An excerpt from the book, Single by Choice: happily unmarried women!, edited by Kalpana Sharma.

Being single is not being solitary: Laila Tyabji

Wandering around India as I do, the first question I am asked is how many children I have. Whether the question is posed in a village gathering, a railway carriage, a college cafeteria, or a conference, nobody questions for a minute that a respectable-looking 71 years old MUST be married, and therefore a mother. When I reveal that I am single, and always have been, the reactions are varied—compassion, astonishment, blank disbelief and, occasionally, envy.

Some years ago, a young journalist came to see me for a story on my work. As she concluded the interview, she said, ‘Ma’am, I know you said no personal questions, but I just wanted to tell you how much I admire you.’ She was under the illusion that I had selflessly sacrificed marriage and children for a life devoted to Dastkar and craftspeople. When I laughingly pointed out that being single didn’t mean being sad or solitary; or, for that matter, celibate, she seemed shocked out of her wits and rapidly exited, dropping her pad and leaving her pencil behind. The vision of Saint Laila, vestal virgin in the cause of craft, had gone up in smoke.

When I reveal that I am single, and always have been, the reactions are varied—compassion, astonishment, blank disbelief and, occasionally, envy.

I didn’t actually ever take a decision that I wouldn’t get married. For people of my generation, even those educated on western lines in liberal non-convent schools, it seemed the obvious finale to growing up. We were all set on going to college and planned to work for a while afterwards, but marriage and a family was always the final piece of the picture. Practically the end of the story. The books we read, whether Jane Austen or Mills & Boon, all had the same trajectory.

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For me, growing up with three brothers plus many male cousins and their friends, the opposite sex were neither the heroes nor the heartthrobs my classmates fantasised about. I was too much at ease to be easily enamoured. It was disconcerting, though, to discover that while teenage girls spent inordinate amounts of their time talking about boys, how little we seemed to figure in theirs! And a surprise that their schoolboy jokes about sex seemed to mean something quite different from our own roseate visions of romantic ‘love’!

Leaving school in 1962, only one of my classmates had a clear career plan—she wanted to be a doctor. We were 15 or 16, and most of us were pretty hazy about the options. I remember my friends vacillating between advertising, being teachers, UN translators, or even air hostesses (in those days of foreign exchange shortage, it was the only way to go abroad!). But at the end of this brief bout of independence was always a husband. Dim, undefined, but definitely the dominant presence…. The more daring said, ‘I’ll never have an arranged marriage’ or, even more boldly, ‘Race and religion no bar.’ but NO ONE (even those who seemed to prefer the company of girls) said, ‘I am not going to get married.’ This despite the shining example of our Headmistress, Miss Grace Linnell, who’d come out to India after World War 1, lived with her best friend, and was instrumental in teaching generations of Indian girls, first in Hyderabad and then at Welham, how to think for themselves; to be fearless, independent, and questioning.

For me, growing up with three brothers plus many male cousins and their friends, the opposite sex were neither the heroes nor the heartthrobs my classmates fantasised about.

Like my peers, I, too, took marriage as something that would happen eventually: spontaneously, inevitably, and without much effort on my part. Since I had neither social nor economic pressures egging me on, I put the matter on the back burner. Meanwhile, I spent a happy time at art school in Baroda and another two years in Japan, and then, with another year-long interval in Japan, life as a free-lance designer in my barsati in Defence Colony. Shy and painfully conscious of being the plain Jane daughter of two very good-looking parents, I was relieved to find that I wasn’t totally unattractive to men! Artists had their attractions, but I didn’t want to marry any of them. I knew that I didn’t want to be a diplomat’s wife either, like my mother. Nor, despite succumbing briefly to the beguiling charms of first an Englishman, and then a young Frenchman, did I want to marry and live abroad, a perpetual foreigner. Moreover, life on my own terms seemed increasingly delightful and, gradually, the compromises and adjustments of marriage seemed more and more claustrophobic. My idea of bliss became ‘a lover who lived down the lane’.

Picture Credit: Women Unlimited/ Laila Tyabji

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Excerpted with permission from Single by Choice: happily unmarried women!, edited by Kalpana Sharma, Women Unlimited.

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