, the pressure will only keep increasing. To be honest, I have thought about moving abroad if I end up being single for another year or so.
Going away from society's prying eyes is the only way to be left alone and allowed to live a peaceful life. People won't question my marriage plans if I am in a foreign country. Surprisingly, Indians then become quite open-minded. Everything is OK if you're living abroad.
At the end, it's not easy being single at 28. It's a struggle I face 24/7. I have decided to live with it.