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Shekhar Malhotra had been living an extremely isolated, morbid life as a single for two years, but five days changed it all. Five eventful days when he walked, laughed, held hands and shared drinks and memories with a woman. Five days when the 68-year-old 'lived-in' with a woman. A concept which till recently was perceived as a threat to the very institution of marriage, a popular culture that was thought to be the preserve of the frivolous and wavering few, a phrase that no one even dropped in the presence of family elders, forget remotely associating with it, the very same concept is today getting recognised as an option for single elderly people.
And much of this recognition is the result of a matchmaking function held in Ahmedabad last month where single old men and women sought live-in partners. Though similar initiatives have been taken in Hyderabad earlier, the noise this one created left many wrinkled eyes gleaming. Malhotra, a retired engineer, was one of the 300 prospective men at the function organised by NGO Vina Mulya Amulya Seva's Natubhai Patel. The grandfather to five got talking with a Bangalore-based woman who decided to come over and live with him in his Delhi house for five days. 'We used to do yoga, go for walks, listen to music by sharing headphones like youngsters do. She infused fresh energy in my life. I feel so alive,' Malhotra, who lost his wife two years ago, told IANS.
Malhotra has three sons, but they live away. 'They are very busy with their families. But I am lonely. There's nobody to inquire about my health. If I die, they won't even get to know. There's no one to come home to,' Malhotra told IANS. In a society where the death of a partner mostly means a slow, painful wait for one's own, where the perils of nuclear families are throwing the old into oblivion, where a remarriage brands you as being unfaithful to your dead spouse, the concept redefines the way one looks at old age. 'It's a great social experiment. The trend will grow because of the very nature of urbanisation. A lot of people are lonely by 60, they want companionship. Live-in is built on a contract, it's temporary, allows for flexibility, variety and a second chance,' says Shiv Vishwanathan, a sociologist.
'Divorces are messy,' shoots Sona Gandhi with a conviction that comes from bitter memories. The mother of a college-going boy called it quits 15 years ago because of her 'cruel' in-laws. She liked two men at the Ahmedabad 'mela', but 'one of them had a problem with my son; he wanted someone who was 'issueless', while the other one thought I was too young', says the 43-year-old with a chuckle. Though people in her office and neighbourhood did raise eyebrows, Gandhi is unperturbed. 'Right now I have my son, but when he will get married, I will be left alone. What will I do then?' she asks. According to 52-year-old Ritika Dhingra, who got divorced 15 years ago, 'Finding a live-in partner is not about sexual need. You can get sex easily; you need someone for more than that. I would love to have a companion with whom I can travel.'
'At this age, you need someone who gives you space. Live-in is a testing ground to understand each other's temperament. 'But there are problems aplenty, foremost being the property issue. 'Two of my sons are protesting over my relationship as they are worried I will hand over my property to her. Had I been dependent on them, they would have thrown me out,' says Malhotra in a matter-of-fact way. Adds Avenash Datta, country head (programs) HelpAge India, 'Live-in is a bad word for old people. That's why they are a bit hesitant. Gujarat has a liberal framework, but there are some societies where even youngsters can't openly talk about live-in. 'According to HelpAge, India's grey population is above 90 million.
'The social stigma holds the elderly back. There's a need for companionship, which is privately expressed. But the biradari (clan) takes it as if you are of loose character or something,' said Datta. Amit Kumar, who looks after old age homes run by the New Delhi Municipal Council, says: 'It's a great idea. A lot of people have lost their spouses and are lonely. But it's their personal choice, not everyone will have such broad thinking.'
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