Since the dawn of time, human societies have structured themselves around the family group held together by bonds of affinity and consanguinity. In India, typically, families were straight out of a nostalgic Karan Johar film — large, including several generations and tightly knit. There was safety in numbers in an unpredictable world with meager resources. Only those who didn't have a choice, victims of some terrible calamity, were compelled to live alone. Things are changing.
Indeed, they are changing so fast that India will have 17.4 million single-person households by 2020. According to the projections of London-based marketing firm Euromonitor, only the US, China and Japan, in that order, will have more single person homes. This is a big shift — culturally and economically — for a society that generally celebrates the idea of the family and fetishises togetherness in its popular culture.While Indian society was already changing by the 1960s and 70s with the breakdown of the traditional joint family, the current move towards single living can be traced to the economic liberalisation of 1991. The generation that came of age while the shackles of the socialism of old India were shed, have seen their lives transformed economically and socially. "I started working in 1991 when I was 19," says Arunima Roy, 41, a film producer in Mumbai who is happily single. "I chose to live alone though my family was in the same city. My being single was more about independence and having control over my time and space," she says.
In the last two decades since Roy set out on her own, an increasing number of young Indians have made the same choices. Flourishing cities and a dynamic economy has made it easier for young people to gain financial independence and strike out on their own. That same economic independence has also made it easier for them to buy privacy too and has contributed to what the preeminent sociologist of the 19th century, Emile Durkheim, called the rise of the cult of the individual, a phenomenon peculiar to modern industrialised cities.
"It's a serious cultural transition. India has adapted to a cosmopolitan culture and social ideology is now linked to humanism with individuality now considered above social and traditional structures," says sociologist Amit Kumar Sharma.
Census 2011 shows that the total households in the country occupied by singles has gone up from 11.1% to 11.6%. "Emerging single households indicate economic empowerment. With various career options coming up, women, especially, have more economic freedom and aren't hesitating to take up any kind of work irrespective of working hours," says economist Devangshu Datta who believes the emerging market culture in India and renders individuals more dependent on commodities than the family structure.
"Marriage as an institution is failing remarkably as young adults now have a choice. Compromises don't work anymore. Concepts of accommodating others and changing oneself for another seem to be losing significance," says clinical psychologist Sanjeeta Kundu.
Will the single person households of the future be happy units or will they, in a country where social security is nonexistent, be plagued by financial insecurity, loneliness and fear? We can only wait and watch.
Social Researcher, Delhi
Believes marriage is gender biased and unequal
Brought up in a middle-class family in New Delhi, Rashee has always examined society's normative structures. Deeply involved in people's movements and committed to her work in social development, she runs an experience centre for underprivileged children in a slum. "Modern marriage is seen as an ideal that we all need, but the world is full of other possibilities and being happy and single can be one of them," she said adding that the marriage industry works to create a "perfect" image of companionship. "The institution of marriage, as it exists now, is gender biased and an unequal social and personal space which I will never settle for," said Mehra who moved out of home at 21. "Having a supportive mother played an important role in my life. I know that my choices have empowered me and have made me a happier and more independent woman," said the ardent reader and frequent traveler who is glad she has never compromised when it comes to individuality. "I lead an exciting and happy life. There is no better way to live," she said.
Screenwriter, author of Almost Single, on how Indian chicklit is chronicling the shift in lifestyles
M y book came out in 2007, I didn't think there was much public dialogue on single women. People were awkward about their marital status. That has evolved. My generation had a traditional upbringing but is leading a modern life. There were huge choices post-Liberalisation when women exploded onto the workforce. By our mid-30s, most of us had made at least three job switches compared to our parents who believed in sticking to one job. The choice came into the personal sphere too when it came to partners. Now, most women don't want to marry for financial stability but for emotional or intellectual reasons. I don't think singledom is taking over but marriage is being deferred. In India, the mainstreaming of the single woman narrative is happening now where we are more expressive of our sexuality. But safety is an issue if you're a single woman. We have a long way to go.
Preeti Ramani (37)
Will not settle for someone who she believes is not worth it
After completing a degree in law at 23, I was absolutely certain that I wouldn't get married before I turned 30. I focused on building a strong career. For me, romantic relationships and marriage were not a priority. I was keen on proving myself to the world. With my first pay cheque, came the freedom to buy things without having to rely on my parents and the pay cheque kept getting fatter. My new-found economic independence and the accompanying freedom of choice eventually turned into an addiction. The decision-making power gave me a high. With time, I also got used to a certain standard of living. I am a Sindhi. Most Sindhi men get married at an early age. That combined with the fact that law is my profession means my choices today are limited. Plus, with my education and income, I don't want to settle for someone who looks at me as an adversary or a competitor. My partner definitely has to be someone who will desire, cherish and protect me. Until that happens, I'm looking around on matrimonial sites or singles' groups.
— Humaira Ansari
Alone but far from lonely
While women seem to revel in their freedom, many men refused to comment. Society seems to celebrate single women as a sign of emancipation but single men are viewed as somehow lacking. We speak to two who're happily unmarried
Satya Ranjan Mahapatra(36)
Income tax lawyer and Tax Consultant,Kolkata
Satya Ranjan Mahapatra does not want to get into a long term commitment. "I have seen family structures collapsing around me. Most marriages are a result of an understanding between two individuals and not love," he said. "I have never been hurt in love. I have many friends, among whom a sizeable number are girls. But I have never felt the urge to have a family myself," said Mahapatra. Until recently, his mother and brothers used to pressure him to get married.
"But I have always remained aloof from the idea. Now they don't try to coerce me any more as I have crossed that stage. I am happy with my own life," he said.
— Orin Basu
Thirty-year-old author of Can Love Happen Twice? Ravinder Singh shuttles between Hyderabad, Delhi and Chandigarh, reads up on business management and spends hours each day chatting online with his readers and updating his social networking profiles. "There's always an interesting post to read. Otherwise, I'm checking up on old friends," he says adding that staying virtually connected fills in the gaps in his life. "Since I'm connected to my friends all the time, going back to an empty home isn't an issue these days," he says. Singh believes that while individuals are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain long-term intimate relationships, they also have the freedom to opt for the single life. "We are in a better situation. People have a choice now," he says.
Brand expert Harish Bijoor believes single-person households will change how everything from real estate to insurance is marketed.
Going solo is the future. There's a greed to achieve and stand on your feet. Most people want to own a lot of material things. There's a degree of rebellion associated with remaining single. Families are splintering. From big families with 5.5 members, we moved to nuclear units which are now giving way to singletons living alone.
Trends in the next eight years
*Studio apartments and single-room flats will be in vogue. Consequently, security products like laser alarm bells, video phones at the door, burglar alarms and pepper sprays will find many buyers.
*Vanity-oriented products like cosmetics, spas and salons will be big.
*Single serves, ready-to-make items, tea/coffee bags, pack sizes that cater to the single person will gain traction.
*TV campaigns will reflect solo decision making by women. There will be less male chauvinism in advertising, especially of financial products. As the gender of the investing public changes, the category of insurance will get a boost.