When age is more
than just a number
In March of 2013, a single and adventurous version of myself traveled across India to meet the other half of our team as well as the artisan communities that shape the nature of our work.
We arrived at the office headquarters, located in Jaipur—the Pink City of India—after an eventful journey from Delhi. Since we had missed our connecting flight and needed to be in Jaipur promptly, we decided to hire the first willing driver to help us reach our final destination. After finally receiving clearance from airport security, which refused us exit of the building, we packed into the car and ventured into an overnight drive on a dizzying, dirt-road “highway”. The incessant weaving through oncoming traffic, relentless honking, and the driver’s personal interest regarding our marital status all seemed to be common driving practice in India, I learned quickly. We ate dinner in an empty roadside restaurant, where my coworkers and I reviewed a menu in Hindi that we couldn't translate and made our meal choices based on our favorite numbers – we had nothing else to go by yet surprisingly this worked out quite well! Finally, with satisfied stomachs we arrived in Jaipur.
On the next day we met Devendra and Rashmi, a married couple who both manage our India office. They were both kind, intelligent, resilient, noble, and passionate for social and economic empowerment to the underprivileged. Devendra and Rashmi have become my role-model couple for what marriage is. They seamlessly worked together as equals, where one picked up where the other left off, fluidly and at ease through trouble and triumph. They met in an engineering college, (where Rashmi was the first female in the college’s history to ever attend and graduate), and after many years of friendship, Devendra proposed to Rashmi. She calmly and casually replied “I’ll think about it”. Six months later, Rashmi accepted, and the rest of this “love marriage” is history.
We also met Archie – who adopted this playful nickname during our travels together. She was a member of our India team, and like me, in her late 20’s, single and lived in a city away from family. Like me, Archie was passionate about her job, loved her independence, and social life. However, Archie felt an overwhelming and inescapable pressure from her family, friends, colleagues and society to settle down – and quick. A single woman inching towards 30 repels marital opportunities in India, where deep-rooted beliefs still insist on a relatively young marriage.
The average marriage age in India is 24. A female remaining single past the age of 26 is likely to endure certain social stigmas, impacting life daily. Archie and I shared many deep and meaningful conversations during late night dinners, on overnight trains and jeep rides into some of the most deserted, dry regions of Northwest India. Through these conversations, I discovered just how much these age-related practices, still deeply rooted in the rich Indian culture, were impacting Archie’s life. She felt pressures I wasn’t feeling back home. Single women become labeled as shameful or irresponsible. Landlords are allowed to jump the price of rent due to their status – considering unmarried women at this age a higher liability. Society questions the reasons why a woman is still single at this age – raising concerns about her ability to conduct herself in an orderly fashion and be a good wife. These pressures not only appear from the outside world but also within the family. A woman’s status impacts the reputation of the family and raises concern for financial matters. A common dilemma, which happened to be Archie’s, was that her parents were reaching an age of retirement. This factor ties into the urgency of marrying their daughter, while they still have the energy and the financial resources to form an arrangement with a potential spouse’s family.
For most women in India, these issues are not concerning. They comfortably participate in societal norms and marry within this designated window of their life. But for those who have a different desire for life – whether it is waiting for the right one or the right time, the pressures for these women are overwhelming, causing difficulty to see those intentions through.
After a month spent in India – defending my single status to strangers daily—I arrived back in JFK. I proudly stated “American” to the customs officer stamping my passport and stepped back into the beautiful mix of culture, diverse opinions and individual lifestyles. I could never thank India or my new friends enough for the memories and lessons they provided, but I also came back with a new-found appreciation for the freedoms I’m granted here: to be able to experience life and love by my own interpretation.
Not much time passed after my return that Archie got married. She no longer works for our team and moved out of the Pink City to the town where her husband is. It wasn’t a “love marriage” like Rashmi and Devendra, but I like to think Archie did what she felt was best for her.
And I can’t help but think of Archie as I continue this journey of self-discovery and adventure. Reminding myself of the insightful exchange we share, where we can continue to live in our own worlds, while occasionally peaking in to the strikingly different life of a distant friend.