Stricken with a mystery ailment that left her dry heaving and breathless, Sreemoyee Piu Kundu, a 38-year-old Indian writer, went with her mother to see a top gastroenterologist in the eastern city of Kolkata.
The doctor ran a battery of tests and squeezed her stomach several times before turning to Kundu’s mother to deliver an assessment.
“How come you never thought of getting her married?” he said.
Kundu imagined kicking the doctor in the groin and storming out. But she only grimaced. She had heard it all before.
That her single status would figure in a medical exam was just one example of the humiliations, scorn, pity and unwanted attention endured by tens of millions of unmarried women in India, Kundu said.
In a culture where arranging marriages is a multibillion-dollar industry and weddings form the pinnacle of the social calendar, a woman being alone is still widely viewed as odd, even among educated urban Indians with liberal tastes in fashion and entertainment.
That doctor’s visit helped launch Kundu, a journalist turned novelist, on a yearlong quest to record the stories of single women in Indian cities. Nearly 3,000 of them opened up to her about their struggles with workplace harassment, adopting children, renting from landlords who assume they’re promiscuous, friends and relatives who warn they’re becoming spinsters, and even staying sexually active in a country where many unmarried adults live with their parents.
The women described countless remarks from near-strangers – the doctor, the yoga teacher, the immigration officer scrutinizing a passport – who wonder how it’s possible that a woman of a certain age is without a husband.
Kundu, now 40, spun their stories and her own into a new book called “Status Single” that is being marketed as the first nonfiction work to tackle female singlehood – which she describes as “an anomaly that Indian society thinks we need to be constantly cured of.”
The cover features dozens of words and phrases that Kundu’s subjects said they’ve heard ascribed to single women – “selfish,” “asexual,” “lesbian,” “hungry for sex,” “flat-chested,” “crazy.”
“Nobody wants to be single in this country,” Kundu said in a phone interview from her house in Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, between speaking engagements this month.
“Everyone has tried arranged marriage, dating apps, we’ve had relationships. Nobody grows up thinking, ‘I don’t want marriage.’ The centrality of marriage for a woman in this country remains very high. Everyone is single, more or less, because of circumstances. So whatever the reason, the struggles and successes, they have to be celebrated together.”
More Indian women are dropping out of the workforce – often to focus on raising families. Sex-selective abortions and preferential treatment toward boys have skewed the gender ratio toward males so heavily that government statisticians recently estimated that the country of 1.3 billion people could have had 63 million more women.
“The challenge of gender is long-standing, probably going back millennia,” wrote the government’s chief economic advisor, Arvind Subramanian, saying India must “confront the societal preference for boys.”
Politicians from India’s conservative governing party have suggested that women who stay out late invite harassment, even as sexual violence remains a largely silent epidemic even in the largest cities. In New Delhi, the capital, 1,996 rapes were reported in 2016, the most recent year for which statistics were available, up from 1,893 the year before.
“Many women are afraid to report rape because they fear they will not be believed, not just by the police but also by their family members,” Human Rights Watch wrote in a report in November.
The private lives of Indian women are rarely seen as worthy of public discussion – the government censor board last year briefly banned a movie about four small-town women because of its “lady-oriented content” – so the stories in Kundu’s book read as bracingly frank.
A 39-year-old lawyer visits her gynecologist to ask for an abortion following a one-night stand, only to have the doctor suggest she try to “settle down” with the father.
A 25-year-old divorcee places a matrimonial ad in the paper and is bombarded with questions from suitors who assumed something was wrong with her: Do you have any hidden sexual diseases? Are you bad in bed? Are you barren?
A 30-year-old woman from a conservative Mumbai family that barred her from entering the kitchen when she was on her period discovers her predilection for sadomasochistic sex.
In 2014, Kundu released a novel called “Sita’s Curse,” about the sexual awakening of a lower-middle-class housewife in Mumbai. Describing it as India’s first piece of feminist erotic fiction, she said it prompted a discussion about sexual repression and the veil that surrounds women’s private lives.
She started her research for “Status Single” by speaking with five professional friends. Three of them didn’t want to be in the book, she said, because they feared being “labeled” as single and still hoped to marry.
The two others agreed to tell their stories. Kundu would eventually fill 50 books of notes and rack up hundreds of dollars in cellphone bills speaking with women across India’s major cities.
The research wasn’t easy. Many subjects asked to have their real names withheld. Last summer, when Kundu sent around the first draft of the book, 35 women backed out, some because they said they had begun relationships.
Those fears, Kundu said, explain in part why India has not seen anything like the #MeToo moment calling out sexual abuse in the United States. No major figures have spoken out in the Bollywood film industry – where what happens to actors on the “casting couch” is an open secret – or in the country at large.
“This is a culture of silence,” Kundu said. “We have been taught since childhood, ‘Don’t go out late, don’t mix with boys, be careful of sex.’ We don’t talk about it.”
The book, due out in March, does not talk about women in rural India, where being unmarried arguably carries even more stigma, or single men. Kundu said she focused on urban, educated women to show how patriarchal ideas flourish even in the so-called new India.
Several years ago, she went on a date with a “big shot” graduate of India’s top schools, whose matrimonial profile featured pictures of his Audi and ski vacations. In a coffee shop at a five-star hotel, his first question was whether she was a virgin.
She answered no, but asked why he wanted to know. “Because journalists are fast chicks,” he replied.
“These attitudes are heard in the heart of urban India,” she said. “That’s why I wanted to get these stories out. So what was just Sreemoyee’s tumultuous ride became so many voices.”