Illustrations by Anna Dasgupta
When I first moved to Delhi to start college, I realised quickly how difficult it is for a single young woman to find accommodation in the capital. I was studying at a women’s college and my Paying Guest accomodation or PG as we called it, located right outside the college gate, was also only for women. Since young women from across the country came to study here, with only a few finding accommodation in the college hostel, the area around the college had quickly grown into an ecosystem that sustained the lives of these young women. It may have been convenient, but it wasn’t easy. The PGs were run by super strict aunties or uncles who strove to control curfew, one’s food habits and even one’s friends circle. Even women who chose to rent independent flats together to share, were under constant surveillance—from their landlords, the neighbours and their parents. Although these women pretty much support the livelihoods of everyone in this ecosystem, they are constantly judged, shamed and sometimes even kicked out for not upholding the rules laid down for them.
Five years later, not-so-single, my partner and I realised how much harder it is to find accommodation as an unmarried couple in the NCR. That winter of 2018, when my long-term partner and I started looking for an apartment together, we faced a host of challenges. One broker, very confused by our use of “partner” for each other, thought we were getting a flat with our business partners, leading to several puzzling conversations. Whenever we went to meet a new flat owner, we were filled with dread, worrying about whether they will ask us about our marital status. We’d given each other promise rings and we made sure that we wore them every time to ‘look married’. Once I even told the landlady that I was looking for the flat with my ‘fiance’ (because I somehow felt it might legitimise the relationship in their eyes). Instantly, the conversation stalled and she ultimately said that she couldn’t rent the apartment to us since we were Bengalis and would likely cook fish, the smell of which would bother her. It was evident they all felt that there was something unnatural and illegitimate about our relationship. Unfortunately, this wasn’t new to us as we had been turned away from numerous hotels while being on holiday, simply because we weren’t married (or at least didn’t look it). Even when we did find a house that we ended up renting, the hotel we’d booked to stay for an intermediate house-less night refused to let us stay without proof of marriage. Funnily enough, the same group of hotels that turned us down now advertises itself as a ‘couple-friendly’ establishment. In a world where couple equals marriage, it was a long and arduous road for an unmarried couple to finding a home together. Society somehow chose to see the world divided into two—one comprising of families, ie married couples (brownie points if you have kids since that somehow legitimizes a ‘family’) and ‘unmarried’ people who somehow signify an unnatural state in society.
By the time we found the house we currently live in, we were exhausted and just wanted to be able to live together in peace. So we settled on telling the landlord that we were married and he readily agreed to sign the lease document. But I am a terrible liar and on the day that we moved in, in a vulnerable and tired moment, I ended up telling the landlord the truth when he asked me if we were really married. The lease had already been signed, our furniture had already arrived, so the landlord didn’t say much and let us move on with our lives. That didn’t stop me from spending the next year in a state of panic, wondering if our lease would be renewed. Thankfully, our landlord turned out to be a sweet and gracious gentleman who never brought up the marriage-talk again, and a year and a half later, we’re still living in the same flat (touchwood!).
Our relationship had been long-distance for six years and we had fought tooth and nail to find jobs we both enjoyed in the same city. When we first moved in, I imagined it to be all sorts of magical and to be very honest, things felt that way. We could finally spend time with each other without having to take holidays and travel; without having to worry about finding cabs to get home after seeing each other in public spaces. We’d go to work in the morning, dedicate our time and energy to building our individual careers and come home to being together, discussing our day at work, cooking, getting takeaway and binging on TV shows. Of course we had teething issues about schedules to take out the garbage, buy groceries and other such mundane tasks. But none of that could compare to the sheer joy and luxury of being with each other long-term without any strings attached.
Cut to the present when the world has been plunged into utter and total darkness– I am afraid to look at the news each morning since I’m worried it’ll be even worse than the day before. A pandemic, floods, a migrant crisis, a major cyclone in my home city, racial violence, religious fundamentalism, a lockdown and many more terrible things that I am scared to even recount have turned all of our lives upside down.
When I was in college, a friend and I would often wonder what we’d do in a zombie apocalypse. Her idea was to stay in a house with infinite supplies, surrounded by treadmills so that the zombies would get stuck on them (they’re not very smart). Little did I know, that when what feels like the apocalypse would be upon us, I’d be home in my nightie, having anxiety attacks and watching TV. If I had to choose someone to partner up with in a film-like apocalypse, my current partner wouldn’t be my first choice. He’s neither strong, nor athletic and as a techie, he knows very little about zombies and how to defeat them. But, here we are, overstretching our working hours and ordering cakes late at night in the apocalypse.
Having stayed apart for years, moving in together, the sheer luxury of seeing each other all the time, was a dream come true. Little did we know that within a year and a half of carefully balancing work and (what I call) an endless sleepover, we’d end up being the only people we see for months on end.
The first few days of lockdown passed with great anxiety. The unfamiliar situation kept throwing me into fits of panic attacks, while my partner silently worried about me. I tried to work through it, breaking my work down into bite-sized jobs so that I didn’t end up slacking – with partial success. His workload increased, work spilling out of office-hours as everyone grappled with the new work-from-home environment. As a result, although we were in the same house, we saw each other less and less. I watched ads on my social media about families and about how lockdown was bringing families close to one another and wondered what we were doing wrong, further driving up my anxiety. It became such that our interactions became limited to panic attack control/care and fights about his long working hours.
The fact that neither of us are particularly good at house-keeping, coupled with the fact that we had sent our domestic staff on paid leave because of the the virus, did not help the situation as dirty dishes and dusty floors became grounds for further conflict. At a point, it felt like the end of the world, that we’d never emerge out of it. At the same time, we read about the state of the rest of the nation, especially the migrant labour crisis and realised the massive amount of privilege we wielded despite everything that was seemingly going wrong in our lives.
Over six months into lockdown, a lot has changed though. We’re still worried about the corona crisis, but, on a purely personal level, we’re coping with it much better. While we have definitely upskilled in terms of house work, we do have help now. His working hours are still all over the place and my anxiety comes and goes. But we have accepted life for what it is at the moment. We’re not the googly-eyed lovers living together (as we’d assumed when we’d first moved in), but rather, a compact familial unit, who have weathered our personal ‘new normal’ of living together. We’re still very much in love, but cohabitation comes with its own challenges that has the super power of rendering the most romanticised things mundane. For example, your peaceful weekend can totally be wrecked by an AC that stops working in the middle of summer and your parents aren’t around to help you sort it out.
While living together as an unmarried couple in India, there are plenty of ways of society to tell you that this isn’t okay or ‘natural’ or that you aren’t a ‘real’ family. But as a couple in our late-twenties who don’t wish to have children, (apart from legally sanctioning our marriage for the purpose of convenience and maybe having a party while we’re at it) this is the only family we choose to compose. In sickness and in health, in good times and in a raging pandemic, I’m not in a ‘live-in’ (a word that is often uttered with ridicule and scorn), I live in a small familial unit of my choosing, and making.
Toonika is a writer, editor and audiobook producer. She lives in Gurgaon and writes about gender, culture, food, mental health and more.