Yes, I am the 63 year-old man living in with a 62 year-old lady. And no, we don’t plan to get married.” Vithalbhai laughs on the other end of the telephone as he repeats the line he says he often uses for people who ask him about “that lady in his flat.” The Ahmedabad-based businessman, who wishes to be recognised by only his first name, says his two month-old live in relationship is the best experience of his life, and he is not apologetic to admit that he didn’t feel the same way when he was married.
Strange, that such an upbeat feeling has its roots in an “uncomfortable meeting full of hopeful seniors dressed at their best” in a seminar back in November 2011. Vithalbhai remembers how he, along with 299 other senior citizens cluelessly entered the premises where the seminar titled ‘Senior Citizens’ Live In Relationships’ Sammelan’ organised by a fellow septuagenarian Natubai Patel was being held. It was the first time in the country that senior citizens assembled to participate in a meeting where they could discuss prospects of living in with fellow participants and take things ahead — it was also the first time the meeting was called was it really was, instead of being passed off, clandestinely, as a ‘remarriage seminar’.
“I saw a newspaper advertisement about it, and went there only because I had admitted one thing to myself — I was lonely, and nothing and no one was helping,” admits Vithalbhai over the telephone. In November, Patel, who founded the NGO Vina Mulya Amulya Seva in Ahmedabad in 2001, plans to hold a similar seminar in Mumbai. By the end of this month, 30 senior citizens will accompany septuagenarian Laxmidas Thakkar on an outstation trip to get to know each other better and explore the chances of living in. The trip is the first of its kind from the city. In May, Thakkar helped organise Mumbai’s first seminar on live in relationships among senior citizens. “The NGO, Jyeshthanche Live In Relationships Mandal, which organised the seminar, was started in Nagpur in January 2011,” says Thakkar, a resident of Mulund. The seminar was attended by 35 men and 25 women, most of whom now plan to attend the outstation trip.
“Live-ins among seniors is still a taboo in the Indian society, but we plan to work toward that by counselling the seniors and their families. People who look down upon the decision of two consenting adults need to look at seniors’ lives closely — they aren’t all that easy,” says Thakkar. Kamal Das (not his real name) agrees with Thakkar. Das, a Mumbai resident, lost his wife two years ago and is considering a live-in relationship with a lady he met recently. “I am really not looking for much — I hope the person I live-in with is considerate and reasonably smart.” What’s going on in the society regarding the taboo on seniors living in is a case of “reverse generation gap” according to Das. “Most people, including the younger lot, are so connected with each other — what will they understand about loneliness?” he wonders.
‘Loneliness knows no age’ Vithalbhai says he was married for over 30 years before his wife passed away in November 2010. “I was in a ‘socially acceptable institution’, but things were different then, you know...”
At this point, he pauses, and says, “Look, I don’t mean to speak ill of my wife, but I feel I made some difficult compromises. We were on different wavelengths — I couldn’t cope with her temper, and she couldn’t cope with my attitude toward it.” Here, Vithalbhai stops, perhaps out of guilt. “Well, it is done. But a difficult marriage didn’t change the fact that I still felt lonely after her death.”
Vithalbhai says he gradually sensed that his sons and their wives weren’t keen to check on him. In November last year, when he called up his son late at night to complain about discomfort probably caused due to his falling sugar level, his son asked him “not to think about it”. “He switched his mobile phone off after that, too,” says Vithalbhai.
Today, Vinaben, his live in partner, is everything Vithalbhai ever wanted in a life partner, he says. “I think we are more empathetic about each other’s past, our spouses and our current equations with our respective children — and marriage has nothing to do with how we feel. We are committed in the mind.”
Vinaben, a woman of few words, is admits she doesn’t understand what is ‘liberal’ and what isn’t. “I didn’t enter this live-in arrangement to make a statement in society — I am here because this is the first time that I’ve felt secure after my husband’s death. Earlier, I missed meals and medicines because I cooked and ate alone. Now, I make sure Vithalbhai and I eat well and are there for each other. And the society? Well, people have always had something to say even when I was married and after I was widowed. I really do not care anymore.”
The kids aren’t alright
Children, adds Vithalbhai, are often the biggest reason why many senior citizens choose live in relationships over marriage. “It took me six months to convince my sons about a live in arrangement with Vinaben (her two daughters were supportive of their decision). They could see how disoriented and lonely I was, but they were worried that they may have to share my property with her after I pass away. That was all that mattered,” he says a tad bitterly.
Patel, who began arranging marriages among seniors in 2002, says he was disturbed after three marriages among senior couples fell apart. “In one case, the daughter-in-law didn’t get along with her father-in-law’s new wife. In the second case, the wife wanted to invite her son and his wife to live with her second husband, too, and in the third case, the wife couldn’t meet her second husband’s sexual demands.”
The incidents got Patel thinking, and after the 2010 Supreme Court judgement which said that living in is not an offence, Patel began working towards bringing senior couples for live in relationships. Till date, 11 live in relationships have been arranged by Patel in Ahmedabad. This year, he organised seminars in Raipur, Bhopal, Indore, too, and almost 300 seniors attended them in each of the cities.
Women get the raw deal
Sixty three year-old Sarayu Ketkar, a Pune resident, works as a volunteer at the Jyeshtha Nagrik Live In Relations Mandal, founded by Madhavrao Damle in July this year and is the chairperson of the Ragini Sneh Mandal, the women’s wing of the Jyeshtha Nagrik Live In Relations Mandal. She counsels women on the legal and emotional issues involved in live in relationships because it is women, she feels, who often get the raw deal after the death of a spouse. “You see that in our meetings too — more men come to the live in relationships meetings than women do because their families and social norms keeps them back. We take the groups our on picnics, too, because many of them have never interacted with another male beside their own husbands!” For Ketkar, fighting society (if need be) for a better life for herself and other seniors like her is “kranti”. “Culture and society are meant to make people feel involved, not isolated. If they work against seniors, we need to rethink the norms.”
Yours, but not legally
Madhav Damle, 56, who founded the Jyeshtha Nagrik Live In Relations Mandal in Pune in July this year, says a live in arrangement between senior citizens is mostly based on the condition that neither of them will have a right on the other’s property. “We have a legal cell and helpline which guides seniors opting for a live in relationship. The terms and conditions can be decided by the seniors themselves are they sign the same on a stamp paper.” Usually, he says, most senior men prefer that the woman gets a monthly compensation after they pass away, but it is not mandatory. Damle, in fact, was earlier involved in arranging senior citizen marriages, but started the NGO for live in relationships after a survey of more than 300 people in his area revealed that 70 per cent of senior participants preferred this over marriage. He also organised a trip to Mahabaleshwar in August where 25 seniors — an equal number of men and women — came forward to explore the possibility of a live in arrangement
‘Why must we marry again?’
Sixty three year-old Sarayu Ketkar does not get why most people presume that everyone, older or otherwise, who needs a companion must get married. Ketkar, a Pune resident, works as a volunteer at the Jyeshtha Nagrik Live In Relations Mandal, founded by Madhav Damle in July this year. Ketkar’s husband passed away in 2010 and she says she is open to the idea of a live in relationship with a fellow senior. “I don’t want to marry again because it will never be the same. Live in relationships among the younger lot are mostly a way to test the waters before a long term commitment, but, for seniors, they are just a way to get the companionship and support one needs at this age, to make the sailing smoother. We don’t want the legal hassles either, because most of us have children who want rights to our property. Also, marriage would involve the extended family, and we just don’t need that at this age.”