I was at a cocktail party two weeks ago, when, after a series of vodka Diet Cokes, my friend Sameera Buxani piped up.
“Who among you,” she asked in her smoke-thrashed voice and lilting accent, “will donate to me your sperm?”
It was the kind of brassy, provocative statement you might expect to hear from a single woman in New York, or Los Angeles, or London. But I was at Sameera’s family’s home in Mumbai, India, and the inquiry was met with an awkward silence. Except for me and another woman, the guests were men: an economist, a writer, and an architect. All Indian. Sameera, 37, is a Mumbai-based publicist. The silence continued, but she persisted: “Boys, did you hear my question?”
I grew up coming to India regularly, visiting my grandmother who lived in a sea-facing apartment in South Mumbai until she retired. I recently returned after an eight-year absence, and discovered a different city. Yes, there are slums, and a dismaying surplus of terror attacks, but there is also less pollution, better infrastructure, and more Louis Vuitton. And there seem to be far more single women out and about than I remember seeing here before.
“If he lives alone, I’ll go to his place,” says Rashmi, 33. “But I’ll always go home at night. Out of respect for my parents.”
Perhaps one sign of an emerging economy is the increasing presence of single gals. Here in Mumbai, unattached women in their late-20s, 30s, and 40s suddenly seem to be everywhere. I’ve seen them cruising at bars, dancing at parties, flirting at barbecues and nightclubs, always with cocktail in hand, carving paths of their own, and struggling with the very American dilemma of enjoying the single life and putting marriage off just a little longer.
Lila is a journalist. Sushma works for L’Oreal. Roopa runs a film-production company. They are upper-class, well-educated, and financially stable. Their families have encouraged them to get a good education, and they have sought their own independence. They want more out of life than just to be a mother and a wife, though they want that, too. There is weeknight partying, haute couture, and plenty of hooking up. Indeed, it sometimes seems that Carrie Bradshaw herself has arrived, sandal-footed, at the Gateway of India, with all her turmoil and indecision, to put a wrench into the predictable orderliness of the old world.
After all, this is a culture of arranged marriages, and Westerners are sometimes surprised to learn that in this largest democracy in the world, the bulk of Indian women still get married that way. Yet more and more Indian women, as they remain single, successful, and independent into their 30s and 40s, are becoming less eligible for a family-arranged marriage. Sex and the City (the TV show) aired in India, and the movie struck a chord in its demographic. The papers are already buzzing about the sequel. Annie Leibovitz’s 2008 “Carrie and Big” photographs appeared in a recent issue of Vogue India. A desire for this type of lifestyle is flourishing in Mumbai—albeit, with some uniquely Indian limitations.
For one, most single women (and men) live with their parents, grandparents, and often an extended family, as is custom. Real estate is too expensive, but more than that, living alone is culturally frowned upon. Men and women rarely cohabitate prior to marriage. And despite the increasing number of single women in their 30s, a woman’s marital prospects diminish precipitously after a certain age—I’ve heard anywhere between 32-37. Of course, American women feel this way, too, but in India it is even more extreme.
If a 37-year-old woman wants to be with a man the same age, it is unlikely she will find one, as divorce barely exists in India and single men still prefer younger women. (The Demi-Ashton model has yet to materialize in Mumbai.) Homegrown cultural models like the Sex and the City girls are rare and, in parts of India, outgoing women are publicly censured (and worse), as was seen in the much-publicized recent case where the right-wing Sri Ram Sena political group attacked women in a pub in Mangalore for the “indecent behavior” of going out drinking.
Most of all, premarital propriety is still an important part of Indian ideology, even in Mumbai. As this traditionalist mentality bumps up against the emerging single-girl culture, there’s friction. I asked my friend Rashmi, 33, a successful real-estate agent, what she does if she meets a guy while she’s out and, say, wants to take things a little further. “If he lives alone, I’ll go to his place,” she says. “But I’ll always go home at night. Out of respect for my parents.”
Given the speed with which urban, wealthy India is changing, I imagine these boundaries will eventually dissolve. My friend Lata, 41, is a successful investment banker who has never been married. She recently bought a new car for herself and a luxury, art-filled apartment in Central Mumbai. When I visited, an extensive (and expensive!) shoe collection was strewn about her study. (“I’m airing it out,” she said.) She goes out to bars and clubs three-to-four nights a week and, on any given Sunday night, watches movies with friends on her flat-screen TV, or plays videogames like Guitar Hero.
“After my dad died,” she said, “[my family] stopped bugging me about getting married.” For Lata, because of her age, the odds of finding an Indian husband are slim to none. She is more likely to find someone in Europe or the US, though she doesn’t seem too concerned about it. She has escaped the thick net of family judgment. For now, she does what she wants, buys what she wants, and goes where she pleases. Last year, she produced an independent film. She’s part of a small, elite, and powerful group of women who run banks and make movies and party very hard.
My parents had an arranged marriage. They were introduced at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai in 1971. Four days after meeting for the first time, they were engaged. They’ve been married happily for 38 years. They have three well-educated offspring and a lovely home in LA, where they raised their kids. As far as conjugal bliss goes, the kids are a different story. My brother recently went through a divorce. I’m in my 30s and not married. For my littlest brother, 24, my parents have given up their traditional expectations.
When I was 23, my mom and dad put an ad for me in the matrimonials section of India West, a community newspaper for Indian-Americans. This was before Internet dating, which, by the way, Indian parents—after gay men—paved the way for. I protested, but went on a few dates, which, not surprisingly, didn’t work out. I had no interest in being “marriageable” when I was young. I wanted a career. I always believed I would find my own husband. It would be my choice. What could be more empowering? And my parents, to their credit, supported that.
But, many years later, I have a softer view. Like many Indian-American women before me, I’ve wondered if it might have been easier to marry the doctor from Fresno I met through the newspaper. To line up class, caste, education, and values on a grid, find out where I fall, and maybe even get engaged in four days, avoiding the potential for existential angst, bad dates and broken hearts. After all, the old Indian adage is that love comes after marriage.
But I think it’s too late. Like more and more single women in Mumbai, I am too restless, too modern, for that model. And, yes, I love Carrie. The show articulated a precise brand of feminine disquiet that my grad school friends and I could relate with. I see the disquiet clearly in my Mumbai counterparts.
Back at the cocktail party, after some badgering, Sameera managed to get a vague answer from the writer, a gentle, shy fellow with a disarming smile.
“Sperm?” she said sweetly. “I’m 37, you know.”
“I’ll think about it,” he said.
“That means no,” she pouted.
“No,” he said. “I’ll think about it.”
And I think he will. Maybe he’ll even say yes.
Keshni Kashyap is a writer who lives (mostly) in Los Angeles. Her first book, Tina's Mouth, a graphic novel, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2010.