One look at financial institutions, corporate offices, media houses and even Bollywood and the late-or-no-marriage lifestyle of the modern Indian woman is evident.
Take the case of Runi Huq, who came all the way from Guwahati to Mumbai to be part of the booming television industry. “I came here to do a three-year course that needed intense concentration and offered no leisure. Now that I have got a super break in the profession of my dreams, I can’t give it up for marriage just because my family — or society in Assam — feels I should hitch up with a man. I have no time to devote to a relationship right now. I am 26 years old and doors are opening to me every day as I work hard and learn fast. My day begins at eight in the morning and I am back to my flat at nine pm,” she explains.
Young girls like Runi are no exception in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai or Kolkata. “Challenging careers take all our energy,” says Runi, who, by her own admission, belongs to the ‘all-work-and-no-play’ brigade of career women. “We cannot work at a punishing pace if there is constant control from parents or partners. Men have enjoyed this freedom for centuries. No one questions them if they are wholly dedicated to their work. Why should society mind if educated women do the same? We don’t see ourselves as any different!”
However, every popular TV serial which earns high TRPs rests squarely on the shoulders of young, newly-married, home-loving brides like Sadhana and Ragini (‘Bidaai’), Akshara (‘Yeh Rishta…’), Sia (‘Na Aana…’), Pratigya (‘Man ki…’), Ichcha and Tapasya (‘Uttaran’), whose lives revolve around their in-laws, husbands and parents. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in the space between these two extremes.
It is true that an ever growing number of educated and gifted Indian women are avoiding marriage well into their thirties. They value the freedom to manage their time and talent in the way they want.
Naina Gidwani (32), a banker, has risen steadily in a foreign bank. She says, “I have worked day and night to be where I am. I can’t give this up. My parents are modern but even they are beginning to pressurise me to tie the knot. They introduce me to young men of their choice whenever I go home on holiday! But if male company is what I need, I have plenty. See what happened to the model Viveka Babajee. With all her success and good looks, she became dependent on a man for happiness and that was her failing. A woman must be happy in herself, not because others validate her.”
Sapna Pillai has her own restaurant, which she describes as “a very demanding business”. She sees her friends getting married every season and worries whether she is doing the right thing in postponing marriage for a career.
“I would like to get married but is there any guarantee that my husband won’t make my life miserable for being so successful? Even in this age of gender equality, men in India cannot digest the outstanding success of the wife. They want to be in control. I’ve had a few boyfriends and whenever the relationship verged on the serious, I found all of them were insecure, authoritative and desperate to control my life. They felt threatened by my success,” she says.
Sapna says she has come across instances where unscrupulous men “use” a successful woman.
“Even Bollywood stars like Rani Mukherjee, Preity Zinta, Urmila Matondkar and many others in their 30s fear marriage. In the past too, leading stars like Asha Parekh and Nanda never got married. Even current favourites like Kareena Kapoor, Vidya Balan and Priyanka Chopra — all in their late twenties — will not risk marriage because a control freak can ruin their careers and bring misery to their lives. They don’t need marriage for financial support,” she explains.
Yet, this space between the extremes — Indian TV’s yearning-for-marriage heroines and real life career-women — is crowded with women who want a satisfying career and a fulfiling family life.
The thousands of matrimonial ads, the websites dedicated to marriages, the organisations that introduce wannabe brides and grooms, and the huge wedding industry are touted as proof enough.
But as Niyati Ram, a 28-year-old marketing executive, says: “Whatever care you take to select the right person at the right age, there is a chance that it may or may not work. It’s a risk that fewer and fewer women are willing to take.”
(Some names have been changed on request.)