How often do you get to be girl, uninterrupted in the city? If you’re hanging out after work, it is work colleagues, friends or significant others. If it’s a movie, it involves finding out who is available and willing. If it’s going dancing, it’s how much critical mass do you have, really?
If you are traveling, someone always wants to know what you do, where you work, whether you are married or single. If you go to the beauty salon to get pampered, they want to know where you cut your hair or get your pedicure. If you’re waiting to board a flight, there’s a nosey parker in the next seat.
So it’s not very often that you have alone time really, not even when you retire to your nest, as there is always someone competing for that remote, that favourite couch, that precious hour in the bath, that copy of Time magazine.
Not surprising why the sight of a woman on her own in a café, bistro, deli or wine bar is increasingly a common one these days. And it’s not about whether these women are single. These are basically women with hectic lives, jobs, bosses, colleagues, husbands, boyfriends, socialite evenings and plenty of friends. They’re not lonely losers, they’re confident women marking out ‘me’ time.
Advertising copywriter Savita Nair is one such woman; a self-confessed “restless soul” who desperately needs time alone, even if just to collect or organise her thoughts. She admits that people find it weird that she is married and yet enjoys going out alone occasionally. “Most of the men I know act disappointed. ‘But why couldn’t you call us?’ The women of course assume you are depressed or sad if they hear about it. And the next day I’ll get a call from one of my girlfriends to ask, Babe, are you okay?’It’s as though the only reason you seek aloneness is because you are depressed,” she says.
Nair has been a resident of three cities — Pune, Delhi and Mumbai — in the last 10 years, and finds Mumbai most conducive to a woman one her own. Second-best, she says, is Pune. The first has the advantage of excellent public transport, while the latter is a two-wheeler paradise, where every woman has wheels of her own. “But I would never venture out alone in Delhi—I am totally put off by the north-Indian male mindset which typically assumes that if you are alone, you are easy.
Also, Delhi sucks in terms of public transport, and women are safe only in very high-end places, and not in mid-level ones,” she adds.
Then there is this thing about ‘the look’ that people at adjacent tables sometimes give you. “It is harder in your twenties, but if you keep at it, you learn to ignore it by your thirties, says Nair.” She adds that she’d prefer her own
company to being tied down “to some utterly superficial conversation that she is not looking for.”
Her idea of places to hang out alone is quite clear. “Any place that is restful, doesn’t have loud music, kids or teenyboppers, but is not necessarily as clinical as a library.” She is most happy with a glass of wine, a pasta or salad, a book… and herself.
Another reason why she chooses to go out alone many times, she says, is that she enjoys eclectic eating experiences but most of her friends don’t. “So I might as well go alone instead of waiting for the right company,” says Nair.
Prachi Jain, art director with an advertising agency, says she needs to be left alone from time to time, to recover from the madness of her advertising life, and find the peace and quiet that is hard to come by in the city. Jain finds the café culture most conducive to leisurely reading and coffee.
A Delhite who moved to Mumbai a few years ago, and is now married to a Mumbaikar, she remarks that ‘the look’ is a good barometer of the difference in the two cities’ attitude to women on their own. “In Mumbai, someone might just give you a cursory glance and move on. But in Delhi, the staring is more persistent, more questioning,” she says. She also feels that lounges and bars are totally out of bounds for a girl alone in Delhi, but quite acceptable in Mumbai. “Women do go out to cafes alone in Delhi, but since the crowd tends to be more boisterous and loud at cafes, there’s no peace anyway,” she
And then there is Sonya Dutta Chowdhury, a freelance writer and mother of three, whose ‘me’ time is mostly wedged in-between various errands. She calls herself “ a coffee-and-muffin kind of person,” and finds it boring to order lunch alone. She usually has her days full, balancing writing, the husband, maids and her daughters. Eating out alone gives her the alone time she most looks forward to. “I deserve it,” Chowdhury says. Occasionally she also goes out just to think and write. “I’ve spent many productive hours with coffee, muffins and my laptop at Brio, my neighbourhood café,” says
Chowdhury. She agrees that doing this in Mumbai is much easier than her hometown, Delhi. “Here, no one bothers you, unless of course you go to some specialty restaurant and look like a bit of an oddball. In Delhi, men somehow haven’t yet learnt to leave you alone,” she adds.
Chowdhury got used to going solo since her stint in the US, though her friends here wonder how she does it.
Still, it takes a lot for most women to be out there alone. Gourmet chef and food writer Karen Anand, for one, confesses she is not comfortable with the thought. “I don’t eat out alone in India. I might when I’m traveling abroad, but even then I order in my room, and that’s not the same thing. It’s different in, say, Europe where you essentially eat out to ‘eat the meal’ she says.
Rajashree Khalap, an adventurous animal activist who often travels alone to sanctuaries and wild-life reserves, also admits she is uncomfortable eating out alone. “I’m not a foodie, and at the most, I might stop for a cup of hot chocolate somewhere, but that’s it,” she says.
Will this article make any difference to women still hesitant about sitting at a table for one, afraid of being labelled lonely losers? I hope so. What I can tell you, from my own experience, is: try it once and you’ll be hooked for life.