You can leave your hat on
It's a good time to be in one's middle years and not slotted into some relationship mould that fits into narrow mainstream parameters
There is a song by Randy Newman, You Can Leave Your Hat On, that has lent itself to repeated reinvention by a variety of singers since it first saw the light of day, 40-odd years ago. Ostensibly, the song is about a man urging his woman lover to do a striptease for him—Baby take off your coat, real slow… ending with the refrain …you can leave your hat on! However, across the years, the context of the song has been shifted and turned on its head, if not exactly its hat. Starting from a sequence in the movie 9½ Weeks that got many of us going in the early 1980s, through to the group of male strippers in The Full Monty, the song has become a sort of anthem of gender-undefined seduction, sung equally beautifully by Joe Cocker in his sandpaper voice and the great Etta James in her blues growl.
Love and romance is a funny, messy business and it is further complicated by that pesky shape-shifting creature that’s attached to it, the one that goes by many names, including “sex", “desire", “kama" and “vasana". Without trying to address how all the different classes of Indian society deal with this cluster of human emotions, I’ll stick to the segment I know best: the urban, (somewhat) educated middle and upper classes.
India is and was a deeply ageist society, and in the 1970s and 1980s, just-turned-adults like us shuddered at the idea of older people tangling with an activity that we thought belonged exclusively to us. Watching some old geezer put the make on some college girl, or maybe an aunty brightening up at the sight of a 25-year-old studmuffin, brought out the worst in us youngsters: “He’s 36, for God’s sake, doesn’t he know he’s over the hill, line-maaroing a second-year chick?", “Forty years old, how absurd, gobbling up that guy with her eyes! Just like that crazy granny in the Playboy cartoons!" If the age gap wasn’t an issue, it got even worse—two oldies doing all that coochie-cooing and potential bunny-making was extra disgusting since it didn’t even have the mitigation of some flowering youth as the object of desire.
How things change, how time plays its nasty little tricks, how our foolishness mutates, but without reducing an iota.
When we were young, we used to look at married or “settled" couples as closed files, complete, already obsolete, done with the rich entertainment provided by the mating game. If there was some scandal or break-up involving some third eroto-romantic party, we would scratch our heads and wonder what madness had overtaken so and so quasi-geriatric. One by one, or, rather, two by two, people among us also began to enter this closed, oldie zone. To paraphrase Jimi Hendrix, as the years left their tyre-marks across our backs, a few of these twosomes stayed happily hitched, many less happily so, and some of us, inevitably, came out of hitchery and long-term coupledom and re-entered the galaxy of ongoing singleness and/or serial monogamy. Now, among the friends celebrating their various wedding or cohabiting anniversaries with their mind-boggling numbers (“Come to our 25th!" “Ha, ha, will do! Come to our 30th!") are the re-entangled and a substantial ragtag of the unattached.
The first thing that hits you, if you happen to be among these liminals, is that as a society (urban, middle class) we are now perhaps far more tolerant of middle-aged outliers than in the aforementioned 1970s and 1980s. Now it’s completely normal for me to find myself at a dinner/party where people range from their mid-20s to their 60s, where there is a random mix of couples, divorcees, perennial singles, never-been-hitched souls, the newly magnet-ed together and the newly singled, the on-the-lookout ones and the ones who are not. And while we may all rib each other in a good-natured way, there is a general acceptance of the different states and stages in which people find themselves. In that sense, I guess it’s a good time to be in one’s middle years and not slotted into some relationship mould that fits into narrow mainstream parameters.
Different people in their so-called middle-age (the definitions of which are also shifting) handle themselves in a variety of ways. Last year, a pal, a single woman in her mid-40s living in one of our two great metros, called and said she had decided to go on Tinder. Being of a slightly older vintage (a decade, actually, since you ask), I was not au fait with the arcana of dating sites.
“So how does this Grindr thing work?" I asked.
“Grindr?" she growled, “Madowwat? Why would I go on Grindr? Am I looking for gay men? This is Tinder, for boring, hetero-normative types like you and me."
“Me?" I yelped, “I’m not about to get on to any bloody cruising site!"
“Haan, best if you don’t, not with your face. And it’s a dating site, not a cruising site, you tech-challenged homophobiac."
“And anyway, you’re sort of semi-known so you may find people recognize you, especially in your backward town."
At this juncture, I was reduced to the kind of incomprehensible spluttering that occurs when there are several equally important points trying to force their way out of your mouth at the same time, a bit like a rusty pipe trying to disgorge different kinds of debris-loaded rainwater. Point 1: I wasn’t looking to “hook up", as the phrase goes; Point 2: Just because I don’t study gay dating apps closely doesn’t mean I’m a homophobe; Point 3: My pal is far better known in her (somewhat overlapping with mine) fields than I am, and much more famous in her throbbing city than I am here in Backwaterburg. Point 4: I wouldn’t have the courage anyway, I don’t think, which made me admire my friend for her give-a-damn attitude, not that I was about to tell her this.
What I did discuss with her and others, however, are a couple of things from what I might call an “unconscious survey" of what it’s like to be looking for, or be freshly in, love or intimacy (also read “attracted", “in desire" or “fully involved", as you will) after a certain age. If you’re above 50, say, you will likely have a “scanner" that is constantly switched on. By now you’ve perhaps been in a few relationships yourself and you’ve experienced many others via your friends and acquaintances. Which means a lot of the time when you meet someone new, you will think, “Ah, yes, I’ve seen this movie before. I know how it ends so I don’t need to see it again." Anybody with whom you want to be intimate, or vice versa, will have to jump through this hoop. They will need to do this even if you—or, indeed, if over a certain age, they—decide that “no, okay, I want to experience this one more time", or that actually this is a wholly new scenario, or with enough new variations, and you’re willing to buy the ticket.
Another thing that can often happen, especially if there’s a substantial age difference between you and your lover, say more than 10 years, is that the older person will invariably be suspected of using their “older" wiles, or being manipulative towards the younger, more “innocent" partner. A third thing, and this is a biggie, is what one could call the Archive Syndrome. Anyone above 50 will have had a few relationships (or at least intimate knowledge of a few) and the memory of these relationships has every chance of getting in the way of two people experiencing the “here and now", whether both parties carry archives of equal heft or not.
For people over 50 about to tangle with new love and desire, Randy Newman’s old song takes on all sorts of contradictory significance. Embarking on any relationship involves a certain kind of mutual disrobing, often in stages, not always equal, and not necessarily physical. For people wearing many layers of experience, and maybe carrying a couple of suitcases that are impossible to leave behind, it may be difficult to figure out what the “hat" is exactly, i.e. what is it about themselves that they must, or can, leave on. Part of the risk—and the pleasure—when you wake up next to a new lover with your not so young body and your not so uncluttered heart and head, is the discovery of what all you can divest, all the extra stuff you can strip off and throw away.
When not busy trying to avoid the pitfalls of love after 50, Ruchir Joshi is working on his second novel.