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Game, reset, match

When dating is a romantic expression of the self, a luscious right-now, and not a means to an end

Men, unlike women, seem to be paralysed by the need for internal change and are at odds when it comes to being alone. Photo: Pranab Jyoti Gogoi/Mint<br />
Men, unlike women, seem to be paralysed by the need for internal change and are at odds when it comes to being alone. Photo: Pranab Jyoti Gogoi/Mint

There are some options when you talk about dating after 50 in this country. You can talk about the revolution of the dating apps. Just like you talked about the revolution of the chatroom and before that the “friend finder" magazine personals, and before that the telephone, and before that the postal system. Isn’t it cool how the revolution keeps brewing, while talk about it/dating never evolves?

You could talk about the Jeevan Saathi Sammelans—matrimonial meets for older people—slowly gaining ground around us. The stories emerging from these are beautiful and interesting, as some older people meet and choose not to marry, but simply be together. They are also replete with a genteel moral policing—the distaste of adult children at their adult parents’ desire for another go at life and, by implication, sex.

Discomfort about sex is higher when people think of those who have apparently completed their reproductive requirements. Think of a film like Life In A... Metro, where the love story of Nafisa Ali and Dharmendra basically ends in death—the sex here is implied. Now that’s what I call uneasy.

Those who approve of such events, i.e. senior singles’ meet-ups, also think of these meetings as a way for older people to have long-term companionship. This response is in the realm of the sociological, not the individual, and mirrors a larger cultural tendency where we may demonstrate sentimentality but speak little of emotional life.

Nowhere has the meaning of this been clearer than in my conversations with women over 50, about their love lives. At 71.4 million in 2011, single women are now 12% of India’s female population according to the data journalism site IndiaSpend—23% of them are in their early 20s, perhaps postponing marriage for other goals. But with the increase in divorce rates, the number of single middle-aged women is also slowly increasing, with many, especially urban, professional women with children now grown up, not looking to marry again.

A 57-year-old women’s rights activist from Hyderabad, divorced for 15 years, told me: “Women of my generation, young in the 1970s and 1980s, had a sense of individuality but also grew up with the paradigm of marriage. By our 40s, our children were grown up and many of us felt marriage curtailed and suffocated us. We changed, but men found it hard to. You take a long time to decide on divorce—there is a mesh of domestic entanglements and friendships and you feel you will be disliked and seen as selfish for disturbing this. But once you decide, then you’re out. And yes, it’s not easy, but it’s freer and free is a different type of easy, you know?"

For women who have completed the arc of domestic life and motherhood especially, there is a sense of time ticking, and another limited-window chance to live a second life—of study, work, of being less accountable, but most of all, of self-expression, of another chance to be that person they feel was somehow submerged or unappreciated during married life.

Boredom comes as men define relationships through the templates of domesticity or man about town

Out in the world, breathing away, again, they take to social media with radiant selfies, new jobs, new clothes, new networks.

That is how I met a 55-year-old, twice-divorced editor from Pune, through Facebook. Within 5 minutes of meeting, she told me, pretty much unsolicited, the story of her entire romantic life. How, after a long, increasingly sterile marriage, she decided to go on a trip with some friends. On the trip, she met a man who charmed the sari off her. “It was the soul of romance" and, as romances can, it came undone faster than a sari without a pact. “He was feckless and unreliable and eventually he bankrupted me. But it was so passionate and romantic, I tell you!" Despite the alarming details of the adventure, I took away from the meeting the sparkling enjoyment of the idea of romance in her eyes. It was that rare, joyfully innocent admission of loving love.

It reminded me of a 55-year-old corporate trainer, also twice-divorced, whom I had met while making a TV series about women at turning points in their personal lives. She recounted her love story with the same voluptuous enjoyment of romantic adventure as the Pune editor.

She too got out of her first marriage when it became mundane rather than living up to its romantic beginnings. She later married a worthless charmer, who bankrupted her. As she began life afresh, her first ex-husband came around, wanting to get back together.

“I’m in two minds," she would say. “It’s practical, to have someone now I’m ageing. But do I want to go back? I’m not the accommodating character I was once." Finally, she decided against it because, as she said, her ex-husband had not changed one bit. She thought there would be dates, but he seemed to want only a return to domestic comfort.

“It’s a bore! He comes here, doesn’t talk, just wants to sit, eat, sleep, like nothing’s changed! "

The Pune editor echoes her. “Of course I would like to date, and have been out with a few men, but it’s not all that great." What is the issue? “You know the thing about men, na," she explains kindly, “is that they don’t know how to be alone. When they get divorced, they feel at a loose end. They’re just trying to fill that space somehow. Some of them want to be seen to party a lot and be socially successful. Others want you to be a quasi wife. It’s a big bore."

The word “bore" comes up a lot in my conversations with many such women.

When I probe it, the boredom comes from the feeling that men don’t want to explore a new space of relationships opening up as lives change, but define it either through the template of domesticity or the template of man about town. The women, neither young nor old, want neither absolute coupledom nor absolute solitude, but something in between. Dating for them is a romantic expression of the self, something to be enjoyed, a way of being attentive to each other, not a means to an end, but a luscious right-now and let’s see where it’s going. It’s a way of taking what you’ve learnt from life with you down an unknown path, a rich vein of intimate possibilities waiting to be mined by romance. It’s like these women have taken off on the open road of a new emotional life, but find travelling companions are few.

“Men see it too functionally," says the editor from Pune, as if finally arriving at the nub of the issue. “They want a fixed outcome—casual sex or long-term commitment or nothing. They are uneasy with the open-ended but somewhat committed, playful, maybe, romantic-sexual kind of space."

In other words, though sweeping generalizations are politically incorrect and branded as man-hating, what these women are saying is that men have difficulty not just relating to women as individuals, but perhaps to themselves too, in a culture that has not really encouraged the art of conversation or the discussion of interiority. We’re very invested in social identities and the fashioning of public rather than private selves. The emergence of a private self, apart from the ordained social role, always seems to cause unease. This we see routinely, in many responses, social and individual, to matters of love and relationships of choice.

As a woman who is considering making an art installation from my many screenshots (sorry, boys) of eye-roll-inducing Internet chats and Tinder conversations, I regret to say that the evidence for this generalization is overwhelming. As someone who has spent hours making typologies of Tinder profiles (no, I’m not crazy, I do it for a living. Really!) I have to agree with these women, that most men’s profiles involve a lot of propping. Pictures with vehicles, large alcohol containers, water bodies, watches, gizmos, puppies and cars abound. Descriptions are often as boastful as a bio-data; they may even be copy-pasted.

Or to put it in a cliché, women are changing faster than men, who seem to be paralysed by the need for internal change, never having been given much training in the art of being a person rather than an achiever.

But, as the hashtag goes, surely, not all men? I think of my friend Rohit, 54, charming, funny, interested in people, and with more discussion about his inner life than most people I know.

The Pune editor snorts: “Does he go out with women like me? Who’ve let their hair go white and don’t look “young"?" It’s true, I cannot remember Rohit seeing too many women near his age.

“Yaar, it’s like that film Cheeni Kum," she sighs. “Frankly, once more the whole older man-younger woman film thing. It’s a big B-O-R-E!" As if to prove he is young at heart, a man must be with women who are young in body.

“Women like us are invisible in popular culture," agrees the Hyderabad activist. “Where do you see stories of middle-aged women in relationships with their peers or younger men?" Yes, that’s definitely cheeni zyada for many.

But older women and younger men is not such a rarity, being more common than is evident, and increasingly so. “People work together, they form attachments, you join classes where men are mostly young—so yes, it happens a lot," agrees the Pune editor.

For a lot of these women, dating younger men is certainly more fun. The age difference absorbs the authoritativeness and experience of older women without much insecurity, while the “curiosity and sizzle of a man-woman relationship remains."

“It’s easier done than said, though," says the corporate trainer. “It’s changing but there’s a way to go. Eventually, it is unconventional—it has always happened, but it takes a lot to be very open about those relationships socially and really, I am done with hiding anything about myself now!"

Aren’t these women asking for too much? I wonder. “We settled once and saw how that goes, right? It’s okay, now we’ll keep asking and see where it goes."

Paromita Vohra has been on many dates, is considering starting a conversational school for men and wants to be paid more than them for her writing.

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