TNM spoke to four women living on their own in Tamil Nadu and Kerala to discuss some of the challenges they face on a daily basis.

Woman riding a bike along a road with colourful murals on the wall The woman has a face mask on her face and also wears a sunglassPTI
Features Gender Thursday, July 30, 2020 - 11:17

A patriarchal society considers women to be its property, meant to be possessed and kept under control. Therefore, any woman wanting to live her life on her own terms is considered a rebel, and society often hands her the hard end of the stick.

Questions on her relationship status are subtly slid into conversations, watchful eyes keep track of her moves and self-appointed guardians offer unwanted advice on how she should live her life.

And these are just some of the challenges that women living alone face. TNM spoke to four women living on their own in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, discussing the prejudices that they face on a daily basis only because of the “woman living alone” tag.

The difficulty in finding a house

For 29-year-old Veronica Angel, a writer, translator and villupattu trainer from Chennai, the choice of living alone came with over one thousand questions. “My father’s house is here in Royapuram, Chennai and I chose to live on my own for my personal and professional reasons. However, many were curious to know why. 'If your parents are here in Chennai, why would you want to live on your own?' they’d ask," she says.

When Veronica chose to work in cinema, it only made things harder for her. “When they ask about my profession, I keep it brief and tell them that I write,” she adds.

Veronica, who moved into Urur Olcott Kuppam a couple of years ago, mainly to be a part of the community and the annual vizha, found it most difficult to find accommodation when she wanted to move to a different neighbourhood.

“In that sense, I found coastal communities to be the most comfortable to live with. People are mostly out and about, so they don’t watch you always,” she says.

39-year-old Palaniamma, a social worker who moved to Chennai in 2017, tells TNM that she had trouble finding a house for herself. “When they get to know that I'm alone, they hesitate at first. Even when they agree to rent out the space, they have conditions - no male visitors, no one can stay overnight and so on,” she explains.

Nuthan Manohar, a 40-year-old Behaviour and Wellbeing Expert in Kerala, has been living in Kochi on her own since 2013. Over the years, not only was finding the right accommodation a herculean task for her, Nuthan says that there were also demeaning experiences which forced her to buy her own place.

“There were even instances when the landlord would give the keys to the villa in which I lived to some stranger men, as he wanted to sell the house. I had people coming in at 10 in the night unannounced. When it became absolutely unsafe, I decided to move and get my own place,” Nuthan says.

Curious neighbours and self-appointed guardians

Veronica shares that she faces the problem of prying neighbours every day. “It’s just the way they ask you those questions - why haven’t I married someone yet, how old was the male friend who dropped by, why I wake up so late every day, do I cook… It can be very annoying to the point that I once locked myself inside for about a week, wary of opening the door,” she says.

Veronica recalls the instances when she was surprised by an unannounced visitor. “The moment they learn that you are living alone, they tend to take advantage. I live quite close to the beach and so, there have been times when people I worked with ring the doorbell with a silly excuse like 'I was in the area'. These are times when one feels most unsafe and awkward. Do I invite them inside? Do I close the door on them?” she wonders.

Aaradhana*, a 27-year-old media professional living in Kozhikode district in Kerala, talks about her experiences of random people taking up “responsibility” for her as she is a woman living alone.

“Be it a cab driver or a house owner, almost every passerby thinks they have a say in my life since I am a woman living alone. House owners don’t mind even explicitly being the moral police, checking who comes to visit me. Even if that is someone coming in to drop off food for me, they will come and check to make sure no one is staying the night with me,” she says.

Even cab drivers, she says, express “concern” on learning that she lives alone, showing an interest in knowing more personal details about her. “With many such experiences, I have started to outsmart these guys by creating different stories about 'husbands' whom I really don't have. I have learned to turn it into personal fun to cope with this irritating behaviour that I have to encounter,” Aaradhana says, laughing.

For Nuthan, though her problem with finding the right accomodation was solved after buying a house of her own near a coastal hamlet in Kochi, she jokes that now, she has ‘security guards’ for the house.

“Now, I can sleep with my doors open in my house without being afraid of burglars, because all the neighbours are constantly watching over me. I have even seen teenagers taking drugs near the seashore uninterrupted by anyone. But if any person who is a male comes to my house, it will create a big issue with the locals. The first time I brought a gardener over, neighbours came to enquire the nature of our relationship,” says Nuthan.

Nuthan adds that as a person, she has become more reclusive due to the constant ‘surveillance’ of the neighbours wherever she has lived in Kochi during the past eight years.

“Though this is not my nature, I'm forced to take up this attitude because of the nonsenses I have to deal with, thinking whether my landlords will evict me if I come late in the night, or how long the sleeves of my dress should be in order to discourage the landlord's flirtations etc." she says.

"I miss the time when I lived my life on my own terms, worked passionately, was outdoorsy, wore what I liked, taught classes when needed, socialised if I felt like it. I miss the time when I could focus on real world problems rather than my neighbours' perverted imagination and how it can impact me,” explains Nuthan.

Difficulties at workplace and psychological burden

One of the comments that Aaradhana constantly gets at the workplace is how ‘easy’ her life is as she lives alone and is single. “It is mostly married women who remark on how I don’t need to work a lot at home as I am alone, but what they are forgetting is that I take more effort to run the house than they do. They have other family members to share their chores with. But for me, I have to do all the chores which are done in a family together,” she says.

The reaction of her colleagues, again married women, when the lockdown due to coronavirus was imposed, was the same. “Everyone kept saying how I was lucky to be alone and there is no one to disturb me at home. But they don’t acknowledge the psychological toll. I had been in my apartment alone in the week of total lockdown, without seeing a single human being and it was not easy!” she says.

Palaniamma also shares a similar experience. “In the workplace too, my colleagues, even women, would say, 'What is it for you, you live alone. You don't have a family to take care of like we do. So it does not matter even if you work longer hours or receive payment after a delay'.”

She adds, “Some glorify the fact that I live alone but there are difficulties here too. If I fall sick, I have to take care of myself. I can’t expect anyone to come and take care of me. People don’t realise that we have a greater psychological burden to carry. The sad part is that we don’t share all this with anyone.”

And there’s a reason behind why she chooses not to. “If we do share, some might take advantage. It might come off as a weakness. A woman staying alone, at all times, will have to put up a strong facade. Must always stay on alert. For instance, if it’s a man’s voice on the other end, my entire tone would be different. Do you understand?” she asks.

And most often, many mistake a woman’s need to appear strong for arrogance. “I have heard people say that I'm an arrogant woman behind my back. It does not affect me. I need to take care of myself. In my years of being a social worker, I have supported many women who have faced many difficulties in life just because they appeared to be vulnerable to someone. I have learnt that society will continue to chase us only for as long as we fear them and run,” she elaborates.

Palaniamma says, “Many women have told me that they too would’ve liked to have stayed single like me. But there have been many who have put me down asking what I have achieved in life. They try to demotivate me by asking who would take care of me in future. But I made a choice not to marry for many personal reasons and I have no regrets.”

Echoing her view, Aaradhana says that despite the hassles, she will happily recommend that women try living alone. “At least once, women have to try living alone. It will be an altogether different experience. The freedom that comes with it is totally worth it.”

(*Name changed on request)

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