Girls In The City
Four young women share what setting up homes away from home really means
Deyasini Chatterjee, Mumbai
Deyasini Chatterjee has just wrapped up her work week, and looks particularly exhausted as she smiles at me across my laptop screen. The 25-year-old copywriter and photographer has agreed to do an interview over FaceTime on her experience of living alone in a big city.
“How was work?”, I ask.
“It’s alright, I like it”, Chatterjee said.
Holding her phone as a camcorder she shows me her apartment, it is surprisingly lush green outside.
“Yes, very unusual for Mumbai, it has an unobstructed view of the runway, I got very lucky”, she says, nodding, as if she sensed my surprise.
“I love living on my own, it has been four years now, between cities and countless plane rides, Calcutta, Delhi, Mumbai and London. Having your own place is one of the greatest freedom’s one can ever have. I manage it exactly how I want to manage it, I come and go as I please. I am answerable to no one.”
“Does it ever get lonely?” I ask, having experienced crushing loneliness during bouts of living alone in college.
“It does, when you come back to an empty home, day after day, for years, the bad days are horrible but they pass. Everyone is struggling, everyone is trying to make the best of what the city has to offer.”
I ask her if it’s time for dinner. Years ago, when we both lived in a cramped hostel, 18 girls sharing three washrooms, Deyasini could be found most mornings at the crack of dawn, reading. She would hardly eat but gulped down black coffee with gusto, and drank water from packaged Bisleri bottles.
She says she’ll eat later. We talk about our lived experiences as women, does she think society is waiting for girls like her to settle down?
“I think society is waiting, with baited breath. There’s also curiosity, which is not very positive, and questions, why is this girl living alone, where is her partner, does her family know she’s living alone? But these thoughts are hindrances, the interference makes it feel like I am being watched and interrogated”, she says wryly, a tiny frown appearing around the corner of her mouth.
Before I end the call, I ask her about her favourite memories.
“I see my neighbourhood aunties pass sugar to each other through their windows, the Chaatwala knows how to make it exactly like I love it, sweet and sticky.” she says, chuckling.
The call has ended now but her joy has invaded my body and I smile suddenly thinking of the chaatwala carefully adding the right amount of chutney, just the right amount, to make it sticky enough.
In a quiet neighbourhood of South East Delhi, Sukanya arranges a few books that were strewn across her bed. Pursuing her Masters in Visual Journalism from a reputed government institution, she has now lived in the city for seven years.
“Exactly seven years, I moved in July 2016,” she nods patiently while she speaks, her face kind, like that of a teacher who has love and patience even for the naughtiest kids of her class.
“The first year was exhilarating but over the years I have had an evolving relation with the city. At times, it has been an absolute nuisance,” she laughs
She hastily pours her coffee in a mug and takes a big gulp, I hope I am not rushing her, I say.
Sukanya plays with a kitten she’s fostering for a friend
“No, my mornings are always a rush, between making myself breakfast and coffee, I do my skincare”, she laughs as if she has partaken in a most ridiculous ritual.
I look around the apartment, there are stacks of books everywhere but I barely spot clothes. On the bedside table lies a slightly battered MacBook, “My friends dropped beer on it twice, it’s given up. It said no more please.”
I ask her if she likes living alone, the neighbourhood she has moved into recently.
“I have always lived with friends, never alone really. But, Delhi allows me freedom. Calcutta has familial responsibility, I might have to tend to relatives at times. Although, I do have responsibilities here too, as is natural to expect at my age. I think living alone also lets me stay out longer so I can take on projects with odd working hours.”
And she likes it? I ask again, pressing her on. Sukanya answers my questions dreamily but with firm conviction.
“I have found myself, I have made friends and chosen loved ones, on my own terms. I have had the most wonderful conversations with my friends, both vulnerable and life sustaining, meals that we have cooked without confidence.
I ask of her experience as a queer person living by themselves in the city and she says it has been a challenge. “But it has always been a challenge, no?”
Men have been disparaging. One evening when I had a party with my friends at a flat I stayed in years ago, the brokers threatened to call my father. They asked me if my father even knew that boys came to his daughter’s party.
“Most bizarre”, she concludes, shaking her head.
“During lockdown, my friend and I stayed in our own bubble. We made pancakes with the dedication of a PhD scholar, and the skills of a child.”
When I ask if it is hard as a woman, she turns towards me earnestly.
“It is hard for me to answer that, woman is such an umbrella term, there are differences based on caste and class. Marginalised women, ones towards whom society has been the harshest towards, they work so hard for a ‘Room of One’s Own’ as Virginia Woolf puts it but this judgement also transcends all bifurcations of identity. Society is simply unaccepting of women making mistakes, we want to be free, make mistakes, allow us to go against the grain.”
A woman living outside of a traditional heteronormative family structure appears to unsettle people. I say it will change, look, everything is changing.
“That would be wonderful”, she sighs
Shambhavi Mishra, New Delhi
Meeting me at a Defence Colony coffee shop, 24-year-old Shambhavi Mishra walks in wearing a black lawyers’ coat, and with a thick pile of documents weighing her down.
Having graduated from law school a few months back she has recently started her first job at a private law firm, it is new she tells me and there are only four people at the firm.
“How are you liking living alone?”, I ask
“So freeing, I love it!”, she beams, her joy spills over to me and I start laughing.
Shambhavi deciding what coffee to order, she ends up not ordering any
Mishra grew up in Lucknow, stayed in government housing and attended a Convent school. She moved to Delhi to attend Lady Shri Ram College, studying philosophy. She tells me that her parents only agreed to send her to Delhi if she made the cut off for a top tier Delhi University college.
“I can start speaking if you want”, she offers.
“Alright, go ahead,” I say, switching on the voice recorder.
“I have a lot of faith in myself now, if I can live alone here in South Delhi, hold down a job and manage my household, I feel I can do anything.”
When I ask her about her experience of living in Delhi, she replies, “Damn, dunno what can I even say.” Her laughter is hearty and Mishra has an air of unflinching confidence.
I offer her a sip of my Iced Americano and she makes a face, letting me know she doesn’t believe in coffee without milk and sugar.
“Anyway,” she continues, “in college, I did theatre or Nukkad Natak as it is called in DU, I woke up at the crack of dawn everyday to go practice and perform, then I did law which I never had the confidence to do earlier.
“I have met amazing women and men too, they were kind and accommodating, they tried to understand where I was coming from which was a welcoming change from where I come from.”
I ask what she does for fun.
“Drinking, I love it” she chortles, “when I came from Lucknow I never imagined even having a sip of alcohol!”
Shambhavi picks out fruits at a grocery store
She takes out her phone and shows me pictures of when she first arrived in Delhi, “This is the first day of college.”
A lanky girl wearing a Kurti and pants squints back at me.
“I have my own style now, she declares, dunno about aesthetic but pizzaz toh hai.”
“What is the difference in her daily rituals between Lucknow and Delhi?”, I ask.
“I think leisure is a luxury I have now. In Lucknow, they thought a girl resting before marriage would bring shame on her family after marriage as she wouldn’t be considered efficient enough by her husband’s family,” Mishra said.
At the end of our designated hour, she stands up and lets me know that she has to buy some fruits before going home.
“I use a Huda Beauty foundation now so my money becomes tight at times, but it’s worth it. You should also try,” she says with with great conviction
I promise her I will, from next month onwards.
Mahrukh Zaidi New Delhi-Lucknow
Mahrukh Zaidi looks radiant on the day I meet her. Currently pursuing her MD (Doctor of Medicine) from a Government medical college in Delhi, she is on her way to becoming a second generation doctor.
“My aunt is a doctor too”, she tells me eagerly.
Mahrukh Zaidi standing in her garden
Zaidi was born with profound hearing loss in both ears and could only hear with the help of sophisticated machines, such as cochlear implants and hearing aids.
She lives in a shared hostel room and admits that it gets lonely at times, “I love the hustle bustle of Delhi, it is different from small towns like Lucknow where I grew up.”
Zaidi is resilient, she tells me how initially she was worried how she would wake up in the morning everyday if she were to turn off her processors. She finally decided she would wear them at all times.
Caught between the intersection of religion, gender and a hearing disability.
Zaidi celebrating her birthday with her friends and sisters
Zaidi’s upbeat outlook is exhilarating. Was she ever worried about people’s perception of her being a woman who wears the hijab?
“Initially I was conscious of my identity and at times wondered if the hostility I faced at work was due to my identity. But, I tend not to take things too seriously. I am lucky to have understanding friends who have never judged me for my beliefs or tried to pressure me into doing things such as drinking,” Zaidi said.
Four women, four different journeys, and a common goal…