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Changing attitudes benefit India’s aging spinsters

A new trend for live-in partners is gaining popularity

Changing attitudes benefit India’s aging spinsters

Bharti Rana attends a meeting in search of a live-in partner (picture: Ritu Sharma)

Ritu Sharma, Kanpur

May 14, 2014

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Dressed in a neat sari and with her hair tied tightly in a bun, 55-year-old Bharti Rana shyly sits on a chair in a crowded room, carefully adjusting the tag tied just below her shoulder. The 55-year-old had never thought that she would one day sit among more than 100 senior citizens also seeking a live-in partner.

Rana and the others are part of an event called Jeevan Saathi Sammelan, which translates roughly as “life partner gathering”. It is one element of an emerging trend among single Indian adults aged over 50 who are looking for someone to share the rest of their lives with, without the burdens that accompany marriage. Attendees are mainly divorced and widowed men and women unnerved by the prospect of growing old alone.

“My husband died three years ago and my two children are settled in life. Though my job keeps me busy throughout the day, I need someone at home. Sometimes the loneliness weighs too heavy on me,” Rana says.

Live-in relationships, although not illegal, are still considered socially and morally improper in India, particularly in rural areas away from the modernizing cities. Others however see hope in the emerging trend.

“Earlier, I always criticized youngsters living together without marriage,” says Neeru Panjal, 55. “I never liked the idea of living like this. For me, marriage has always been the ideal way of committing to someone.”      

The death of her husband was the trigger for a shift in Panjal’s attitude. “I have slowly understood that there is nothing wrong with staying with a person who provides you moral and emotional support," she says.

“You don’t necessarily have to be married to that person. We should go with the flow, follow modern trends."

As more educated young Indians migrate overseas and to other cities looking for better work, more elders are pushed into loneliness in the cities, said Natwarlal G Patel, who organized the May 11 gathering in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh in north India.

Some commit suicide because of loneliness, some are murdered for their property and some go into depression.

Patel heads a voluntary organization called Vina Mulya Amulya Sewa (Invaluable Service), based in the western Indian state of Gujarat. It has been organizing similar events across the country for the last 11 years, bringing elderly people together to chat, play games and select a person they feel is suitable to spend their life with.

"The mindset of the people is changing gradually. Those who once used to shun the idea are themselves coming in search of a suitable partner,” he says.

The 2001 earthquake in Gujarat left many devastated and a lot of people lost their spouses during the calamity.

“The pain, grief and loneliness of these people inspired me to introduce this idea to them but it was not easy because social systems do not support it,” he says. But now children of the widows and widowers are "coming forward to look for a suitable partner" for their parents in such events.

More than 60 couples have so far met through his programs and are still happily together. “Some took it a step further and got married and some are living-in happily.”

Indu Vaijani, 76, attended one such program after his wife died and his children moved on with their lives. He has now lived happily with his live-in partner Sharda in their home in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, for nine years. I liked her views and lifestyle,” he says of Sharda. Both their respective families are supportive of the decision, they say.

Yet there remains a taboo about female participation in these meetings. “The number of women in our events is generally less,” says Patel. “They still cannot come out openly and even if they come, they make sure that their family does not come to know of it.”

Pallavi Tomar, a Delhi-based clinical psychologist, says that Indians are very "family-oriented" and many believe such a move would offend their families.

“Living together without marriage is generally seen as a lack of commitment, and looked down upon as a relationship merely for sexual pleasure,” she says.

She adds, though, that companionship is important in old age to fulfill emotional needs, and welcomes elders opting for live-in relations as "a nice step forward".

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