An unmarried woman, unhappy in India

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Hi Cary,

The theme of my letter is no different from the ones you probably receive by the dozens every day. I have gone through your site every morning devouring citations by troubled souls. But even when I spot some common patterns, I’m not sure why I feel my own problem is unique and quite frankly, I need your help.

I guess I should start with an introduction. I am a professionally qualified, independent woman living in a large metropolitan city in India. Most would say that I am quite accomplished. I enjoy a good position in a very large multinational corporation, I have a house of my own and I am seen by people as a warm, intelligent, mature and sensible person. My circle of friends and family is small but very caring.

Of course there is a catch. I am also single, have been so for most of my life. This is considered a disqualification at my age in this country. At the very least it makes me an oddity. People wonder why I am single and when they find no apparent reason, they often wonder aloud if I am ‘too independent’ and if I ‘scare men off’ with my financial independence and self-reliance.

I used to find this irksome in the beginning. As far as I was concerned, being single wasn’t a permanent choice I had made in life. I was simply waiting for the right man to arrive. Arranged marriages are quite the norm in India, even now. And in my twenties and then in my thirties I met quite a lot of men. But the ‘system’ left me aghast. Taking a lifelong decision over a cup of coffee with countless prying relatives and middlemen seemed so much at contrast to the careful, considerate approach I had otherwise formed in life with respect to most things. I found the process insensitive, intrusive and invasive. And even when I went through countless organized meetings with prospective grooms, I realized I was just not cut out for it.

On the other hand ‘love’ didn’t happen to me either with the exception of a very intense relationship that ended quite abruptly at a young age. It was a long distance affair that wilted and died a slow motion death. After that there were close encounters — men who fell in love with me, whose love I couldn’t reciprocate. And then those whom I felt I could have loved but they were with other people.

By and large, even in the midst of a suspecting world that cannot fathom why and how a girl like me is single, something tells me this can happen. Oh hell, there are worse things that happen to people in the world, like hunger or poverty or disease. And an educated person like me cannot lament the lack of love forever. So mentally, I am quite prepared to not hang my boots just yet. Except, emotionally, I feel a little rudderless.

Gradually as time is passing by, I am wondering what am I doing with my time and life? What is the purpose of building this home I have spent years paying a mortgage on? And after I die, who shall inherit it? Is this all there ever shall be? Will I ever be able to share the inconsequential details of my days with anyone? And why this daily grind? Who do I strive every day for? I do a lot of problem solving at work, Cary. And clearly I know there is a problem here. My heart and my mind are in conflict. And I’m not in a happy place.

What’s your advice to women like me? We’re traveling far and wide in life, making small strides every day. We’re career women. We have financial and social standing. But still, it’s not enough to keep us from being vulnerable. If love and companionship are going to be elusive, how should we placate our hearts? And what should we make our next goal?

Maybe your advice can help me find my way from here.

Sincerely, Lost Somewhere in the Middle

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Dear Lost in the Middle,

Your letter led me in several directions, and was not easy to answer. I started thinking about consciousness and selfhood, and horizontal identity as talked about in Andrew Solomon’s book Far from the Tree, and the status of women in India generally and Indian culture, and the problem of abduction and forced marriage …

So it took me a couple of weeks. But I’m going to finish up today and see if I can boil down my thoughts to a few simple paragraphs.

First, and most generally, let’s talk about the things you have in common with all people. I think it might help you to see your feelings in a broad human context, and think of yourself not specifically as an unmarried professional woman in India but just as a person. Just as a person you may feel lonely. You may wonder why you have done the things you have done, and what the future holds.These are not feelings limited to you. I suggest that you place yourself in a broad context and approach your life questions broadly. For many of the answers are the same regardless of your status and culture. If you are lonely, seek friendship. If you have tax and inheritance questions, consult an attorney. If you wonder why you have done certain things, if you want to ponder the meaning of your life with a wise and sympathetic witness, then seek a wise and sympathetic psychotherapist and begin examining your life. If you are troubled by the cultural attitudes that circumscribe or limit your life, then become active in Indian cultural affairs. These are things that you can do. You have money and friends and a house. You can begin this journey.

You can begin this journey and it will help if you do not seek answers quickly. Rather, become active in the search. For the search itself is the answer. The activity is the answer. To be swept up in the stream of life is the answer. If you decide you want to change attitudes and laws regarding the status of women in India, then dive in; join a group of women or form a group of women and see what you can do. The activity will change your life. It will deepen and enrich your life.

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OK. That’s two paragraphs. Now I want to say one thing about Andrew Solomon’s book Far from the Tree. But I don’t want to talk about it too much. I actually want to recommend that you read it. Then you can talk about it with other people. The reason I want you to read it is that I want you to think about your horizontal identity as a single woman and how that conflicts with your vertical identity as a daughter and citizen and employee. I have a feeling that you have a very particular sensibility and you have made choices in your life in accordance with that sensibility. You have, in other words, honored your true being. In doing so, you have made sacrifices. Or rather, you have refused to make sacrifices and those refusals have in themselves been sacrifices. That is, you decided you weren’t just going to turn your body over to the state, as it were, the state of men. You weren’t just going to say, Oh, Gee, I’m a woman in India and women in India marry so I must marry. You said, Wait a minute, this doesn’t feel right, I think I won’t do this. Not until it feels right. And that was a sacrifice because in doing so you ran the risk of never marrying.

That is the cost of being true to oneself.

The reason I think of your horizontal identity is that I think you may gain support and a feeling of belonging if you will seek out and bond with other single professional women. For you have distinct qualities that will unite you. You will understand each other. There may not be such “fraternal” organizations readily available in your area. I don’t know. When I search on the Internet under “single professional women in India” of course, no surprise, I find dating sites. Which tells us a lot, doesn’t it — that your status is viewed as a lack, a state of incompletion that must be completed by supplying a mate. As, in the case of the deaf, people think it’s a state of incompletion that must be remedied. Whereas, surprisingly if you don’t follow it, a good number of deaf people do not want to be made into hearing people. They want to preserve their identities. You may, similarly, not want to be “completed” by the addition of a man. You may want, actually, to remain as you are but not feel you are incomplete.

Do you feel incomplete? Maybe you do. We all do from time to time.

So I think I addressed consciousness and selfhood by suggesting that you think of yourself broadly and link your feelings to larger humanity. And I mentioned  Far from the Tree and horizontal identity. And, finally, as you may know, India ranks 114th overall in the 2014 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report, while at the same time ranking 15th in the category of women’s political empowerment. So clearly there is a gap between the attainment of women in the realm of politics and the way women are treated in other areas of Indian life. This schism may be a clue to how you are feeling: You have done well, and yet in your day-to-day your accomplishments are not valued and or your status does not reflect your accomplishments.

Finally, I would just ask in general, What are you missing, in particular, that can be traced to your individual choices? What is that thing that is missing? And how do you find it?

Good luck! You are not alone.

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How to eulogize the dad no one likes?

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JAN 31, 2007

My friend’s father is just one more reason feminism exists — but can we say that?


Dear Cary,

I have been friends with my best friend since we were 15 years old; we united because we both had crazy-ass parents. Hers was an abusive alcoholic dad, mine was an undiagnosed borderline personality disordered mother who wreaked havoc on my life by playing constant mind games.

They’ve both aged. My mom has mellowed, and until recently, so had my friend’s dad. But now he’s had a few mild strokes, seems to be slipping into dementia or possibly Alzheimer’s, and is back to drinking and attempting to be the big, tough guy he always thought he was. He’s driving everyone insane. Conversations between us often turn to talking about his funeral (which I think many in the family are hoping will happen sooner rather than later), and recently we came upon an interesting dilemma: Who will deliver his eulogy? And is there an obligation to be nice?

I’m a writer by trade, so I think there’s hope I’ll come up with something good. A nice compromise, if there’s one to be had. There probably won’t be many people at said funeral, but still, we were brainstorming ideas of what to say and came up with pathetically little:

He always tried to tell a good joke.

He is the reason why his daughters are such strong feminists today.

He didn’t ruin any of his daughters’ weddings.

He liked to be involved in the community.

We got some good black humor belly laughs out of the conversation, but now I think we could really use some advice. Should the eulogy be avoided? If someone in the family insists on one, should it say only nice things? I know it would be totally inappropriate to say, “Good riddance,” but that’s about the only thing I can think to say.

Blocked Writer

TuscanAd_Jan2015Dear Blocked Writer,

The dead, however monstrous in life, are finally defenseless in death. This seems to inspire a certain mild scruple in the rest of us.
It is safe to say that not all his survivors despised the deceased. So however much you may wish to take a last backhanded swipe at the man, or deliver a devastating closing argument, I would not advise it, not in the eulogy at least.

In a eulogy for a man whose life you did not admire and can only weakly celebrate, a recitation of the facts and accomplishments would suffice. He was employed. He supported his family financially. He graduated from some kind of school. He did things for the community. He liked to tell a joke. He was a father. That’s enough. Or at least it’s something.

I have recently had occasion to observe that when someone dies, events are set in motion that are unexpected in certain ways and beyond our control. We really do not know all that we will feel and do. So things come up that you did not expect. And people step in. Someone other than his daughter or you may rise to say a few good and surprising words. Everyone may learn some things about him they did not know.

It is a time to remember the good in a life.

That does not mean that in private you cannot exorcise your demons. Death, in fact, does offer an occasion for the living to settle accounts — in private. So if you must — and it sounds like your razor wit is being sharpened on his withering torso even as we speak — go ahead and deliver those few choice words you’ve been saving up for him. But do it while alone with the corpse.

Being alone with the dead levels the playing field. It is easy to heap scorn, like clods of dirt, while we all stand around together, powerful and united in our vitality. But get alone with the dead and see what happens.

Even in death those who were tyrants in life hold surprising power over us. And they sometimes manage to best us even from the grave: They leave odious instructions we feel honor-bound to follow. Oh, the dead are clever beyond measure!

Preferable to all this ghoulishness, of course, is a settling of accounts with the living. You know better than I how things stand. It may not be possible to talk to him openly. But if it is, if you see a chance, if there is something you need to say to him while he can still hear you, I hope you will say it.

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