Indians are discovering it's never too late for love
Can a senior citizen speed date? Well, the 280 senior citizens who showed up at the matchmaking event in Bangalore were attempting to answer this question. Time they had in abundance, so really there was no need for speed. Dating too was a somewhat alien concept for these 60- and 70-year-olds, used as they were to marriages arranged by families to spouses they barely knew. But now, the spouses were dead. These widows and widowers who belonged to a time when divorce was unheard of were trying – awkwardly – to choose a new companion. “Ours was a different time," said a 72-year-old retired engineer. “I married my wife without seeing her and stayed married for 47 years. I thought she would live forever, or at least for my lifetime."
How do you begin dating for the first time at 72? Cautiously. A mere 20 years ago, the average 72-year-old would not have considered remarrying. Instead he would have been the patriarch of a large joint family. He would have sat on an easy chair, chatting with neighbours and keeping a watchful eye on his grandchildren. They may not have needed him, but he felt wanted, useful and, on occasion, cherished. Widowed grandmothers would have moved in with their sons or daughters and helped out with the children.
Such joint families weren't necessarily harmonious. After all, fights between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law provide fodder for most Indian soap operas. No matter how crazy, however, the joint family endured. It still does for strange and fanciful reasons.
I know friends in Mumbai who live with their parents because they cannot afford their own apartment. I live in a joint household. My parents live behind my flat and my brother's family lives in the same building. Until very recently, my in-laws also had a flat in my building. It was perfect – everyone had their own space and yet we were together.
Today, the forces of globalisation have changed things drastically for some families. Many of the elders gathered in the matchmaking hall had children who lived in the US, UK or Middle East. The children sent them money every month for expenses but they missed the chatter of their grandchildren. The silence was crippling, as were the long, lonely nights. They feared falls in the bathroom and then they feared that nobody would ever know that they had fallen. They wanted a companion. So they mingled, shyly at first. They discussed health problems, their daily routines and families.
The circle of life is strange. At my stage in life, surrounded as I am with conflicting priorities, demanding work deadlines and relationships that are pulling me from all sides, there is nothing that I long for more than days of silence and rest. If I were to be left alone at home with no one knocking on the door, I would be delighted. Or so I think. The fumbling elders in the room taught me that man, in the end, is a social creature. We may think that we are an island; we may want to live on a desert island; but we will lose all joy and the will to live without companions.
The Harvard Grant study, one of the most important longitudinal studies of human development, followed 268 Harvard undergraduate men for 80 years. It measured a wide range of psychological, physical and anthropological traits – from IQ to family relationships to habits. Recently, George Vaillant, who directed the study for 30 years, published a summary of the insights that the study has yielded. Some of these insights are obvious: alcoholism is destructive. Others are counterintuitive: above a certain level, IQ doesn't matter. But the key takeaway from the $20 million (Dh73 million) and 80 years that have been spent on the Grant study is simply this: in Mr Vaillant’s own words, “Happiness is love. Full stop.”
Age confers few benefits. But one thing it gives you is a measure of stoicism and the ability to judge other people within a few seconds. To the surprise of even the organisers, a few elderly couples made rapid progress. They made plans not just to meet up, but also to get married. After all, they didn’t have much time together. The clock was ticking.
Shoba Narayan is trying to matchmake for her widowed aunt
Updated: June 23, 2016 04:00 AM