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Notes from the Field: What Single Women in Delhi Taught Me about Sexuality

Back of a woman with boy-cut hair, wearing red sweater, and a green shawl round her neck, looking at the view from a terrace. She can see houses and more houses.

In a commencement speech at the University of Western Australia, comedian Tim Minchin impishly declared: “Arts degrees are awesome, they help you find meaning where there is none. And let me assure you, there is none.” Personally, I always found it weirdly reassuring to be reminded of the innate futility of whatever activity I am engaged in. And he’s probably right. Anthropology, which falls under the Arts and Humanities as a Social Science, generates a great deal of meaning. I can tell from years of studying it at university and the countless reading assignments it involved. But it does not consider this ‘meaning’ external to the process involved in producing it. In short, it does not even claim that there is any pristine ‘meaning’ out there, to be found. (So the joke’s on you, Tim Minchin.) An anthropological research site moreover produces meaning through a series of encounters. Though our studies acquaint us with these concepts, I had not fully understood their implications before embarking on my own research project on women and city-life in Delhi. According to my project brief I was to work with single women specifically. Sexuality – its tangled web of body, society, desire and all else it implies – came to play a crucial role in my work, though I suspect its centrality did not make meaning any more tangible.

As I left for Delhi, I was quite nervous, utterly unprepared and deeply aware of it. While I was excited to go to the home country of a great deal of influential feminist scholarship and practice, I mentally listed everything to be anxious about: Firstly, the city and its disastrous reputation for women’s safety. Western media likes to paint North India as hopelessly entrapped in its particular set of gender crises. (The gleefulness with which it reports on crimes against women elsewhere should surely give us pause for thought.) I was also anxious about the potential loneliness that awaited me, questioning my own abilities to adapt to an unfamiliar environment. Lastly, I was facing the daunting prospect of having to approach and convince strangers to talk to me – on delicate issues, no less.

It is a lot to ask, to encourage women to lay out their intimate lives and desires in front of a stranger. They had to contend with my own awkwardness, my amateurish fumbling with the audio recorder. Fortunately, there is little formality in these encounters. Some women would happily volunteer their entire dating history and seemed happy for the outlet. Others were understandably reticent; sceptical of the foreign researcher and the analysis their words would be subjected to. Still, they spoke of their fears and joys, of frustrations and triumphs and everything in-between. Then there were stories of violence, physical and otherwise, of resilience or resignation that followed.

I spent two such winters in Delhi. I grew accustomed to its peculiar cold, milder than Europe, but relentless in its own way. The city felt frenetic at times, unbearably slow at others. I had to familiarise myself with the way the city itself expressed what was morally admissible. The women taught me how to navigate the city, as I learnt about the different ways the body is marked in public (and in private too). I often tried to discern when ‘bold’ became ‘reckless’, and what the underlying politics of this rhetoric shift might be. How arguments were stacked up pre-emptively determining who was deserving of protection and whose transgressions left them out in the cold.

The narratives I listened to were set in a context in which, despite women’s increased visibility in public life, ‘prolonged singlehood’ lacked a firmly established cultural referent, and solitary living was often associated with a perception of social and moral breakdown. Singlehood came to stand in for broader anxieties in times of social change, anxieties that were used to justify the regulation of women’s sexuality. These women described how they were routinely infantilised and their form of living met with outright rejection. They carefully catalogued the moral certitudes they were regularly confronted with – some more rigid than others: the set of rules that govern intimacy, discipline the body, police desires, determine appropriate gender roles and produce misfits along the way. They explained how these rules are enforced and could become the work of the family, the neighbour, the landlord, the legal structure, the police or the hostel authority.

These were also stories of family bonds, emphasising both their strength and fragility. They spoke of how women are taught to be responsible, to respond and to relate. Yet, they were also stories of a new generation positioning itself, of all the love and pain this process involved, of the forces that bound people together, or let them fall apart; and how this work might rest more heavily on women. Desires and expectations were reformulated weighing up attachment against freedom, but, more often than not, merging both.

The way sexuality was invoked saw it become a platform from which to express aspirations, to formulate what one wants from life and think about the self in relation to society. The close link between sexuality and self comes not without its pitfalls. If a new way of being is ushered in under the conditions of modern consumer cultures, a new set of pressures inevitably takes hold, which in turn lend themselves to the commodification of the female body. The free subject above all has to be a sexually liberated one, has to live sexuality in a certain way, and have the right look while doing it. These dictates are linked to what is usually called the neo-liberal subject, an agentive, self-managing self in charge of her own life trajectory. Yet this valorisation of self-directed choice in hyper consumerist societies frequently obscures the material and social conditions in which one chooses, and leaves little space for those who would rather not choose in the first place.

So, steadily throughout my time in Delhi, I was learning about such sexual politics and the rules of intimacy in a new city. I formed attachments, some fleeting, others maybe more profound. I immersed myself, as a good anthropologist should surely do, though I did not do it gracefully. At times I displayed more vulnerability than competence. I often felt a surge of affection for the women next to me, who had become friends after all. I am sure the lines that demarcate the emotional investments permitted in fieldwork must be allowed to be porous. Otherwise I fear I may have overstepped. Considerations of the appropriate scientific process certainly did not prevent me from getting rid of any illusory comforts of objective distance.

And so I built my life in Delhi. I missed home and forgot to miss it, only to guiltily remember with every story someone told of their mother or their sister. I went on amidst my own sequence of readjustments, set precariously (unprofessionally maybe) alongside the ones I encountered in my researcher’s role. When I now recollect my own conflicting desires and the divergent loyalties to my little double life, I think the same measure of complexity needs to be acknowledged in the people I spoke to. As they re-articulated themselves and their bonds, any constraints they described were far from uniform or stable. There was space for subversion and any mode of disciplining was forever partial and incomplete. Their lives transcended a scale of agency vs constraint (be it imposed by neo-liberal or ‘traditional’ forms of authority). A language needs to be formulated that can speak of such a sense of self, one that leaves room for the contingencies of life and underscores the multiple, at times incongruent, attachments women manage to sustain.

Recognition of multiplicity is not new to feminist theory. Particularly post-colonial writings such as those by Mrinalini Sinha and Gayatri Spivak have long called for increased awareness of the diverse ways personhood, gender and sexuality are per/formed. Concepts of multiple belongings beyond fixed categories are not new to Indian philosophical thought either. As anthropologist Sanjay Srivastava points out[1], women in South Asia have a long history of accommodating shifting terms of belonging in settings in which relations are mutable and instable, ambiguity persists and often remains unresolved. Social science may then do well to learn from the quotidian plurality that describes India (even as it is increasingly disowned).

In my last week of fieldwork I was reprimanded by a matchmaker I interviewed that, surely, approaching 30, it was time for me to settle down too. All good advice, I thought, a passing gift from Delhi, as I nodded along through gritted teeth. The research process ends abruptly, an arbitrary end almost, but a necessity. Now I am asked to give an account of my research. I attempt to shape my no doubt grand anthropological argument out of a rich tapestry of stories, each representing an effort to make sense of a changing world and the volatility of life within it. Hopefully somewhere along the way it will fall within the confines of academic discourse. It will also be my own attempt to make sense of it all, to see if my scientific discipline can indeed help me come up with some trace of meaning. As I settle in for the heavily nostalgic exercise of writing, it will ultimately and quite simply become an account of a place and its people, what they tried to be, for themselves and each other.

[1]Ghummakkads, a Woman’s Place, and the LTC-walas: Towards a Critical History of ‘Home’, ‘Belonging’ and ‘Attachment’”, Contributions to Indian Sociology. October 2005 39: 375-405.

Cover image courtesy the author.