Its the Ally McBeal syndrome. Every Wednesday on television, thirtysomething McBeal argues her cases intelligently, has a career on the upswing, is well liked by her peers, is considered reasonably attractive, knows how to have a good time and bonds well with friends of both sexes. Yet a meaningful relationship-let alone marriage-eludes this 21st century woman, episode after episode. And to add insult to injury, her ex-boyfriend not only works in the same firm as her but is happily married to a colleague. Its a story that is finding a familiar echo in urban India. Women in their late twenties and thirties are increasingly finding it difficult to get men they can marry.
Whats gone wrong? According to the last national census, there are more men per woman in India. Yet the cities tell a story of women whose intention to marry is thwarted by just one fact: there just arent enough men to go around in the marital sweepstakes. Says Lynne Fernandez, 37, managing trustee at the Bangalore-based Nrityagram: "I guess it has to do with the fact that women are more educated and economically independent now and so can say its their choice to wait for the right man."
Thats one good reason. While no research is available, upper middle class, English-medium-educated women in the last 15 years have evolved tremendously. Balancing bank balances on one hand and babies on the other has required a certain amount of mental and physical dexterity. Men, by and large, are still caught up in old stereotypes. Says Mohita Singh, 31, whose attempts at finding a life partner has proved unsuccessful so far, "A lot of men are mamas boys who cant take a stand in life. Women no longer want to take that kind of crap."
That may even be a broad generalisation, but the truth of the matter is that men still fall in that classic stereotypical trap. Even if it may no longer be as rigid and obvious as it was in earlier generations, women are still expected to take care of the house, the children, factor in the in-laws and earn a salary. Men are just bread winners. Lord and master of their world. Says psychiatrist Sanjay Chugh, "Men have stuck to the same rate of evolution. If we take it in percentage, men are at 5 per cent whereas women are evolving at 200 per cent rate. Hence this discrepancy." Adds Urvashi Butalia, publisher, Kali for Women, "Its due to the womens movement. Women have outstripped men in many, many spheres. Thats why it has become difficult to find partners. Men are somewhat scared of dealing with this new kind of woman."
With such odds, compatibility is now a serious issue. As is women who are seen to be independent. Says Shalini Vashisht, 31, a model-turned-stylist, "There are very few men who can accept your independence. Men are so insecure."
If the balance is skewed now, it has a lot to do with changing priorities for women. Says Sheila Maryse Panjwani, 35, who runs a furniture business in Bangalore, "Women are looking for a loving companion and not a provider. Women used to marry for monetary reasons earlier. Now, we have our money and there is social independence. In the sense I can go to parties alone, sans escort." Like 31-year-old Sunila Awasthi of Delhi does. A corporate lawyer by profession, Awasthi doesnt wait to be picked up or dropped. Says she, "I am as capable of taking care of myself as a man. If there is trouble, a man wont be able to do much, will he?" This in a city where women are considered unsafe even in broad daylight.
But is marriage still relevant? Men are no longer required to play their main roles of being providers and protectors. So is it still the most important stage in a womans life? Does being single mean that you have been left on the shelf, that there is something wrong with you hence no one was willing to marry you, that as a single woman you remain unfulfilled? Says Archana Jaiswal, 38, "Its more about personal enquiry rather than external pressure. You feel more isolated when you go to a wedding or when you come back to an empty house." Adds Mumbai-based Deepanita Singh, 28, "A lot of times women settle down because they feel they are getting on in life, getting old and there is too much pressure."
Marriage remains relevant for these women not just because thats how it has always been done in India but because having a companion is a primeval need, with or without the legal tag. Success by itself makes for a poor companion and friends move on. Television actress/director/producer Neena Gupta, who shocked the country by having a child out of wedlock, is still hoping for marriage as she confessed on a show on television. Says Sunita Advani, 34, who works in Mumbai with a garment export firm, "I didnt get married at the so-called appropriate age but now I am open to the idea. As an afterthought, I should have started early. We are not in America. We live in a society where there is a particular age to get married. The kind of society we live in lays a premium on marriage."
Men, that vital ingredient for getting married, are in somewhat short supply-at least the kind one can get hitched to. Says Jaiswal, who recently placed a matrimonial ad in a leading daily, "What I have done is sensible. Giving an ad opens up a much larger playing field. How many men could I have met socially? The biggest problem in this whole thing is, how do you reach the right man?" Awasthi even tried the Net to meet the man of her dreams. She says of that experience, "I did a fair amount of surfing but most of the men were settled abroad and I dont want to go abroad. After all that I have built up here financially, I am not willing to start from the bottom of the ladder all over again."
Some, like Deepika Shiromany, 31, were luckier. This ex-model and now a successful computer graphics designer, met her husband-to-be through friends. But she went to the meeting with the clear intention of getting married. It took little time for them to reach that conclusion that they were indeed compatible. Says Shiromany, "I was ready to get married so I worked towards it. I have arranged my own marriage." Arranged marriages are no longer taboo but with a rider: sufficient time to check out the compatibility quotient. And with remarkable emancipation, most of these women look for grooms on their own (putting in the ads, calling up prospective men, meeting up), even if they use traditional methods like matrimonial ads to look for life partners. But, says Awasthi with some regret, "You still cant ask a man out. Im not westernised but I dont see anything wrong in it."
Its about waiting to exhale. Its about wanting it and yet not settling for shoddy goods. Its about being part of a movement without making an effort. Its about emancipation at a price. Its about romance, love, companionship and happily-ever-after but with lots of hard work, frustration and even loss of hope. Its about making a relationship work even when none exists. Its about living by old values in a new world. Its about adhering to an ancient institution in a changing environment. Its about getting married in the 21st century.