Single Rebound

Some Indians are opting to stay single the second time around.


Perhaps nothing consumes the South Asian community more than its obsession with marriage. Internet dating services, matrimonial ads in community publications, masala cruises, the ever thriving aunty network, all are geared to nabbing you that special someone for holy matrimony before your biological clock runs out.

This Indian universe of matrimonial bliss is increasingly running up against the inescapable American reality, in which almost half of all marriages end in divorce. By contrast, Indian American marriages are far more stable. According to 2000 census data, just over 3 percent of Indians were divorced or separated, against about 12 percent nationwide. Nonetheless, the divorce rate is on the rise both in India and in the South Asian community in North America. Between 10 to 15 percent of all Indian American marriages culminate in divorce or separation.

In addition, South Asians are focusing more on careers, often delaying marriage, to their parents’ dismay. Indeed, the proportion of Indians who never married – 27 percent – is almost as high as the national average. Many jobs require extensive traveling these days and while it opens a whole new world of exciting people, it leaves little time to develop long term relationships.

It is not just Indians in the 20s and early 30s who are delaying marriage. More and more Indians in their mid 30s, 40s, 50s, even 60s, are opting to either stay single or not remarry after a divorce or death of a spouse. Several such singles share their experiences and explain why their personal quest for happiness and fulfillment no longer rests on another shoulder.

Rekha Krishnamurti, 36 a New York-based consultant, says growing up in a conservative South Indian family in Ottawa precluded dating, going to the prom or partying. Her parents were insistent she marry a South Indian man from their community and began lining up prospects soon after she hit 22. More than a decade later she is still single and her folks have reversed course, giving her the green light to marry anyone from any ethnicity as long as he makes her happy.

“I find it very strange that while growing up South Asian parents do not allow their kids to date, hound them to concentrate on studies and yet marriage becomes the be all and end all of every girl’s life, and is such an important part of our culture. What they don’t realize is that most of us, because we haven’t been dating, remain pretty clueless about what we want or how to act with the opposite sex and I was no different. I never thought I would be in my mid-30s and still single. I was so sure I’d be married by 26-27. I did meet someone, but it didn’t work out and since then no one has even come close.”

Krishnamurti says she really learnt about life when she started living on her own and that what worked in her grandmother and mother’s time is not necessarily what would work for her.

Krishnamurti finds Indian men to be “commitment phobes,” unlike American men, who seem more honest and open, so now she is not ruling out dating them. “Some of my friends have dated Indian men for over a year, only to have the guy disappear when talk of marriage came up.”

Krishnamurti says while she still hasn’t given up on marriage, it would require a self confident and liberal man to accept the fact that she doesn’t intend giving up her independence and interests if she does marry.

Jagriti Ruparel, who came to the United States in her late 20s in 1989 for higher education, experienced a rich and exciting life in India. “I came from a very liberal family where we were never told we had to get married. Rather we were told that we must be self reliant and not plan our lives based on the presumption that just because you are married it will be for life.”

Ruparel says when she was in her early 20s, like other women, she too obsessed about whom she would marry. “In India people are always making you aware that you are now eligible. My mother would always put people in their place when they asked her when I would get settled, saying that I was already “settled” with a good job and may unsettle everyone if I got married in haste!”

While Ruparel dated in India, she found the dating scene very different in the United States. “I realized that dating here meant you were expected to jump into bed on the first date, something we never did in India.” Ruparel has traded an active social life for a very lonely one here. Her high profile job as a vice president for Citicorp in Chicago involves a lot of traveling, constricting the time she has for dating or developing a long term relationship. 

Nevertheless, now in her early 40s, Ruparel says, she has a full life. She says a friend put things in perspective for her when she was complaining about how lonely life was in the United States: “She said ‘Jagriti, start enjoying your own company.’ The moment I started doing that I developed so many new interests and started enjoying doing things on my own.”

There are times when she returns home after a hard day or when she is stranded in the middle of the street with a flat tire, that. Ruparel says, she misses someone with whom she could share things, but those moments are transient.

“Today when I look at all that I have built single handedly and see my friends going through dysfunctional marriages and some on to their second divorces, I find there are more pluses to being single than minuses and, hey, I can change my own car tires as well, what do I need a man for? Jokes apart, I have also noticed that most men feel threatened by successful women.”

No one is single by choice, says Ruparel, but she is not prepared to marry just for the sake of it. “Intellectual and emotional empathy is very high on my list and unless I can find someone with whom I can be best friends, I’m content with the way things are. In fact my friends call my home their personal spa. It’s peaceful, immaculately kept, there are no kids scurrying around and they come here to unwind.”

For Sita Nilekani, 50, an associate director at Pfizer in Ann Arbor, MI, it was the time tested and often used excuse of horoscopes not matching and her own focus on education that delayed matrimony. Nilekani’s father died in an accident when she was 12 and her brother 15. “We moved back to Dharwad, a small town in Karnataka, to be close to relatives and mom had to learn everything from scratch. That made her even more resolved that her children must excel in academics and be self reliant before anything else.”

Living in a small town where even looking at a boy elicited gossip, Nilekani walked the straight and narrow path. “I didn’t want anyone to point their finger at my mother and say she didn’t raise her children well.”

Nilekani’s interest in the then burgeoning field of biochemistry landed her a post doctoral position at the University of Minnesota. “People thought I was very confident to have come all by myself, but I was very shy and had self esteem issues. I was the kind of person who wore saris with the pallu wrapped around my shoulders like a shawl. I never dated in India and was in my late 20s by the time I left India in the early 80s.”

Nilekani wanted to marry an Indian, but the Indian men at the university, following tradition, returned to India to find a bride.

She says she went through a phase where she felt sorry at her plight of being single, because like other Indian women she was expected to marry. In her 30s, however, life took a sudden twist and changed her entire perspective. “I came back after a visit from India, fell terribly ill and almost died. While recovering in the hospital I began to introspect and realized that having had such a close brush with death, I didn’t want to live a life of regrets obsessing about marriage, or feeling sorry for myself or being in a rut. I came to the conclusion marriage was preferable, but not necessary. I know now that had I remained in India and gotten married I would never be the enriched person that I’m today.”

Nilekani says she has developed areas of her personality that she wouldn’t have if she had married. A scientist, artist, sculptor and writer, Nilekani says being single makes her look at life outside the box and embrace everyone as an extended family. She is no longer moping about marriage, even though she does not rule it out. Nilekani says, “I hear all those horror stories about unhappy marriages from friends who tell me I’m very lucky to be single. Even though I’m a Hindu, I think Jesus bearing the cross has a great significance in my mind. It symbolizes the fact that no matter who we are or what our status, single or married, eventually all of us have to bear our own burdens in life, so we must learn to be self sufficient.”

Some Indian singles elected not to remarry after a painful divorce, often after many years of marriage, or death of a partner. Some made children their priority, others found getting back into the dating game confusing, yet others found the expectations of others looking for a partner unrealistic. One thing they all knew for sure. They would bid their time the second time round. In the meanwhile, they have built enriching and exciting lives.

Narender Reddy, a prominent broker and community leader in Georgia, has been divorced for over eight years, after a 14-year marriage and two daughters. Reddy says while he believes passionately that no one should stay in a marriage unless it is a nurturing happy relationship based on love and mutual respect, it still took him five years to overcome his grief. He also wanted to ensure that his two daughters were well adjusted and cared for, in which he had his ex wife’s complete support. Unlike many of his friends, Reddy refused to marry quickly on the rebound.

“These guys just went within weeks of their divorce to India and came back with a new bride, while for the first year I was just going around in a daze, neglecting my business, myself.”

When he did check out the dating scene, Reddy was in for a rude awakening. “Most women in their late 30s and 40s have very unrealistic expectations, while men like me in their 40s and early 50s have become more realistic. The funny thing is four years ago some of these women were on Internet dating websites, claiming they were 40, but looked 30, and wanted to marry a doctor, and they are still there. I have yet to see a woman say on her profile that she is 40 and looks her age. The ones that do look good are all dating younger man. Some of the women who claim they are well settled are barely cracking $40,000 and have lived in the same apartment for 20 years and start looking at me as their meal ticket.”

Reddy says being a public figure also makes him more conscious of who is on his arm. “I’m constantly being invited to the governor’s house or the White House for dinners, and I can’t just take random women to these places.”

Few women, he says, seem to want to focus on the key issues of intellectual and emotional empathy. “I want to be with a person with whom I share common interests, who enjoys the same things I do, someone I can share the sunset of my life with. But most Indian women are not thinking that way. All they want to know is how much money I make.”

Reddy admits that at times he gets lonely when he sees other couples and misses the companionship. But, he adds, while he is not averse to remarrying, he has a thriving business and a rich political career that keeps him busy. He cherishes his peace of mind and the harmony he enjoys and having winged it as a single man for eight years, he says. he knows he would do just fine on his own if he can’t find what he is looking for.

“What constitutes unrealistic expectations is very relative. The fact that women have very unrealistic expectations may be a male perspective. They may be thinking the same about men. I do feel though that it’s a competitive market,” says Rakesh Arora, who works in Virginia and divorced in 1998 after a 10-year marriage and whose two kids refuse to see him.

Arora says divorce was painful, because it was an untrodden path. It took him two to three years to get over his shock and grief. Today, however, he enjoys being single.

Arora says he works in an Indian American owned company and encounters many divorced Indian couples.

Like Reddy, Arora says that many single women have written great resumes about themselves and marketed themselves aggressively, but the hype backfired and four or five years later they are still looking or have been divorced for a second time. Both Reddy and Arora feel the lack of social support groups for middle aged South Asian singles for friendship and companionship with the opposite sex, to mingle, or even to go out as a group for a picnic or to the movies.

Arora turned to spirituality and religion for acceptance of his single status. “I’m at peace today. I have come to the conclusion that if you believe in the theory of karma and whatever comes your way is destined for you, you will stop feeling guilty and being self critical. Eventually being alone leads to introspection, which in turn leads to inner peace and harmony, connecting you to divinity. While I’m not averse to a remarriage, I want to make sure it is someone with whom I can have a mutually nurturing relationship. If not, I’m happy with things as they are.”

Dr Satwant Cheema, a perky 62 year old psychiatrist and business woman based in New York, divorced her physician husband after 30 years of marriage.

Seven years since the divorce, Cheema says, after the initial devastation and shock that lasted six months, she has lived such a full life she has felt no need for marriage. “People ask me how I find the time to do so many things, because I’m always on the go and I tell them it’s because I don’t have a husband!”

Cheema says that even prior to the divorce, her husband and she had been drifting apart for years. “If you have a happy marriage and your spouse dies, you may still be inclined to remarry. If you haven’t had a satisfying relationship, you end up building certain strengths within yourself and make another, separate life within the marriage, so when you do get out, you are already self sufficient.” Cheema admits, however, that on special occasions, like a child’s marriage or now that her daughter is pregnant, she misses having a husband to share the family milestones.

Still like Ruparel, Cheema also feels that if people can overcome the fear of being alone and start enjoying their own company, have a few friends to rely on in times of need, there are a lot of advantages in being single. “You are not answerable to anyone for anything, and frankly each one of us has the inner resources and strengths to be self sufficient. We just have to take the time to rediscover them.”

Deepa Dharamrup, a business woman in Atlanta, fell in love and was married at age 18. She was married for 17 years and now has been divorced for over a decade. She says she hasn’t had the time to date much. “When the divorce happened, my two daughters were 16 and 11, and since I had custody of the girls, I focused totally on them and on earning a living. Looking back, I realized that when you get married at such a young age, you don’t know yourself. As you start getting older you start figuring out what it is you want from life, what makes you happy. At times, couples grow together, at others they drift apart, in spite of both being good people. The latter happened to me. I wasn’t happy and so couldn’t make anyone else happy around me.”

Until five years ago, Dharamrup says, her life revolved around her work and kids. Since then, her life’s journey has been one of self discovery and overcoming low self esteem. She does the things she loves and travels widely.

Like Ruparel, she too feels that most men have a hard time relating to successful women and get defensive or over aggressive. “I feel that after a while most men want to control you and I will not permit it to happen to me. It takes a very secure man not to be intimidated by a successful woman and I haven’t found one yet. I’m 48 and really have no patience with someone trying to impress me, so I have not dated much by choice. I’m enjoying my single status and spending time nurturing myself and my interests. Unfortunately Indians have not learnt to be emotionally self sufficient. It’s a hard process for us, but once we get there the rewards are immense.”

Jasbir Singh is a 50-year-old architect, who divorced after a long separation. He has been divorced now for six years, but been on his own for over a decade. Singh says contrary to the belief that divorced women face more stigma, he felt disapproval in his social circles. He felt alienated and didn’t find any support either in the South Asian community or Sikh gurudwaras for single people in his age group.

Four years ago he unsuccessfully tried to initiate a support group for older singles. “The idea was just to meet in a coffee house to chat and share life’s experiences. But South Asians are so self conscious that most of them didn’t show up, either out of embarrassment or a sense of shame.”

It was a chance meeting with an American woman during a walk in a park that he struck up a friendship, which opened doors for him. “The lady welcomed me into her group activities after finding out I was alone and shy.”

Singh is now part of three different non-Indian support groups for singles in their 40s, including a church group that welcomed him with open arms. “At my age I’m more focused on developing the spiritual side of my personality. But mingling with these people, I have found companionship and a social life that was missing. I have been more welcome in groups outside my community.”

Singh says he has met very interesting and gifted people, who in turn have him more accepting and liberal minded. “I’m not averse to dating a non Indian woman now, though again if I don’t find someone I’m quite content being on my own and having a wonderful group of friends.”

Rashmee Sharma, presently in her late 40s, was married at 20. With the encouragement of her husband she pursued a PhD and an interest in journalism. Then tragedy struck. At 27 she lost her husband; her two children were 7 and 4 years old. Sharma turned down offers to remarry and decided to leave India and go abroad against everyone’s wishes. “I just wanted to get away from places that kept reminding me of him, and getting married for the sake of convenience never was an option for me, even though it could have solved a lot of my problems. Being a single woman in India always made you vulnerable.”

Sharma arrived at the University of Washington in 1990 and says that coming to America was the best decision she made. It allowed her to grow in a way she wouldn’t have if she had remained in India. Today her children are well settled, and although they have been encouraging her to date for a while, it’s only now that she is warming up to the idea.

“For a woman with children, their well being comes first and so dating and remarriage was out when they were still young. Today I see so many dysfunctional relationships and extramarital affairs outside of marriage that it makes me wonder if I should even bother. I also feel that women once they are empowered are more comfortable being on their own, than men. A lot of my male friends got married quickly after divorce, because they didn’t like being alone and a couple of years later those second marriages also crumbled.”

Sharma says discovering her strengths and being on her own has been a blessing. She adds that having had a wonderful marriage she is not prepared to settle for anything less than being with someone who can be her best friend. She says she is involved in so many exciting activities that she doesn’t have the time to feel lonely, though she too experiences an occasional pang when she wants to share her stresses and thoughts with a partner.

“Your children have their own stresses and want you to deal with them and not talk of your own hassles, but I have great friends, and a rich life, so getting married is not really a priority,” she says.
T Sher Singh, 55, a Canadian lawyer, says his parents had a wonderful marriage, but somehow, even as a teenager, he had a sixth sense that what worked for his parents may not work in his times. “Then the roles were clearly demarcated. The woman was the homemaker, the man the bread winner. No one said what about my rights? Marriage was a social contract as well.”

Singh chose his own wife and married at 25. The marriage ended seven and a half years later and he chose to raise his daughter by himself.

When Singh divorced in the early 1980s, the Indian community in Canada was small and there were few Indian women for him to date. “It was difficult to find a woman who was intellectually compatible, available and North American and I was not going to make the mistake of bringing a woman from India, which is the worst thing we can do for ourselves or for our children. There is such disparity in upbringing and culture even though the origins may be the same. We don’t go into a business relationship with someone we don’t know or hand him a big chunk of money. But we are ready to go and marry a complete stranger within weeks and expect it to work.”

The roles of men and women have changed, says Singh, and the boundaries have blurred. One reason women are staying single longer in North America is because they are developing a lot faster than the men and doing better both academically and professionally.

“Men of the Indian sub continent have stayed tied to the Indian lifestyle and Indian values and so their expectations are of the old world. As a result they become unacceptable to today’s women.” Singh also finds most men have not learnt how to enjoy being alone or bond with other men. “Women on the other hand have much greater ease with other women and in forging friendships or being self sufficient.”

Singh says the older generation of immigrants have done a terrible disservice to the younger generation by failing to accept and develop a system where children and even they could meet and mingle with members of the opposite sex. “Unless we ourselves date and understand the opposite sex and what works, how can we impart any guidance to our kids?”

Singh says the biggest problem will not be for the youth, but the large number of unhappy older singles left to fend for themselves after divorce or death of a partner. “We have no idea what to do with them. Can you imagine even in today’s world, anyone trying to hook up two 65 -70 year old singles who may have lost their partners, and for it not to create gossip or make waves in the community?”

Singh who has remained single for over two decades, says he dated frequently after his divorce while juggling a high profile legal career and raising his daughter. He did not find anyone with whom he could establish a permanent relationship, but attributes that to a byproduct of the changing times, which makes such relationships difficult.

“I have met some amazing women and enjoyed a very enriching friendship with them. I have yet to meet a couple I have envied and wished I was in their shoes and that is a very telling statement.” 

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