M Rajeswari had been searching for a suitable partner for Damodar Rao for nearly two years before she found the perfect match. The retired school teacher had started Thodu Needa, an agency to help single or widowed elderly men and women find a companion for themselves and Rao, 64, a retired bank manager, was one of her clients. As she met him again to discuss what he was looking for in a companion, the widower explained to her that he wanted an independent and enterprising partner, someone who would share his interest in education.
Somewhere during the course of the conversation, Rao looked up and they both knew in that instant that they were thinking of the same thing. Rajeswari fit the description to perfection. “Little had I known when I started this, that I would end up finding a companion for myself,” says the now-66-year-old Hyderabad resident. Since Thodu Needa began operations in December 2010, Rajeswari has helped facilitate matches for nearly 200 couples over the age of 50, with nearly 95 per cent of them, including Rao and Rajeswari, opting for live-in relationships rather than formal weddings.
In a 2012 report released jointly by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and Help Age International, it is estimated that by 2050, India and China will have about 80 per cent of the world’s elderly population. Currently, about 12 per cent of India’s population is over 60. Significant improvements in the quality of healthcare has also meant that the lifespan of an average individual has increased. Increasingly, after retirement and the loss of a spouse, a large number of elderly men and women are now finding themselves with too much time on hand and not many people to turn to.
Rajeswari is one such instance. Married at the age of 13 to a 21-year-old man, Rajeswari separated from her husband after 17 years of marriage. She returned to her parents’ house with three children, and resumed her education. She went on to do a post-graduation in Telugu literature and joined a zilla parishad school afterwards. It was after her retirement, when she went to live with her eldest son in New Delhi, that she felt the first pangs of loneliness. “I started to think of people like me who are single and feel a need for companionship at this stage of life,” she says. She returned to Hyderabad, her comfort zone, and started Thodu Needa. “I had hired a hall, but had no money to pay for it. I charged a fee of Rs 300 per person to cover the rent. One of the local newspapers carried a small report of the upcoming meet and on that day, to my surprise, about 70 people turned up from all over the state. Some had travelled nearly 300 km to attend the event,” she says.
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There were about 25 women in that first group, many of them embarrassed and uncomfortable at the idea of expressing a need for a companion at their age. “I had to explain to them that having a companion is not just about sex, but about emotional bonding too,” she says. At that meeting, where attendees ranged from labourers to doctors, many found companions of their choice. “To my great surprise, about 65 per cent decided to stay together rather than get married,” says Rajeswari. Over the years, that rank has only swelled.
Rao, Rajeswari’s partner, says this second innings in no different from a new beginning. “Life is all about adjustments, but this is more of a voluntary kind. You do it because you feel that the companionship is worth it,” he says. From food preferences to sleeping habits to not encroaching on each other’s privacy, each couple has to come to terms with the new rules of engagement. Of course, physical attraction has its role to play, but most hold mental compatibility and empathy integral to second attempts. “At this age, we realise that the partner has had a history, just like us, and needs to divide his time and attention between this and his children. So, one has to respect those limitations,” says Rajeswari.
Rao and Rajeswari say, at their age, living together is also better as there are no legal or property issues at stake. Even though some women believe in sharing the financial burden of their joint life, in most instances, it still rests on the man. Many elderly men who have chosen a live-in relationship say that they also try to work out an informal understanding with their families for a bequeath to the partner after their death. For the families too, the absence of any legal obligation makes it easier to accept the new relationship. “Many children welcome the decision; some, however, feel that the parents should live separately and only meet or go out together on vacations,” she says.
Krishan Iyer (name changed) is one of those whose family would rather have him staying with them than with his live-in partner Laxmi. The 64-year-old government servant met 54-year-old Laxmi (name changed) through Thodu Needa a few years ago. Laxmi filled the emotional vacuum created after his wife’s death in 2010 and in 2013, shifted to Hyderabad where he stays. But the two still live separately. “I gave her a house I owned and made sure she is comfortable and has economic freedom, but I stay at my son’s house with him and his wife. Every day, for the past two years, I go to her place and stay with her till evening. But I have not moved in with her as my son wants me to stay with him. She, on the other hand, is getting more and more insistent that I should now stay with her permanently.
It’s a reasonable request, but I need to make my son agree. I want to leave his home amicably,” says Iyer, who has three children from his previous marriage.
Sixty-seven-year-old Satyanarayan Kapoor, a retired HMT employee, did not much care about social sanctions so long as his children were amenable to his decision to live together with Indira, a widow whom he met in 2013. When his wife passed away in 2009 and his two daughters and a son got married subsequently, Kapoor found himself at a loose end. He had also retired by then and the days stretched on endlessly. Indira filled that void and the two decided to move in after a simple garland exchange ceremony in the presence of both the families — Kapoor’s three children and Indira’s son and daughter-in-law. “What is the use of remarriage when all that we are looking for is companionship?” asks Kapoor.
Meena Lambe, 55, too felt the same way when, after 27 years of living as a widow, she met Arun Deo, 66, a retired banker and a widower at a senior citizen meet in Pune. After a series of meetings when the two decided to be together, Deo was all for marriage, but Lambe wanted to live together. They eventually married — “I would be okay on my own six days a week, but on the seventh day, the loneliness would get the better of me,” she says — but given a choice, she would still choose a live-in relationship over marriage. “I feared a curb on my independence. My children were three and seven years old when I was widowed — I brought them up all alone and it made me fiercely independent. I was scared of having to make too many compromises,” she says.