The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, November 24, 2002
Lead Article

Chhote miyan, badi dulhan
Chetna Banerjee

WHEN she may have taken her first step into kindergarten, he may just have been a tiny bundle, barely able to roll over in his crib. When she may have graduated to wearing frilly frocks and fancy ribbons, he may still have been sporting diapers. When she may have progressed to reading Enid Blytons, he may just have begun mouthing Baba black sheep or he may not even have arrived on Planet Earth by then!

No, this is not a comparative study of siblings. This is a possible page out of the childhood of couples with a difference — where the woman is higher up on the age graph than her male partner.

As more and more young men ignore the age stereotypes to become involved with and even marry older women, such couples are no longer a rarity or oddity. And it is not sheer coincidence that of late we have been inundated by celluloid images of older women becoming the muse or love interest of fresh-into-manhood youths. The latest rash of films on this theme—from Dil Chahta Hai (DCH), Leela and the soon-to-be-released Freaky Chakra — are, in fact , mirroring an emerging trend in the man-woman relationship.



 Sunil Dutt
Sunil Dutt

True, the new crop of movies depict the older woman-younger guy affair merely as a passing phase in the lives of the protagonists. Dimple’s involvement with Akshaye Khanna in DCH and with Amol Mhatre in Leela have been depicted as transitory events. As a widow, Deepti Naval’s romance with her paying guest in Freaky Chakra too is portrayed as a fleeting fancy.

Here, art may not be totally imitating life. In real life, there have been instances in the past of a university student tying the knot with his older teacher or a smitten patient ardently wooing a senior lady doctor. But they were stray occurrences, few and far between. With changing times and attitudes, couples with an inverse chronological equation are a burgeoning tribe.

Showbiz has, of course, always taken a lead, or even shown the way, in these matters. Whether it was Nargis and Sunil Dutt or Amrita Singh and Saif Ali and among the new kids on the block it is Vivek Oberoi and fiancee Gurpreet, celebrities have openly defied the age norms. Among other renowned figures there are Amrita Pritam and Imroz, Sachin Tendulkar and his doctor spouse Anjali, former queen of ramp Mehr Jesia and model-actor Arjun Rampal, to name a few. Even in defence circles, a commanding officer’s bored wife running away and marrying the dashing young adjutant is not unheard of.

Sachin Tendulkar and Anjali
Sachin Tendulkar and Anjali

The rank and file may have been slow in reversing the age hierarchy that has for centuries defined the husband-wife relationship, but the change is there to be seen. There are bachelors who care two hoots if the woman they love and wish to marry is an older widow or a much senior colleague with a failed marriage. And there are women who take pride in loving and being loved by more sensitive, broad-minded younger guys. Older, maturer women are cherished and sought after like old wine by men who possesses the youth and effervescence of a freshly distilled brew and the twain do blend to make the cocktail of marriage.


Amrita Singh
Amrita Singh

What then is the dynamics of these relationships? Are the older woman-younger man marriages like the traditional, run-of-the-mill alliances? Are they more stable and do they enjoy a greater vitality?

Though there were couples willing to openly discuss their relationship, there was a rider attached by some: Please don’t disclose our identities. With due respect to their sense of privacy, this unwillingness to come out in the open may be a telling comment about the social stigma that is still attached to these marriages. What more can one say when one husband makes his older wife and colleague take compulsory retirement years before the due time just to avoid snide remarks? What can be more indicative of the antipathy towards an older female than the fact that a business family blamed the father’s heart attack on the son’s desire to marry a friend a few years senior? the trick worked, the guy backed off !

But one person who withstood all opposition and disregarded hypocritical age considerations is Subroto, a 25-year-old correspondent for a foreign publication. Recalls he, "Of course, all hell broke loose when I made my intentions to wed a widow with three kids known." Taunts flew from friends and family. "Oh, she’s just a sex-starved widow out to hook a guy"... "Hey buddy, not only is she not a virgin, she’s borne three daughters"..."You can get the best of girls, why marry her?"...and so on.

 Vivek Oberoi and Gurpreet
Vivek Oberoi and Gurpreet

Such skepticism is not surprising in a society fed on victorian and patriarchal notions, wherein a younger woman is still a prized catch, a trophy on the man’s arm. If a man on the verge of the male ‘menopause’ gets a wife junior enough to be his daughter it is not thought irregular. But if an older woman gets betrothed to a lad even a decade junior she is frowned upon as an over-the-hill-spinster out to ensnare an innocent boy. and the guy’s noble intentions are simplistically dismissed as a need for mothering.

It was to save Shalini and her kids from this kind of character assassination that Subroto went right ahead to solemnise their love at a quiet ceremony. And as if to belie all those accusations of cradle-snatching that were levelled against his 12-year-older partner, he points out that in fact she was the one who had reservations about entering into matrimony with him. "But I couldn’t think of life without them. I just fell in love with the kids and her,", he says, reminiscing about the days when he first met the mother-kids team at a cultural workshop. "Her kids had a freaky time with me. We used to practise for plays or just slip away for a pizza despite their mom’s strict no-no!" he chuckles with glee.

Well, well, it seems that the yawning inverse age gap between the spouses makes him the child-man in the relationship. "Sure, my wife thinks I’m her fifth kid, now that we have a son too", he says in affirmation. Before I can tease him about needing a mother figure, he adds with disarming candour, "Yes, in many ways she’s maturer, especially where money matters are concerned. But I’m more street smart than her and can deal better with the big, bad world outside."

Does this mean that the pledge to "love, honour and obey" that a woman takes in a conventional older husband-younger wife marriage gets reversed in these cases? Being the senior marital partner, does the woman become the ‘man of the house’, the final deciding authority? Or is she on the defensive, forever careful about not letting the husband feel ‘less’ about himself?

Explains Mohini Sharma, who retired as Principal of Government College for Girls, Sector 11, Chandigarh, recently, "Whenever I’m in the wrong, my husband doesn’t mince words in telling me so. I don’t act school marmish by insisting that I have the last word. Otherwise, we take all decisions jointly." In a lighter vein, she adds, "If he wants to go for a vacation to the hills and I to the seas and we don’t seem to agree, we just defer the holiday. Or better still, we let the kids decide."

Opines Sohrab, younger to her by two years, "Age has nothing whatsoever to do with compatibility or understanding." A follower of the Baha’i sect, he firmly believes that a man and woman are flowers of the same garden and hence equal. It was the quiet sense of dignity of this English teacher that had impressed Sohrab when they first met at a common friend’s house while it was his straightforwardness and willingness to help even rank strangers that appealed to her.

Ironically, on the flip side, a man who is attracted to an older woman because she is highly independent and in complete command of things may resent this very control after marriage. as is the case with Reena, a doctor with a roaring private practice, and her lawyer husband Jayant. when the two first met, Jayant was struggling to find his feet in the legal profession while Reena was already a well-established name in her field, highly autonomous and self-reliant. His initial fascination for these very qualities became an affront for his male ego when post-marriage, he found her calling the shots. Ditto for Reena. Drawn by his carefree nature, soon after marriage she realised that this very bindaas attitude translated into irresponsibility on the domestic turf. when single, she was used to wearing the pants. But after the wedding she expected him to play the man of the house and take charge of chores like procuring a gas cylinder or paying the bills. During courtship it was flattering for her that he was so much in awe of her status and standing, but later his job struggle and erratic pay packets made him a sucker in her eyes when they set up home together. But not every younger husband abdicates responsibility. The equation is usually symbiotic. Heaping praise on her husband, Mohini Sharma raves, "Sohrab has never had chauvanistic hang-ups about helping in the house. He cooks so well and attends to the home and garden with such enthusiasm."

Interestingly, some of these couples actually belie the usual explanation for these inverse-age attractions: Oh, the man must be in the grip of the Oedipus complex or he must be in need of mothering. In fact, such theories are nothing but generalisations and over-simplistic explanations for individual choices. And contrary to popular perception, the older wives are quite an antithesis of the matronly figure.

This myth is best demolished by Anjali and Tony, who are not only colleagues in a PSU but also partners for life now. They met first when Anjali was going through a traumatic marriage and he arrived in their office, very much the fancy free and footloose bachelor. But he hardly found her boss-like and would in fact confide about his girlfriends to her. So full of life was she that it never struck him that she was 10 years older nor did his attraction for her wane on knowing that she was much-married. Once she put her bad marriage behind her, their friendship blossomed into love. Now, four years of courtship, marriage and a three-month-old son later, they’re very much a fun couple. And she is far from the mother figure. "Rather I’m the one who’s often childish and Tony is down to earth and maturer of the two. I’m so impulsive, his is the stabilising effect in our relationship." And she should know best , having had a taste of both—an older man earlier who was callow and abusive and a younger one now, who is highly sensitive and caring.

And far from being intimidated by an older woman or being in awe of her greater stature, professionally or personally, these guys have in fact gained from their wives’ experience and wisdom, substantiating the belief that bari gharwali is bare bhagwali. Subroto lends credence to this belief, "Shalini has such a seasoned mind whereas I can be really stupid at times. Her wisdom enriches our relationship."

This synergy permeates the physical relationship of these couples as well. True, there are insecurities: when the wrinkles begin to appear the woman does fear losing the guy to a younger, more attractive woman. And the guy may be plagued by the anxiety of being thought of more as a bachcha and less of a man. But surprise of surprises, there is a unique positivity that enlivens their chemistry. The older woman’s poise and sensuality, as opposed to a sweet sixteen’s giggliness, hold allure for a younger man. Similarly, a junior guy’s energy, sense of adventure and willingness to please, as against a jaded and boring older man’s sense of complacency, lends a freshness and vitality to their relationship.

"When a middle-aged woman is wooed by someone junior it is flattering for her vanity. The kind of attention a younger man can shower makes her feel desirable," maintains a journalist who has lived with a guy five years younger.

Confides Anjali, "Initially, I was skeptical of what would happen once the first flush of romance faded. Here I was on the wrong side of 30, with menopause a breath away. I wondered whether Tony, the incorrigible flirt that he is, would be able to resist the amorous overtures of younger girls. But I drew immense confidence from the folk tales about Krishna’s love for Radha." Tony is quick to add, "In fact, I should be worried about her being enticed by a better man (laughs). Yes, I do eye other women, but nobody compares closely enough with my wife," he asserts proudly.

These sentiments are echoed by Subroto, "Shalini is so much a part of my fantasies that even if I find another girl beautiful I end up comparing her with Shalini and sure, nobody measures up to her." And in a gesture of laudable maturity, devoid of any insecurity, he has put up a large photograph of Shalini’s first husband in their home—to reassure her that to treasure her present she doesn’t have to negate her past.

When love speaks such a refreshingly vibrant language age certainly becomes an inconsequential number. When compatibility is the common thread little does it matter who stands on which side of the age graph. What is needed is a love that can look at the golden heart behind the faint traces of wrinkles or the first shades of grey in the hair and a pair of eyes that can see the seasoned mind behind the boyish visage!