Out and about with my sister on a Friday night—novel for both of us, who have children whose bedtimes aren’t far from our own—I noticed a sign pasted outside the elevator at the mall we were at: “for families only”. I laughed—what if you aren’t with family? What if you haven’t got one? What if you’re just a person who wants to take the elevator? There was a very pleasant looking guard walking around, evidently taking his job quite seriously (reminding me a bit of an earnest captain Carrot Ironfoundersson from the Watch) and would no doubt have apprehended some errant lone elevator-hopper, because we also do quite love policing each other.

Possessed quite cozily of a legitimizing family myself, the sign made me wonder. Family is everything in our culture, the alpha and omega of our lives. It’s the reason why parents start scouting for rishtas as soon as possible, the reason why people are reluctant to let their girls study too much, the reason why boys dump lucrative jobs abroad to come home: marry. Make a family. Without a family you aren’t allowed in an elevator or into ‘family’ lines, or sometimes not even into Joyland. If you aren’t a senior citizen, then you have got to be in a family otherwise you’re doomed. There is no such thing as being young and single and entirely non-threatening, for that is the underlying sniffiness about ‘families only’. The implication is that single people are some kind of raffish renegades, sexual predators taking selfies and eating ice cream cones with their chums but lurking, ever at the ready to pounce on an unsuspecting public. Most of the time these singles are young men, because while it is a splendid notion that young women could be out on the prowl, it doesn’t usually happen often. This assumption of violence may be true—Delhi’s terrible state of public security for women is chilling enough—but only to a certain extent. The average single person out for a bit of fun on the town is not necessarily going to be asking for one’s number or following one around a shopping mall humming an item number loudly. And as most of us know, not letting them go in an elevator or into certain areas at certain times is not going to stop them if they want to indulge in such acts of dubious levity.

But since we never address any problem at its root or even face-on, we love to do silly things like make ‘families only’ zones. The implication of that is not just that families are socially desirable, but also that nothing bad can happen inside families. That once you’re in a family, you’re in a safe zone. If only it were that easy: single people strange and morally dubious, people in families upstanding and sleaze-free. So a family can cram itself into an elevator with no qualms about an uncle’s wandering eye or a cousin’s straying hand because they are a family, and magically immune from all social and moral ailment!

The way we exclude single people from family life is also to their detriment. Why should we separate our hallowed families from single, mostly male, people in restaurants and bazaars? Why can’t they sit in a ‘family hall’ and eat their burgers with families if they would like to? Most of them probably wouldn’t by choice—who wants to spend a fun night out being stared at by kohl-eyed toddlers and their kohl-eyed mothers, judging you silently for laughing too loud or taking too many pictures or, heaven forbid, lighting up a cigarette? But if we want to instill in our ‘youth’ the idea of how important families are to us culturally, then we should perhaps stop making them pariahs, because they are not. By separating them from our ‘normal’ (which I put in inverted commas because what constitutes normal is another conversation) social discourse we are implying that unless you are married with a family, nobody is interested in you. You don’t belong unless you are in this mould. Which is a great pity, because young people are interesting, and alive, and sometimes full of ideas. Isn’t it our job, as older people, or (apparently) more responsible citizens, to engage them? To interact with them, to find out what they want to do with themselves, to help them along? To even, if you will, include them in a more diverse social network that can lead by example, and show single people that family life can be fun and supportive and loving, not the drudgery of duty and dull routine it’s made out to be. Maybe then our young people can be less stifled, less self-conscious and less alone, because they all have issues and problems that they often can’t talk to older people about for fear of censure or ridicule. So instead of banning them from the elevator, let’s start giving them a seat at the table, and listening.