Reality Bites for India's Young and Restless

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Amit Bhargava / Corbis

Young Indians party at the Spin nightclub in Bangalore, India.

A few weeks after moving into an apartment in Mumbai, Veena Gowda found herself summoned to a meeting of the building committee to answer for her "indecent behavior." It turned out that her neighbors had been scandalized by the fact that the twentysomething woman was living not with a husband, but with a roommate. Not only that, she would often come home later — sometimes close to midnight! — and was known to have attended the occasional jazz concert. "Someone or other's always watching," says Gowda, now 35, a women's rights lawyer, and still single. "The neighbors don't really give a damn about a woman in an abusive marriage where the husband beats her up. But the minute you're single you attract attention."

India may have aired Sex and the City on TV and celebrated Cosmo girls on the newsstand, but it remains a distinctly unfriendly place for anyone who wants to live alone, particularly a woman. Single women making their way in the world are frowned upon in India's traditionally conservative society, and landlords often refuse to rent to them.

Last week, in Delhi, I set out to test attitudes to a young, single woman seeking accommodation. In the main market of the middle class neighborhood of Dwarka, half a dozen property agents line a busy street, eager to cash in on the property boom that has gripped the capital. The first agent I tried seemed hesitant to speak to me, and explained that it would be "difficult" to rent a house to a single woman. He listed a series of apartment complexes that maintained unofficial policies allowing them to lease "only to families." Owners don't like the parties young men and women hold, he explained, nor "other mischief," which he wasn't willing to name, but hoped his shy smile would explain. The second agent was even more emphatic: A single woman would find it almost impossible to rent an apartment in Delhi. Owners would "have to be convinced of the fact that you're not a 'wrong' person," he explained. And any single woman wanting to live alone would be hard-pressed to prove that.

Single men may face some of the same prejudices, but generally it's much easier for them. People are less likely to question why a man is living alone, or even why he's not married. Some of India's national leaders may well be women, but in most ways India is still a man's world. "Women are supposed to be under the control of men," says Trupti Panchal, the coordinator of a project on violence against women at India's Tata Institute of Social Sciences. "I have quite a few [women] friends who have been thrown out of their apartments because they work late. They're seen in a different light; as prostitutes. I don't think patriarchy has [left] our society."

Economic liberalization has certainly brought new freedom to Indian society. Middle class households are now bombarded with American TV serials such as The Bold the Beautiful, The OC and General Hospital, and these, together with Indian equivalents, offer a palette of aspirations for modeling their lives. Young Indian women are starting to find their role models in the likes of Brooke (from The Bold and Beautiful), Ally McBeal and Rachel from Friends rather than simply following the paths of their mothers and grandmothers. Most importantly, teenage and twentysomething Indian women want the same independence as their television heroines appear to enjoy, and have begun questioning the idea of marriage, which in India has traditionally occurred at a far younger age than in the West. Some, especially in the more Western-oriented southern Indian cities of Bangalore and Chennai, even trying live-in relationships. Of course, much of India remains rural and poor, and life for women outside the main urban centers is changing a lot more slowly.

In her 2002 documentary On My Own, filmmaker Anupama Srinivasan dwells on the lives of five Indian women living alone in Delhi. The film is a colorful portrayal of the trials and tribulations that come with flying solo. One insight: Women in India must often live a double life to avoid unwanted attention. "Some had to lie to get out of the house. There was one [subject] who was divorced; she was constantly asked about what happened, where her husband was and had to keep making up stories about why he wasn't there," says Srinivasan. "They were just not comfortable giving out the whole truth because of how others might react. There are some people who have [been] totally honest and have had good experiences, but others just avoid it because one doesn't know what it might lead to. You don't want to get into a fight."