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May 10, 2013

The Golden Years

Text by Madhu Jain. Illustration by Farzana Cooper.

Older people falling in love would, for the young, be as improbable as the earth spinning the other way around. Or, falling off its axis, says Madhu Jain, extolling the sweetness of love in the autumnal years

Sunday mornings are meant for taking it easy: languorously sipping your bed tea in slow motion, lingering over the Sunday papers, allowing breakfast to morph into lunch. And, yes, the most important, switching off the motor that keeps the mind working overtime to keep up with the Joneses in the world of journalism. You know, the what-am-I-missing feeling, the voice which keeps droning on in your ears, telling you the clock is ticking while the rest of the world is jogging up the ladders of fitness and success. It’s the voice that drowns the chirping of the birds that alight on the lawn in our garden each morning. It even renders invisible the giant dahlias and carnations that have opened up completely as the sun shines down gently through the bottlebrush shrubbery.

But, of course, never on a Sunday. Looking through the papers is down time. However, this time an article had me sit up with a start. Actually, two newspaper items, one right after the other. The first was a story about the magnificent singer-actress Tina Turner – petite but with a voice that roars, resonant with soul – planning to marry her partner of 27 years, Erwin Bach. She is 73, and he, a German record executive is 57. What’s Love Got to Do With It, she once famously, and memorably, sang. Well, we could now legitimately ask: What’s age got to do with it?

OLD DIE-HARD ROMANTICS
The other story the same morning was the disclosure that Nelson Mandela, or Madiba as he is called by those who know him well, had proposed marriage to Amina Cachalia, a South African of Indian origin, after he was elected the first Black president of the rainbow coalition in South Africa. Neither was he in the first flush of youth, or even of middle age. The much-loved and idolised Mandela had been in jail for 27 years and was at the portal of his eighth decade. Amina Cachalia, an activist as well, had lost her husband, veteran African National Congress (ANC) activist Yusuf Cachalia in 1995. She was then in her 60s. (The couple had spent many years in India, where he headed the desk of the ANC in exile.)

Amina Cachalia died in January this year. In her autobiography When Hope and History Rhyme published a couple of months after her death, she writes about several ‘romantic interludes’ with Mandela in the 1990s; but, she glosses over his asking her to marry him after she lost her husband. Nobody would have known about this marriage-that-could-have-been had Cachalia’s son, Ghaleb, not revealed this little piece of news to South Africa’s Mail & Guardian newspaper.

The charismatic Mandela has to be a die-hard romantic: he married Graca Machel, the widow of the Mozambican president Samora Machel, on his 80th birthday in 1998. The reserved and reticent Cachalia had refused his proposal but she was not shy about writing about their relationship with a fair amount of candour in her autobiography.

‘(Mandela) sat me down on the two-seater couch in the living room and kissed me passionately. Running his fingers through my hair he said: “Do you know that you are an exceptionally beautiful, vivacious and enticing young lady?” I hollered at him. He looked very worried and wanted to know what was so wrong with what he had said. I replied gently: ‘I’m not a young lady; I am a middle-aged woman’. He looked relieved and said: ‘Okay let’s begin again.’” Then he repeated the string of adjectives, substituting ‘old’ for ‘young’ lady. I screamed again and said that I was not an old lady either.’

HONEY-HUED GLOW
Now, if that is not flirting, what is? Romance and love are not only for the youth, no matter what the young ones think. They, the young, can never imagine their grandparents were once young, and in love. Old people falling in love would, for them, be as improbable as the earth spinning the other way around. Or, falling off its axis.

WHAT’S AGE GOT TO DO WITH IT?
Tina Turner had it right. In all probability the 73-year-old bride-to-be will walk down (or probably already has walked down by the time you read this) the aisle in a white dress, blushing and glowing like a young bride: the dress code for the wedding is white. ‘Age cannot wither…Nor custom stale her infinite variety’, as the bard so perceptively wrote in Antony and Cleopatra. She doesn’t look a day older in the photographs which have just been published than when I met her nine years ago in Varanasi. She had come down from Switzerland with Erwin Bach at the invitation of the late producer-director Ismail Merchant. He wanted to cast her as Shakti in a film that he had planned to make about the goddess and the power of women.

This was a recce trip. And, on the agenda was a four-hour, slow boat ride up and down the Ganga. It was hard to believe that Tina Turner was then already in her mid-60s. She looked like an ancient Saharan queen with her high cheekbones and brown skin with a strange, honey-hued glow as she sat on the upper deck of the boat with musicians singing while she looked out dreamily at the living panorama unfolding on the Ghats. The high cheekbones and skin colour are probably a legacy from her Native American grandmother who, she told me, used to tell her stories about the rivers, the dead and the mystical.

But I digress. Reading about these love stories (nuptials) about couples in the winters of their respective lives left me wondering why Indian filmmakers and writers had not explored love in the time of old age. No Love in the Time of Cholera, not even Bridges of Madison County. Merely voyeuristic films like Nishabd (a bad take on Lolita) and Cheeni Kam – an interesting film but it was about an old man falling for a young woman. Not grey enough.

What’s age got to do with it?

MADHU JAIN, EDITOR, IQ, THE INDIAN QUARTERLY, IS AN AUTHOR AND A JOURNALIST. SHE ALSO CURATES ART SHOWS.

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