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.

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