Author and journalist Sreemoyee Piu Kundu’s fourth book, Status Single: The Truth About Being a Single Woman in India, launches on 10 March in Delhi. But if you go by the buzz in publishing circles, it already seems as if the book has been out for quite some time now. It’s among the most talked-about titles of the year, and is getting written about internationally. (The Los Angeles Times gave it front-page coverage earlier this month.)
So naturally, the author is being extra careful about how her work could be perceived without actually being read. “The book is not about finding a man. Please don’t make this into a self-help, motivational book that teaches how to be happily single,” Kundu tells Guardian 20. “Even in marriages women are single, they are battling life. So, singlehood has got nothing to do with your marital status. It is a state of mind and not a state of life.”
This is Kundu’s first nonfiction book, for which she interviewed 3,000 urban single women from across India for over a year. “In the edited version, the book has 1,700 voices. If I would have carried 3,000 voices, this book would have become an anthology. Even now, there are more women wanting to talk,” she says.
In June last year, when the drafts of Status Single reached her after the first round of editing, Kundu recalls that around 35 women, who were quoted in the book, backed out. This marked “a disturbing phase” for the author, who felt that some of the chapters of the book “became hollow” after the necessary omissions were made. Yet, Kundu feels that it was also a “blessing in disguise”. During this time, many other women approached her to talk about their experiences of singlehood—including women who were suffering from physical disabilities, and women from the LGBTQ community.
Now, equipped with a “more diverse and inclusive” reportage, the author embarked on her old project with a new energy, and a new perspective. “These stories are somewhere making us uncomfortable. Because this is the story of your sister, the story of that unmarried aunt; this is the story of a divorced friend whom you lost touch with; it is the story of the men in one’s family who are lecherous…,” Kundu says.
In this book, the 40-year-old author has also narrated her personal experiences, and her struggles of being a single woman in India. How many of those experience, we ask her, were unpleasant? “Unpleasant is the wrong word,” she responds. “I would say challenging experiences, eye-opening experiences, and difficult experiences. Sometimes they were embarrassing also. So, it was a mix of personal experiences and experiences of friends, because I have a lot of friends in the LGBT community. I see a lot of discrimination, social stigma about it and stifling typecasting against them.”
When did being single become a matter of social stigma in Indian women? Well, pop culture has a role to play here. Kundu believes that the “superficiality of popular culture” can be blamed for creating the perception that remaining single is taboo, especially if you’re a woman. She says, “If you see in our country, you don’t see any woman icon who boldly says that she is single by choice. And by choice doesn’t mean that I am averse to men or I am a man-hater or I am a lesbian. It means that I will not settle for marriage, I will not settle down just for the sake of one slot of society. I will wait for a worthy companion, I will walk out of a relationship which is disrespectful towards me, and I will rather face life’s struggles on my own, and will not settle for a sub-standard human being.”
What’s worse, the trauma and challenges a single woman suffers often leads to social marginalisation. Kundu says, “I think there is a culture of stigma, shame, silencing, stereotyping, slut-shaming—which is ascribed to being single. No matter how professionally accomplished the girl is. Till the time she is not married, when she walks into an office or when she walks into a wedding, the first question she is asked is ‘How come you have not found a man?’ As though you were born a woman because you have to get married! Because you are having your periods, you have to produce a child.”
Status Single deals with some of these important, and by no means easy to digest issues. It must have been difficult to mount such a wide-ranging and searing attack on the Indian patriarchy, and so it goes without saying that this would have been a difficult book to write for Kundu. But was it also tough to find publishers for it? One difficulty, Kundu admits, was to find a publisher who wasn’t driven by the “herd instinct”. “For example,” she says, “if one work of historical fiction, like The Immortals of Meluha, becomes a bestseller, immediately they [Indian publishers] would want a next title on similar lines. So suddenly you will see there are around 40 books on Rani Padmavati, there is something on Shiva, something on Ram and everybody. So, when we took this book to many mainstream publishers, nobody wanted to do a book on this hard-hitting, this bold, this brazen topic.”
Then, there was the issue of marketing the book, of roping in popular celebrities for promotional events, which the author again squarely declined. “One or two publishers asked me to get celebrities. Like, have a Kalki [Koechlin], have a Deepika [Padukone]. Let Deepika talk about depression. But Deepika having depression and one girl in Indore having depression is not the same thing. Deepika can create a foundation and hats off to her for bringing the issue to the table, but we don’t need brand ambassadors. We need role models…”
Kundu’s previous three books were all works of fiction: Faraway Music, Sita’s Curse, and You’ve Got the Wrong Girl! What provoked this shift from fiction to nonfiction? “Initially”, Kundu says, “I was scared. How would write it, I thought. In fiction, the story is in your head. But then I realised that my 16 years of hard-core journalism had taught me the value of good reporting. This [book] is essentially reportage. It is the sampling of a case study, research, transcription of interviews. Basically, it is like a PhD thesis. It can be presented as a research paper. Initially, the apprehensions that I had [about writing nonfiction] were probably just boundaries in my own mind as a writer because I hadn’t done it before. I am now feeling that since I have done nonfiction, how would I go back to fiction?”