Single, young women living independently was a Western social phenomenon that fascinated me most. In books it sounded like a fairy tale. And when I saw it in real life I was totally captivated.
I remember when I first entered Isabelle’s apartment, my hostess in Paris. I was breathless. “Two bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen — all to herself,” I marveled. Coming from a crowded house of 13 from the East, it took some time to register on my mind that Isabelle, a single soul, had got all that space to herself.
All those years, I never had a room of my own. As a kid I shared it with my elder brother and a sister. Later, being the eldest, he had the privilege of getting a separate room while us two sisters were left to fight it out.
It was a constant battle. She had a mania for cleanliness; I liked the room clean but I wasn’t obsessive about it. I wanted the lights-off at 10 p.m. and she wouldn’t bat her eyelids till 11:30. I hated the fan on in winters: she wouldn’t sleep without its constant whirring. I loathed the shrieking sound of her sewing machine; my clicking typewriter would drive her crazy.
Finally I got the room: she got married. It has been three years since then. Still, there are other things I have to cope with.
Foremost is the stationery which constantly disappears from my desk — leaving me distraught. No matter in what quantity I buy, I never seem to find the stuff when I need it. Envelopes, writing pads are plucked up by my two younger sisters and blank papers are ravished by the kid brother who needs them for origami or some other silly game. Ballpoints seem to be everyone’s favourite. I don’t know what they do with them. I never saw anyone chew them!
And someone is always doing mischief with my drawers, i.e. searching. Not for the ‘desired’ items as I keep them at the desk top anyway, but for my mail! Someone (my youngest sister, for sure) takes delight in reading my letters. What if I were receiving love letters? It would have been even more fun to her. The mere thought makes me furious!
Why don’t I lock my drawers? Dammit, I am so clumsy with keys. I can never locate them. I find locks a nuisance.
And that’s not the whole story. When I am away, my kid brother and my niece (my sister leaves her baby at our place while she goes to work) occupy my room. When I return in the evening the room is wrecked. The two jump on the bed, put on Cassette-Kahani, Nazia Hassan or Michael Jackson and ruin my cassette-recorder, litter the room with children’s thrillers and comics, and toys and crumpled papers.
And so when I spent a week with Isabelle and two weeks with Patricia and four days with Muriel, all single women, I was floored. I envied their lives. They didn’t have to wash a pile of dishes every day: they could do the few dishes whenever they felt like. They cooked only for themselves and at their own sweet will. They had solitude. They had privacy. They had freedom.
I wished I could live like them. ‘Would I like to live alone?’ The answer was a big yes! So, I told myself to do some homework on that issue: what would I have to forego? Living alone ain’t a bed of roses. I knew that. So I counted the thorns.
It was a nuisance to share the room with my sister but it was a pleasure to live with her. We shared so many things other than the room. Things that count more in life than sheer space and mere physical objects. Things like friendship, warmth and love. Lack of privacy does bother me at times. But if I had all the privacy in the world would I be a happier person? What would I do with the privacy? Eat it?
Kids on a rampage make me mad. But it’s a joy to watch children grow. They make you miserable but they make you happy as well.
What if I would fall sick? Who would take care of me? What would I do without my mother by my bedside? And my brother’s companionship? And my father’s affection? I would have to forego all of these things in my life if I live independently.
Would I lose them by living away from them? Yes, I would lose them all. Because I think physical proximity is important for a relationship — a relationship that matters — a relationship that makes a difference in your life.
But I am going to lose them anyway. Am I not?
When a sibling gets married, he or she leaves the ambit of the family and starts a new family. He/she might be living under the same roof but his/her life revolves in a different orbit, around a different nucleus. And the parents won’t be there forever.
So some day in a woman’s life, she might have to live alone. Certainly not a likeable proposition but its probability can’t be ruled out in these days in this society of ours. But then it would be living alone by default, and not by choice. So, it’s here that you can see the logic, or necessity, or whatever you call it, of independent living in the West: better do it sooner, and at a time you feel you could learn to survive on your own.
Here, unless a crisis befalls a woman, unless she becomes a divorcee, a widow or remains a spinster who has crossed forty, she can’t think of living independently.
I don’t mean to advocate Western concepts and denigrate Eastern. Both have their pluses and minuses. As far as I am concerned when it comes to East-or-West, I say ‘name your poison’!