The fear of loneliness leads many people into marriage, including the young. Especially the young, more accurately – but that’s a topic for another week. Societally, assumptions about the elderly as well as an overall ease with brushing their existences and needs under the carpet can keep them from seeking partnership later in life. A few weeks ago, a 73-year old retired teacher in Mysuru put out a classifieds ad for a spouse, and found a willing 69-year old suitor, as well as derision. Speaking to regional media, she shared that she had experienced ridicule, even through phone calls, following the ad. She also said that she had undergone a traumatic divorce at some point, which had kept her from wanting to find a partner again in spite of her loneliness, until fears around her health and mobility made her understand it as a practical need.
I find her honesty courageous, and I hope things work out between her and her potential spouse. We are a long way away from societies in which meaningful support and adequate resources are built into the foundational infrastructure, and loneliness is an intangible that cannot always be addressed through such frameworks anyway. Her decision to come forward and put a heartfelt call out for companionship is courageous, too. It is not easy to do this, at any age.
There’s a dampener on this story, however. The retired teacher had a caste requirement for her late-life partner. She had been able to work through hurdles relating to age and other stigmas, but held on to her prejudice. This is just as it was some years ago when a famous matrimonial ad for a gay man that stated a blatant caste “preference” ruined what could have been a welcome step forward in the right direction. But this is the only judgment we can make without having been in her shoes.
The truth is, though, that many of us do walk in similar shoes. The unhappily partnered. The technically, but not meaningfully, secure. The abandoned. The, simply and not so simply, unpartnered.
While hoping to be unobtrusive (mainly because I was aware I was projecting a bit), I’ve tried to imbibe lessons from some elderly people who led solitary lives. I often contemplate those lessons, now that they are gone. Among them are a kind man who built kinships so strong that someone discovered him within half an hour of his passing. A successful woman who kept her heart soft, which I saw in how she enquired gently about what her former beloved’s wife was like, when the opportunity presented itself decades later. A lovely 101-year old whom I helped home after finding her disoriented in a public place, who had never married, and relied on state and neighbourly welfare.
As for the retired teacher, I hope she regains her privacy soon. But I will remain curious, in some way, about how she spent the years between her divorce and her decision to remarry. That’s where the most useful learning may be: in how to live, how to fill the quotidian in spite of the loneliness, not in how to avoid dying alone.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 17th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.