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Living Solo By Choice, I Realised Society’s Deep Need To Protect Male Privilege! 

A few months into living alone, I realized that I had unknowingly and unintentionally offended the traditionalists by living in my own space, minding my own business, and paying my own bills.

One Monday morning, as I frantically worked in the kitchen, stir-frying lady’s finger with potato and spices, the doorbell rang. I wasn’t expecting anyone. Turning the cooking gas knob to sim, I rushed to open the door and found three men. The air of authority and the stench of impatience hung about them.

The leader of this small group, who stood a few paces ahead of the other two men, gave me a fleeting glance and said harshly, ‘Call Saar.’ He made no attempt to mask his irritation at seeing a woman at the door.

She is the ‘Saar’ of this house!

Stunned and amused in equal parts by his rashness, I stood transfixed holding the door open, seriously wondering about the ‘Saar’ in question (Sir is pronounced Saar in local lingo). In the few seconds that I held the door ajar, the official scanned me from head to toe with eyes of entitlement, his gaze pausing for some long seconds at my bare knees. My dress of shorts and t-shirt seemed to have activated his imagination.

Having stared to his heart’s content, he clicked his tongue to signal urgency, and barked again. ‘Call saar quickly.’

‘Who are you?’ I asked in a sharp tone that caught him off guard but only for a split second.

‘Eh? We’re from the municipal office. You have to pay garbage collection fees for the building,’ he spoke hurriedly, pointing to the receipt book in this hand, irritated that he needed to explain anything to me.

Just when I was about to tell him off, my ‘newspaper man’ entered the scene. Babu was the kind and gentle-mannered owner of a newspaper distribution agency with whom I subscribe to the papers. He quickly assessed the situation at my front door and took charge.

‘She is the saar of this house,’ he said sternly, ‘go upstairs. The building secretary’s house is there,’ and sent them packing away to the floor above, to the house that the officials originally intended to visit. It was then that it occurred to me why the men had rung my doorbell and what they wanted.

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Babu then turned to me and said with his right hand flailing in the direction that the men had taken off, ‘Stupid fools. They don’t know anything.’

‘Here’s your bill, madam,’ his voice softened, and he bowed slightly while handing over the receipt.

It was not the most ideal situation. A man entered the scene to resolve the situation. But Babu’s statement set me thinking. ‘She is the saar of this house.’ What does this line even mean in a country where a woman living alone by choice is an oddity?

When I reflected on that statement by Babu, I felt like a proud homeowner for the first time. Till that point, owning a home, to me, was always a means to make more room for an independent life. It was not a symbol of material success, nor was it a milestone to cross. My own home was about how it would enable me to live, and not about how people would behave with me.

Being called the ‘saar of the house’ made me feel ironically proud of how far I had come. The irony in that statement is that it uses the male gender to emphasise the importance of my position as homeowner. Would being called the ‘woman of the house’ conjure up the same zing of authority and importance? I doubt it. In this stereotyping, we are all guilty. That day, I decided to refer to myself as a homeowner more often to claim my space, to own the identity, and to set deeper roots in my home as its chief dweller, decision-maker, cook, gardener, cleaner, and the queen of all I survey in my tiny flat.

A society worried about protecting male privilege!

It is 2023. And we are still playing the patriarchy game — face palm.

Only when I started living solo did I learn that the Patron Saints of Patriarchy, the protectors and preservers of male privilege, are everywhere. From the security guard in my apartment building to the man who irons clothes in the locality and the small business owner at the end of the road, many of us are unquestioningly perpetuating the outdated rules of patriarchy.

When I chose to live alone over a decade ago, it was to make space – both physical and mental – for my creative and active spiritual life. It was not an act of rebellion. Nor was it an act of challenging any gender or ideology. I was a young woman who simply wanted to live by herself without causing trouble for anyone else.

A few months into living alone, I realized that I had unknowingly and unintentionally offended the traditionalists by living in my own space, minding my own business, and paying my own bills.

Both – living solo and stepping into public spaces have become acts of rebellion

My just-released book Table for One: A Solo Living Manual for the Curious Indian Woman tells the story of how I continued to live solo by managing the detractors, the judgmental stares, and the nosy aunties. Note that these qualities could sometimes be found in the same person or in different people.

At the heart of my book is a woman’s desire to live a full life on her terms. This, to me, entailed, having my own space, and creating the freedom to explore who I really am outside the invisible yet stifling shackles of the perceived male protection, namely a father, brother, husband, and son. My solo travels early in life gave me a taste of this freedom. Living solo was going to be an extension of that self-exploration.

In over a decade of my solo living experience, I have been at the receiving end of curiosity, sympathy, shame, envy and an entire range of reactions and emotions, many of which I cannot even identify. My personal space became my temple to process these responses and to question if any of them mean anything to me at all.

Without my intending it, both living in my private space and also stepping outside my home became acts of rebellion that I did not sign up for. In my space, I felt at home. There is peace, equality and all the space for my mind’s confusions and questions to unravel in safety without judgement or punishment. Yet, every time I stepped outside my space, I faced the discomfort that every woman has experienced. Public spaces are simply not designed for gender equality.

Women have breasts. Men stare at them. Women wear clothes, no matter what types of clothes; men stare, sometimes with lips parted. My girl friend was training for a marathon and wanted to run on the road but was too troubled by the stares. Her woke male friend said, “People stare. What can you do? Run anyway.” Great advice.

It sounds simple enough: Do it anyway. That’s what I did with my years of solo living. I did it anyway, despite the judgement and the barbs. An uncomplicated act of living alone turned into an act of courage. I had to acknowledge the courage it took to repeatedly retreat into my space to recover from the audacity of patriarchal systems that run deep in our society. Patriarchy gushes like a wild river on our main streets and squares and penetrates our veins spewing control and seeking dominion.

The unrelenting judgement and interference by society

Factors like socio-economic environment and our level of insulation in our interactions with people in all strata of society reveal how soon or late or sometimes never at all we become aware of these patriarchal mindsets. A friend told me that she did not experience judgment in her solo living years. That is great. Another friend told me that women living solo are not a rarity anymore. In select empowered urban settings, maybe. In most of India, it is a long way from being considered a valid mainstream choice that a woman can make for herself without being asked: Why, at all, does a woman need her own space?

When you are under the “protection” of a male family member, you are moralistic. When removed from that protection, you are chastised and troubled. This power play is quite direct at the face of it. But the extent to which its tentacles grip our society is appalling.

At first, I was amused by this illogical demand, the war cry, that men are to be obeyed. But why? Says who? Without realizing it, a seemingly simple act of living alone had set an example for claiming space and freedom. My wish is for us to get to a time when women everywhere can make independent choices and break out of stifling situations without it being an uphill battle.

I am counting on the fact that the more women speak up and act with courage, the cracks in patriarchy will widen, eventually breaking it. I believe that patriarchy is not a strong and stable system that can withstand the bold evolution of the human species. The oldest form of politics — that of power between the sexes — is slowly and surely being rendered weak.

Can we break these useless walls and move forward already? The aliens are about to attack us. Shouldn’t we be paying attention there?

The author is a Bangalore-based editor and cultural observer. Her first book is The Inner Light. Table for One: A Solo Living Manual for the Curious Indian Woman published by Hay House Publishers India is her second book, available in both paperback and Kindle versions.

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Image source: book cover Amazon

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About the Author

Sumaa Tekur

Sumaa Tekur is a writer and editor, who has worked in leading publications like The Times of India, Deccan Herald, Femina and DNA. She holds a Masters in International Journalism from City University, London, and read more...

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