The Panic of the Thirties

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The troublesome questions a woman starts asking herself

Bhumija Gupta celebrated her 29th birthday this year. She has a year to go, but the number 30 has been haunting her ever since she turned 26. Bhumija had been clear she needed to get married before that age, and her last few years have been panic-stricken. “Till a few years ago, women got married at 20, and by 24, had babies. If you have crossed 30, you are more or less considered infertile. And the later you get married, more the pressure to have kids soon.”

She started her search for a husband at 26, but it was only this March that she met him. “Last year had been a mad rush to find someone. It was not easy zeroing in. I was meeting other prospects. And so was he. I met him in March and in July we were married.” Bhumija is an air-hostess, pursuing a career she says traditional Indians “still have problems with”. “One of my friends is over 30, and now she doesn’t get any prompts on her profile on a matrimony site. She has all but given up. A man can be above 30 and still get married to a 23-year-old. But a woman above 30 will only get 38- or 39-year-olds, [some of whom] may be divorcees.”

Many women see turning 30 as a defining moment in life, a point at which they ask themselves questions they would have shrugged off earlier. Are my looks going, my breasts sagging? Am I still a lowly worker in a company where no one knows my name? How much money do I make?

For most Indian women, even the supposedly progressive ones, marriage, it would appear, is The Big Question. Kanthi Kumar, a designer, is 28 and has been with her boyfriend for seven years. She wants to get married next year. “Indians see you as the unmarried spinster type if you have crossed 30 and haven’t yet settled down. Also, after 30, your chances go down, or so it seems. I don’t want to fight that reality.” Kanthi’s parents have started telling her what her relatives convey to them—that it is unwise to wait till after 30.

Neha Verma, another designer who is 26, is outwardly a bohemian, but clings to a few traditional ideas. “After 30, people are just relieved you are married. I want to be a bride who gets fussed over, not someone who gets married in court and then throws a party.” Originally from Uttar Pradesh, she has felt the pressure to get married mount ever since she turned 21. Now that she has found someone, she wants to get married in a few years. She also wants to have kids soon. “I don’t want to be an old parent.”

By and large, women see 30 as the depressing mid-point when their biological clock begins to wind down. Anindita Ghose, features editor at Vogue India, who will turn 30 in April, says, “This impending birthday has prompted me to re-evaluate my life as an adult. I want to host quieter dinner parties, be more diligent about exercise and think about a big professional project.”

For some, 30 marks an expiry date for youth. Anita Aikara is 29 and has nine months to go. The media professional quit her job earlier this year when she had a moment of reckoning in a cramped train compartment on her way to work. “I was just standing around, and it hit me: I was turning 30 soon and how was I spending my life?” She quit her job and spent most of the year doing things she had always wanted to do. She made her first overseas trip—to Singapore. She joined a dance class and performed on stage. “On stage, I was thinking ‘I am 29 and my parents are here sitting in the audience watching me dance’. I felt like a five-year-old, but it was a big deal for me to get rid of my inhibitions.”

Anita started taking swimming classes and is now planning a scuba-diving trip to the Andamans. She also started baking and cooking classes, and now often tries out new recipes at home with her mother. “One day we went to the store and bought a new OTG (oven-toaster-grill) and everything else needed. We wanted to do it properly. I had thought of starting a bakery business, but I don’t have the acumen [for it]. So I dropped that idea.” Thirty was also the age her mother had set for her to get married. “I want to do all that I want to before that. My parents are already looking.” Right now, she is trying to shed some weight for her Andamans trip. “I want to get as much done before I turn 30. Who knows what dynamics you share with your husband once you get married? Will he let you do all this? I don’t want to take a chance.”

Shrimi Sinha, a real estate professional, who will turn 30 in two years, says women start losing their looks and health after 30, and hence need to plan ahead. Her biggest realisation has been that as she gets older, so will her parents, and so spending time with them has become a priority. “You realise that the only true relationships in this world are with your parents,” she says. Marriage, to her mind, is not a concern at 30 in India anymore, but being successful in one’s career is. “I want to work abroad and I know that’s easier to do before one turns 30. So I am working on that plan.”

Anamika Butalia, a 28-year-old media professional, wants to pick up certain skills before she turns 30. “I want to maybe take up a dance form, learn tattooing or pottery. The more I get stuck in the rut, [the more] I realise I need to do other things.”

Turning 30 doesn’t have to be so bad if you go about it the right way, says Sanyukta Kulkarni, a sales and marketing executive who touched that age a
few months ago. She was dreading it till she turned 29, and then looked at the pros. “You live your twenties in some kind of illusion, almost in a haze. At 30, you realise who you are, and what you want. In your twenties, you live in denial and don’t want to accept hard truths about yourself. But as you turn 30, you learn to accept yourself as you really are. It’s liberating.”

For some reason, the panic is not so pronounced in men. Delhiite Nitin Agarwal, an entrepreneur who turned 30 a month ago, says the only thing he was really worried about was getting fatter and spotting that first strand of grey hair. “Most men have their careers sorted by then, or at least know what they want to do,” he says, “For us, I think, just these small, seemingly silly details matter.”