Love after fifty

Fifty by heart

Love after 50 is a complex dance; it is also just habit

Elizabeth Taylor and husband Richard Burton at Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, 1963. Photo: SSPL/Getty Images

Elizabeth Taylor and husband Richard Burton at Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, 1963. Photo: SSPL/Getty Images

Love after 50 is a loaded phrase: one that is full of possibilities. Does it mean that it is possible to love after 50? What kind of love? The same spousal love that has now degenerated to arguing over TV channels? Or a new sort? With whom? For how long?

Is love after 50 a hopeful or a hopeless phrase? I ask Rooney, my neighbour’s dog.

We are sitting in the corridor outside our apartments. Rooney is waiting to go for a walk. And I? Well, I am in the doghouse. Self-imposed doghouse, I might add. Because these days, all my relationships are predicated on two simple things: to be out of earshot when the husband, child or parent is asking or accusing. And to eat enough fibre.

You might say, dear reader, that if my life has boiled down to whether or not I am eating enough Isabgol, I deserve to be in the doghouse. So there I am, sitting cross-legged on the cold granite floor, stroking Rooney, who has eyes only for the elevator. Rooney is 50 years old in dog years—which, if 60 is the new 30, and 50 is the new 20, makes him a newborn puppy in the doggie calendar.

“Do you think you will fall in love, Rooney?” I whisper. “With someone else?” I clarify, for I know that Rooney loves me, and not in the egalitarian unbridled fashion of dogs who love mistress, master, milkman, dog walker, and anyone else with a bone. Rooney and I have something special. We are about the same age, give or take; that makes us great potential partners.

Even if you are happily married, turning 50 imbues you with hope. Mathematicians probably have a reason for it. Maybe because 50 and 60 are round numbers. No one says fit after 47, or sex after 63. If I were 47 or 63—the numbers, that is—I would be mighty upset that only numbers that end with a zero are used for self-reflection by humans.

The reason that 50 imbues us with hope is because of the conceit, which is an advertising term for an idea that could, but need not, be true. It sounds true, which is really all that an adman needs to create reality. This conceit of “love after 50” is best epitomized by that movie Bridges Of Madison County, in which Clint Eastwood plays a rugged photographer (why do women find photographers sexy? Is it because we want to be photographed all the time?). Anyway, Clint Eastwood shows up at Meryl Streep’s home. She is married, but in one of those tired relationships where you go for date night once a week and want to kill yourself because you are so bored. Clint and Meryl fall madly in love. That is the hope that turning 50 offers: The possibility of experiencing the crazy stupid love that you felt in the first years of your relationship.

So what do you do? You reinvent yourself. A man whose life revolves around the Sunday Jain thali at Thaker Thali in Borivali shows up with a tattoo and a Harley-Davidson. Midlife crisis, he says ruefully, but really—he is waiting for actor Sunny Leone to sweep him off his feet.

Women take it out on their bodies. They aspire to become like Queenie Singh or Gauri Khan, never mind that there is enough research to show that men actually like fully formed, voluptuous women of the kind that Botticelli and Peter Paul Rubens painted.

“Have you considered Botox?” I ask Rooney.

He licks my nose.

I want my lips to be fuller, I tell him, like actors Priyanka Chopra, the late Silk Smitha and Seema, the Malayalam actor of yore who caused scores of young girls to pull out their lips and tape the lower one to their chins.

I am trying bee venom. To get bee-stung lips. I actually have access to live bees because of the giant beehives in my balcony. I have even tried bottling a bee, and opening the bottle right near my face in the hope that the agitated insect will aim for my lips. The stupid thing just flies away like it has a bullet in its bottom.

If you are single at 50, you have the hope that you will meet someone special.

The big fantasy for married folks, I would wager, has to do with change. Even those who are happily married ache to fall in love again, not with someone else—that would be too much work—but with the new and improved version of their spouse. For women, it could be a husband who picks up his clothes from the floor; who knows salsa or ballroom dance and can literally sweep her off her feet; who likes to cuddle for hours; has no problem listening to her and responding like a shrink might; and who is comfortable wearing clothes that are two sizes too small. For men after 50, the fantasy could be a woman who gives them the gift of silence after a long, tough day—she who doesn’t talk, let alone nag. She who is comfortable wearing (or not wearing) clothes that are two sizes too small; she who will cause heartburn in other men when she is on his arm; and she who can talk dirty after tucking the children to bed with sweet, wholesome maternal words. There is a reason why these are called fantasies.

Relationships have a rhythm. That is their charm and comfort; but also the reason they need resuscitation. The best part about being in love with the person you know very well is that you can take him or her for granted. That is also the worst part.

Love after 50 is about taking the long view of life. People change, circumstances change, old enmities dissolve; heck, you change. The gift of middle age, whether it is at 37, 46, 54, or 63, is that you hit your stride. You are comfortable in your skin, even if the skin is beginning to sag. Being secure in yourself lets you forgive; give others—whether they are spouses, colleagues, lovers, parents, siblings, children or friends—a wide pass. Summoning up anger or even outrage becomes harder as you gain perspective and, hopefully, humility. Sure, you yell. I yell. But I have learnt emotional efficiency: when to yell and when to merely raise an eyebrow; when to shrug and walk away, and when to hug and hover; when to swallow and stay silent, and when to let my vocal chords rip.

Love after 50 is a complex dance. It is the connection that comes from offering a sip of fine wine or single malt to your loved one, simply because you cannot enjoy it on your own. It is holding the hand of the woman who has loved, hurt, taunted, cheered and nagged you into becoming who you are, warts and all—the one you call Mom, by the way. It is staring at the man who has shrunk a little but who still manages to surprise, inspire and, yes, irritate you—yes, Dad. Love is glancing at your sibling at a party and suppressing a smile because some silly situation takes you back to your childhood and an inside joke that only the two of you understand. Love is learning to stay silent when you are seething with rage because you are the parent and the irritating ball of teenage contradiction, angst and rebellion that you were staring at is your child. “For the greater good,” you mutter when you want to slap the child.

The best cinematic depiction of maternal love that I have seen is in the Tamil film, Kannathil Muthamittal by Mani Ratnam. Simran splendidly plays the mother whose nine-year-old daughter runs away from the house when she discovers that she has been adopted. The parents—superbly acted by Simran and Madhavan—scour the streets and finally find the child at a railway station. The combination of anger, love, protection and betrayal that Simran portrays without saying a word is haunting.

Love after 50 is laughter. It is learning how to fight and forgive. It is identifying people that you want to be with for the long haul: friends who can sense your fears; call your bluff; soothe and comfort; and mostly, show up at the right moment.

Love after 50, in the end, is a habit. It is a practice: one that you hopefully have practised in the last five decades. Now, it is time to perform; to play; or cash in the chips you have collected.

Shoba Narayan often runs off with Rooney.

On talking to elders

Start a conversation with the elderly

Shoba Narayan shares her conversation strategy with the elderly

Every elder has something worth sharing. Photo: iStockphoto

Every elder has something worth sharing. Photo: iStockphoto

What is your strategy when you meet elders; those uncles you encounter at weddings? You sit with them, chat desultorily about their prostate, how hot Mumbai has become, and maybe reminisce about the ancestral home or village. The conversation ends abruptly after 5 minutes; and then both parties, with relief, turn to their devices.

I am taking a different approach, perhaps because I am surrounded by octogenarians. I find that every elder has a secret switch; something that they love; something that is worth sharing; that I will enjoy learning. The trick is to find out what—and quickly. It could be particle physics or pranic healing; poetry or the parachute regiment. How to draw them out, if only to make the conversation interesting?

Their career is a good starting point. Questions in this area can be broken down four ways.

Comparison: “Uncle, how is the Indian Army different today from when you were commanding it?”

Prescription: “Auntie, if you could influence today’s attitude towards weavers and textiles, what would you do?”

Takeaways: “Uncle, what was your biggest takeaway from your career with RAW (Research and Analysis Wing, India’s primary foreign intelligence agency)?”

Rewriting history: “If you could do something different, what would it be?”

Such questions are uncomfortable to ask, and even more uncomfortable for them to confront. These are modest folks. They are not forthcoming and dislike talking about themselves. Often, you meet them in social settings—at parties or weddings—where pleasantries, even if boring, are the norm. They are not used to laser-like questions. As Roger Angell says in his essay, “This Old Man”, in The New Yorker, “…we elders have learned a thing or two, including invisibility.” Elders are used to being ignored; talked over. They expect politeness; genuine interest is new for them. In these circumstances, how do you cut to the chase?

It helps if you warm up to the topic. Start by saying that you have been reading about foreign intelligence, textiles, architecture, the behaviour of wasps, or whatever it is that uncle or auntie is an expert at. You have to give them four sentences at least as preamble before springing the question. You have to be prepared for uncomfortable laughter and non-answers. “Actually, there was no one takeaway as you call it. We were so busy filling the need of the hour that…well….” The voice trails away.

Women of that generation are trickier, particularly if they have been homemakers. They may ramble, go around in circles. They haven’t been exposed to management-speak and bullet points. Their wisdom is homespun; passed along through long anecdotes. They take time to get to the nub of things. You have to slow down and listen.

The question for many is, “Why bother?” Why bother hanging around old people? Sometimes, like when your parents live with you, near you, or come to visit, it isn’t a choice. They are around and you have to talk about something. Sometimes, it is a way of engaging with your relatives or friends’ parents. I could tell you that elders give you perspective, but that takes time. So really, it boils down to not getting bored; to figure out a way to engage your mind by engaging theirs.

Some months ago, at a memorial service for Anne Warrior, the educator who co-founded the Mallya Aditi School in Bengaluru, several people, including her grandson, spoke about Warrior’s love of poetry. My grandmother could make anyone love poetry, said her grandson, and I quote from memory. I used to meet her about once a month when both of us were members of The Bangalore Black Tie. We chit-chatted. Not once did we speak about poetry. Indeed, I didn’t know about her interest in this topic till her memorial service.

How do you pass along a passion? Often, it is simply through presence, conversation, and the passing remark. If some subject can give you pleasure in your 80s, would you study it—even if it is “useless” like classical music, dance or poetry? Is something worth learning, not for an immediate goal but for a gradual moulding of the mind?

Poetry is one of the last bastions of the cultured mind. Schoolchildren memorize poems, and then drop it once they hit college. I haven’t read poetry for decades. I didn’t know how to until very recently, when I experienced it through the eyes of Warrior and my father. He has unintentionally unpackaged this world in a way that I can access it. When I tell him about a forthcoming trip to Varanasi, he says Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a poem titled Brahma. So I read it. This then is how seepage happens—ideas and thoughts that migrate from one mind to another.

So the next time you meet an elder, ask them a question or two. You might be surprised at their opinions; you will be enriched by their knowledge. You will be in their shoes one day.

Shoba Narayan has been freaking out elders with her questions for some months now. She tweets at @ShobaNarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan.

About A Pet. Inji darling. RIP.

A very very hard piece to write.  I wrote reams of prose and then rewrote it countless times.  This has been in the works for the last four months.  Finally worked up the nerve to send it and have it published.  Not going to show it to my kids.  Don’t know if they can handle it.  Luckily, one is on a school trip and the other doesn’t read my column.  Here is the link to Mint’s page.  Pasted below is my longer version, which needed to be cut for space.

The night before my dog, Inji, died, she and I lay beside each other on the orange couch in our living room.  She didn’t shut her dilated golden eyes the whole night and neither did I.  Too weak to move after a month of not eating, I watched my beautiful beige Labrador with her still-silky coat suffer spasms all through the night.  The E.Coli infection that had eaten through her kidneys had finally lodged inside her brain.  The shivering that had started six weeks before turned into violent paroxysms.  Let go, child, I whispered to her, as she drooled bile and saliva; as her body rattled so hard I could hear the emptiness inside.  I wanted her to die; I wanted the decision not to be mine.  Her eyes never left me, even as I went to get her some water from the kitchen—water that spilled off the sides of her mouth.  Was she scared? I don’t know.  I was.

You want to know about grief.  Let me tell you about grief– not the spousal grief so beautifully captured by Joan Didion in her book, “A Year of Magical Thinking.”  This grief is the kind that is felt by a whole family that watches a beloved pet lose life’s last battle.  Grief is about spending six hours a day at a vet’s clinic, watching a once-frisky dog lie still on a metal stretcher and get two bottles of ringer lactate solution mixed with penicillin, B-complex, Vitamin C, and a cocktail of drugs.  The sound of grief is the drip of drugs, muffled sobs and incoherent prayers.   It is the smell of antiseptic mixed with urine.  Grief isn’t one emotion.  It is shock, rage, bitterness and incessant questions.  Why me? What’s a good way to die?  Streaming tears interspersed by a tidal wave of sobs that the body cannot contain.

My dog, Inji, was just three years old.  The word means ‘ginger’ in Tamil.  I wanted an Indian name; my kids wanted to call her “Laika” after the first dog in space.  She ended up being Inji Laika Narayan.  She was a healthy happy Labrador who liked to eat– not the sort of dog to contract a life-threatening illness? But then isn’t that what all parents (and that’s really what I was to my dog) say when their child succumbs to the “lethal march” of an illness that never stops?

The entire span of her illness was six weeks.  Was that too short a time; or too long a time to watch her suffer? Was it good that her illness gave our family time to adjust? Or would it have been better if she had suffered a stroke and died the next day without suffering? I can tell you that there were days during that long month when I woke up in the morning, dreading the sight of her tired, prone body that didn’t have the energy to jump up as she once did.  But still her tail wagged.  Although I am ashamed to admit it now, I occasionally wished that Inji would die in her sleep, relieving me of decisions about drugs that didn’t seem to work; freeing me from days and nights at the clinic.  After several weeks of this bleak routine, I just wanted the whole thing to be over.  Not my husband.

People react in different ways to health crises.  You learn new things about your spouse and children.  I learned that my husband who didn’t even like Inji as much as I did would never give up on her.  He was like a maniac—going on the Internet to discover new medication for chronic kidney failure in dogs.  He consulted four vets (one in America) about urine cultures and blood reports.  That’s when our fights began.  We argued over medical protocols and dropping creatinin counts.  I wanted to let Inji finish her life at home, without needles, in peace.  He accused me of pulling the plug; copping out.  He never gave up.  Till one day he did and the next day, our dog died.  He is still grieving.  I seem to be over it; or so I tell myself during those moments when I feel Inji behind me as I boil milk in the kitchen.  I say this when I insert the key into my front door and feel my body tighten with pleasure in anticipation of the overjoyed welcome my dog gave me—tail wagging, body shaking from side to side.  I still smile when I open the door.  And then I stop.

That last fateful evening, Inji started frothing at the lips.  She hadn’t eaten for a month.  Towards the end, she stopped drinking water.  It was over, said the vet.  The infection had affected her brain.  That evening, we returned home from the clinic and followed the usual routine of calling four vets before deciding that the illness had won.  My husband conceded defeat and called my sister-in-law, Priya.

Every family has a go-to person for a variety of crises.  You call your Mom for certain things; your Dad for others; your siblings for something.  In our family, the pet-person is Priya.  She was the first person we called that evening.  She and my brother came over; and basically didn’t leave till we buried Inji.

Who are you? Are you the kind that grieves intensely and quickly; or does your grief take time to reveal itself and leave?  Does it ever leave?  In the days that followed Inji’s death, I told myself and everyone else in my family that I was over it.  As I watched the palpable grief in the people I love, I told myself that I was different from them; somehow stronger.  Not true.

Dr. Morton came over on Inji’s last morning.  We asked if Inji had a chance to recover.  He said No.  He said, “If I don’t anesthetize her now, she’ll be dead by tonight.  But she’ll be in pain the whole day.”  We briefly debated whether to pull the kids out of school, and ended up bringing my elder daughter back but leaving the younger one out of the whole thing.

At 11.30, my elder daughter put Inji’s head on her lap.  My mother poured Ganga-jal into her mouth.  Inji sipped it.  My father looked dazed.  Priya wept along with my husband.  My brother hugged me.  Our friend, Sriram– a dog lover who simply showed up as friends do in times of crisis—said, “Watch her eyes.  It helps you gain some closure.  So I stared into my dog’s eyes, watching for signs of pain or hurt.  Her eyes remained dilated.  Death would occur in a few seconds, said the doctor.  I saw the light go out of Inji’s eyes.  With my fingers, I closed them.

We drove in a motorcade to Kengeri, an hour outside Bangalore, where a wonderful organization called People for Animals, rescues wildlife that has been cruelly treated by humans and rehabilitates them.  They also have a pet cemetery in a woody knoll.  We buried Inji there with full honours and rites—four pallbearers, sprinkled rice, her favourite foods—milk, bananas, tuna– and a jasmine garland.

To those of you who are considering getting a pet, let me tell you my experience.  Having a dog in the house forced my husband and I to walk together every morning and every evening.  You can outsource that, but we chose not to.  It was the best 20 minutes of our relationship and it happened everyday.  Sans mobile and interruptions; free of the walls of our household and its chores, we enjoyed the morning sunshine, the relative quiet, and talked about news and world affairs; about trees and philosophy.  We met other dog-owners from within our community, and got to know our neighbourhood better.  We learned the rhythms of our street; we learned to recognize the street-sweeping ladies.  Having a dog impacted our kids but not always in pleasant, predictable ways.  There were many days when I said nasty, awful things to them in an attempt to goad them to do more doggy-chores.  “We should have never got this bloody dog,” I would scream, after Inji pooped in the balcony, or vomited in the bedroom.  I yelled at my kids to walk the dog and when they refused because they were watching “Masterchef,” I would curse and bang the door and take her down myself.  Having a pet often seemed like more work than it was worth.  But there were also tender moments when I caught my kids lying on the floor, curled into a ball with Inji.  When they came home in a bad mood; or when they cried, Inji put her head on their lap and made them feel better.  Every morning, Inji would come into the bedroom and our oxytocin levels would go up, simply because of her wagging tail and oh-so-beautiful eyes.  If you are considering a pet “for the children’s sake,” realize that it will not be idyllic.  But it will teach your children compassion.  Your child will suddenly notice other animals, birds, stray dogs, insects and trees and view them as an extension of your family—just like your pet.  Your child might refuse to burst Diwali crackers because she is worried that the rockets flying to the sky will scare the birds.

Not having Inji around has freed us in many ways.  When we are out, we don’t rush back home because the dog is alone.  We are able to travel freely, without making kennel arrangements and then calling from Pune and Shimla to check on our dog.  Weighing these tangible freedoms against the intangible pleasures of having a dog is difficult.  That is the exercise our family is engaged in as we process whether to have another pet.  This time, we are sure we want to adopt; but we are not sure about when.

If you define a well-lived life as having a variety of experiences, then definitely get a pet.  I have stared at death in my dog’s face and it isn’t pretty.  It haunts me to this day.  But it has also prepared me for other kinds of death.  I have also experienced the kind of love that even my mother or children cannot give me.  People who want to experience unconditional love should get a dog; but also be prepared to take it out to pee four times a day.

It’s been six months but I still miss Inji, our beautiful golden Labrador, every single day.

Shoba Narayan’s family is debating when to get another dog.  Two are ready to adopt one right now and two are not.


Tone of voice for Mint Lounge

This week’s column for Mint Lounge about how you say what you say. Click here for Mint’s website

Pasted below

Posted: Thu, Mar 17 2011. 8:39 PM IST
What does your email say about you?
In today’s geographically diffused world when much of our interaction is through email and social networks, online tone becomes especially important
The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

Kiran Gupta is a Mumbai-based top executive of a multinational firm. For the last two years, he has travelled the world to boost his company’s revenue at enormous personal cost. Some time ago, his contract came up for renewal and the negotiations got ugly. The company was not giving him what they promised, citing sagging sales and other such “excuses”. They went back and forth, and Gupta was pushed into a corner. He was ready to accept the much lower salary and bonus, he says, but for the chairman’s imperious tone when offering it. Instead of staying firm and coming up with a workable compromise, Gupta abruptly got up and left the room, severing ties with the firm that had consumed his life for years.

Signature style: Curt or courteous, the tone of your emails can dictate how your relationships with people progress.
How many of you have walked out of deals, relationships and jobs, not because of content but because of tone? At a marriage I attended recently, a man asked for ice cream and didn’t like the server’s “rude” tone when he said he would bring it later. A huge fight broke out. Names were called, tables were overturned, and relationships ruptured. “All over some silly ice cream,” said my maid, Geeta, whose family marriage it was. It wasn’t the ice cream; it was the server’s tone that caused the damage.
Three decades ago, Albert Mehrabian, a social psychologist of Armenian descent, posited a rule that is quoted in communication seminars all over the world even today. He called it the 7%-38%-55% rule, meaning that 7% of our impression of other people comes from content or the words they speak; 38% from their tone of voice and 55% from their body language. But what if we don’t see these people?

In today’s geographically diffused world when much of our interaction is through email and social networks, online tone becomes especially important. In BPO and other businesses, employees rarely, if ever, meet their superiors. Many of our impressions of people are through their online personalities. My question to you then is: How do you deal with tone? Does it affect you or do you discount it?

Tone is regional. I once asked Deepa Krishnan, who runs Mumbai Magic, a tour company, why Mumbaikars spoke in what south Indians such as me considered an overly familiar and casual tone. You know the complaint: You meet a Mumbaikar once and the next time, he talks as if he is your close friend.

“It’s because we are in a hurry,” Krishnan replied. “When people from Mumbai meet each other, the greeting is like ants. You know how ants do the quick greet-and-go? A quick hello-hi-chal-bye-I-have-the-train-to-catch. Contact-and-run. Smile-wave-nod-hurry-hurry.”

I can only imagine how a person from Lucknow, with all its exquisite and elaborate tehzeeb and circular pehle aap (after you) etiquette, would feel about the Mumbai “yaari-dosti” culture? Why go so far? After living for five years in genteel and polite Bangalore, I find Chennai’s autorickshaw drivers impossibly rude. And I grew up in that city.

Online tone can result from technology. I have friends (and a husband) who send short, terse messages not because they are rude or impersonal but because they aren’t adept at typing long replies into their BlackBerrys or phones.

Email convention too varies. Some use the traditional letter format, beginning with a “Dear,” and ending with a “Regards,” or “Best wishes”. Most follow the convention of a greeting (“Hi, or Dear X”) for the first email and then revert to quick replies sans header or footer thereafter. One technocrat I know has a unique way of writing emails— beautifully spaced and with tabs. Who does that these days? My friend, Ann La Rue, believes that emails ought to be different from traditional letters and refuses to use any header or footer. Much as I love her, I still find her emails abrupt after all these years.

Austin, Texas-based psychology professor Sam Gosling knows a thing or two about tone. An acclaimed social psychologist who authored the book, Snoop: What your Stuff Says about You, Gosling has done research and given lectures about how we form impressions of people.

I called Gosling on Skype one day and we had a chat. One of the things that has happened recently, he said, is that people have stopped using the personal pronoun as a way of “distancing themselves” from the other party. Rather than say, “I am happy to talk to you,” they’ll say, “Happy to talk to you.”

What about the brief emails that business people routinely send, I asked. Sure, it sounds abrupt, but how much of it is intentional and how much of it is because they are in a hurry or because they cannot type so much content into a BlackBerry. “It is intentional,” said Gosling unequivocally. “Sure, the norms have changed and messages have become briefer with BlackBerrys. But research shows that people will change how they write depending on whom they are writing to. If they are writing to someone higher up in the power hierarchy, then suddenly their emails, even on a BlackBerry, aren’t so brief and terse.”

What about fan mail, I asked. What about admiring emails that actors, authors and CEOs get? Do you keep a standard response that you send out? “I try to keep it authentic,” he replied. People are remarkably adept at spotting fake boilerplate responses, even by email.

What’s your email style? Do you care about tone? Your answer could decide the future of all your interactions, relationships, and choices.

Shoba Narayan believes that content is king but not to the tone-deaf who speak in undertones . Write to her at

Click here for the Sam Gosling interview.