Love & Loss | Women Uninterrupted podcast - Season 4, Episode 5

Silver & Single

Updated - October 16, 2023 05:01 pm IST

Published - October 13, 2023 05:20 pm IST

Conversations about singlehood in the silver years, on Women Uninterrupteda podcast by The Hindu.

Women Uninterrupted brings you difficult, different and uninterrupted conversations about being a woman. 

Host: Anna Thomas 

Guest: Aloka Sengupta

Title music: Maya Dwarka

Production: Anna Thomas, The Scribbling Pad

Blog: Sologamy Forever

Women Uninterrupted spoke to N S Yamuna, a theatre and advertising person, about being single over the ages.

Women Uninterrupted: In the first episode of this series, I had interviewed the author of a book called Status Single. She told me that she’d had a ceremony to mark her sologamy, affirming that she is self-partnered. 

Last year marked 50 years of your being single, a divorceaversary, as it’s now called.

Has the vocabulary around being single changed? What do you think of the single-positive movement that is trending right now?

N.S. Yamuna: I am not aware of the term - probably not common then. 

Women Uninterrupted: A movement in which people are rejecting traditional notions of marriage and embracing self-love…What was it like in 1972 when you first decided to be single?

N S Yamuna

N S Yamuna

Yamuna: Back then, it wasn’t really a common thing for a woman to be single. I got stared at most of the time and if I went to an event, I felt conspicuous. 

Women Uninterrupted: Did you encounter a lot of advice, inquisitiveness, and people asking why you were single?

Yamuna: No, only general gossip. There was a lot of curiosity about what I do with my time, who I am with, and so on, but I had two young children - so that served as a distraction. When I met mothers at school and at gatherings, children were a safe topic of conversation.

Women Uninterrupted: Did that affect you: when people made you feel conspicuous? What strategies did you use to make yourself keep going?

Yamuna: I suppose it must have affected me, but I just had to go on. I had a job and I got on with it.

Women Uninterrupted: Were you in theatre then, Yamuna?

Yamuna: Theatre has always been my hobby – really a second life. Advertising was my career, at that stage. 

Women Uninterrupted: Have you felt that attitudes towards singlehood have changed over the last 51 years? Do societal attitudes toward singles change at different stages of a single person’s life? Are there changes in the way people interact when you’re 30 and then at 40 - is it easier as you grow?

Yamuna: I’m not sure whether it’s easier, but I think one learns to ignore a lot of unnecessary stuff and get on with it as you grow older. But, you’re not - what’s the word for it - you’re not an eligible woman, for some reason, as you grow older and that makes it easier to deal with. When you are younger, you are swamped by people’s curiosity; they are all looking to see which way you are going. You know what I mean.

Women Uninterrupted: That is problematic: people trying to hook you up with men, after you become single…

Yamuna: No, they were not hooking me up, in the sense of match making, but watching to see who I was hooking up with. 

Women Uninterrupted: So, they were trying to slot you in ‘character’, so to speak…It’s not that they were trying to find you a partner. 

Yamuna: Definitely not, I don’t think anyone was trying to be helpful! Curiosity got the better of them.

Women Uninterrupted: What would you say to someone who currently has young kids, and needs to leave her marriage? Any advice from you - who brought up two children as a single parent successfully, I presume. How do you make that decision to leave a marriage, to be a single mom?

Yamuna: The most important thing is to be absolutely financially independent. Unless you’re that, you are in deep trouble.

Women Uninterrupted: And emotionally?

Yamuna: If you are in a situation where you need to leave, and if you can manage without leaning on someone, then it’s a good thing to leave a deteriorating relationship. It’s important and healthier for everyone.

Women Uninterrupted: What are the advantages of being single and having no retired man at home right now?

Yamuna: Well, you don’t have to consult anybody for anything. Your time is your own. Otherwise, you would always be tethered to another person’s schedule.

Women Uninterrupted: Are there any challenges?

Yamuna: There’s loneliness and if that bothers you, it can be really difficult. A lot of women in my time, who were struggling to be single, hit the bottle; they found it hard to cope…yes, a lot of women went that way, or they took up with any man.

Women Uninterrupted: Did you rely on any support systems? Now, on the Internet, people find online support groups. In the 1970s and the ‘80s, did you rely on other women as a support system?

Yamuna: My three sisters were my best support system, and I had some very good friends. Besides, theatre was a wonderful support system, especially for the children. They grew up practically running around Museum Theatre in Chennai.

Women Uninterrupted: So, you would say that a hobby really helps.

Yamuna: Yes, a hobby, which gives you a sense of a community, which theatre provided for me.

Women Uninterrupted: How old were the children when you left your marriage?

Yamuna: I think they were seven and five.

Women Uninterrupted: Did they have any trouble as the children of a single mother?

Yamuna: I think they did, but in those days, one didn’t sit down and talk to children like we do now, and they didn’t question you as much as they would question you now. They went to school; there were theatre rehearsals, hobbies, friends coming home; they graduated from bicycles to scooters to cars and driving lessons. They were very good students, and exams came and went. Life was very full for all of us, so I never really sat down to ask them. I guess I tried my best to watch them and understand them intuitively.

Women Uninterrupted: Looking back at life as a single parent of two children, what would you do differently? What are the best decisions you made?

Yamuna: You know, I made a lot of solo decisions in my journey. Maybe they were right; maybe they were wrong. Maybe I hurt the children. Anyway, my children are successful, and have good marriages and lovely children, who in turn appear to have promising futures. In the end, that is all that matters. And I am so grateful for that.

Audio Transcript

This is the Women Uninterrupted podcast brought to you by The Hindu. This podcast is a space where we host difficult, different and uninterrupted conversations between women.

Anna Thomas aka Anu: Hello, I’m your host, Anna Thomas on Women Uninterrupted and this episode is part of a series on women and singlehood. I’m speaking today with Aloka Sengupta, a biotechnology professional, a content creator, a mother and a grandmother. Welcome, Aloka, to Women Uninterrupted. 

Aloka Sengupta: Thank you, Anu. Good evening, everyone. 

Anna: Thank you for agreeing to speak with me about love, loss, grief, and on becoming single by widowhood - a difficult conversation for everyone. A conversation that could be started even before it happens; a conversation between couples, perhaps? 

Aloka, you lost your husband during the pandemic, at the end of a possibly eventful journey together. Can I ask how many years were you together? How did you two meet? Tell us the story - a quick recap of your life as partners.

Aloka Sengupta

Aloka Sengupta

Aloka: We met almost 50 years ago - 49 years and a few days ago - at university. We studied together; we grew up together. We married; lived our lives together. So, 50 years is a long time to live together, Anu. And maybe I have a sense of anger or grouse because this is a small conversation we’ve had, that this is what we’re going to do on our 50th anniversary. And during the last few days, when he was unwell, he always said, “I promise you - we will celebrate our 50th anniversary together with champagne, and then I will go.” He didn’t make it - and sometimes more than sorrow, it’s a feeling of anger, which overwhelms me. 

Anna: When was your 50th?

Aloka: He passed away on 10th of January, 2021. My 50th anniversary was the 19th of January, 2021.

Anna: What makes you happy now - has your definition of happiness changed?

Aloka: Not really. The definition of happiness, I don’t think, changes.You do feel the loss which makes a difference in the intensity of feeling. You know, we’ve heard about phantom limb - after people amputate their limbs, and you feel that it’s there - that’s my biggest feeling now; that’s the biggest sensation. It’s like a phantom limb that you feel that is still there somewhere. And there are certain things you continue to do: I always slept on one side of the bed. I don’t move to the other end; I stay to that end. There are certain places at the dining table I sit at; I stick to that. There are certain glasses which are mine, and which are his - hasn’t changed. But, there’s a huge feeling of hollowness (after) you live together; that will never go away. Time, they say, is a great healer - it heals. The rawness of the wound disappears. But the wound remains. 

Anna: I’m sorry for that.

Would you say your day - what you do during the day - is that different now, after his passing? Is there a particular time of the day which is more difficult than others? 

Aloka: Yes, a few practices have changed. A small example: I used to have a very hurried breakfast, and move out with other chores of the day and/or go to work, or whatever. And now, my breakfast has become more elaborate, and a more leisurely breakfast. I used to spend a lot of time reading newspapers with him on the balcony, which has reduced. I tend to read with my meals now. 

And the time when I miss him most? The main time is evening, around seven/7:30. That’s when we used to have our drink together. And now, when I pour only one drink, and not two - I mean, for the first month, it was almost like an automatic habit. I would take two glasses, fill them with ice, pour a drink, and then realise, “Oh, why am I doing this?” It was like an involuntary action; then slowly one had to school oneself and not do that. So that’s the time I think, when I miss him most. 

And what do I miss about him? The frequent fights and squabbles, about which TV programme would one see. So, we have, if you notice, two TVs in the house, because the tastes were quite different; we were completely different, disparate kinds of people. So, it’s quite amazing how we managed to get along, possibly because we were so different.

Anna: Probably you had family friends; you have a family; you have a granddaughter - people who knew you together as a unit: these kinds of relationships. The frequency of meeting up with them - has that changed? What was it like the first time you went into a social gathering after you lost your husband?

Aloka: I think my closest friends and family have been very understanding. And they made sure that nothing really changed. There were very open conversations about how we missed him, or how he would have liked it particularly - he was a great foodie - so, how we would have liked this kind of food, or where he would have enjoyed a holiday. But they made sure that I did not feel the absence very much. And they never changed. That was one good thing. Some of them have actually come very close. My daughter has tried her best; stepped up very well - she and her husband - they used to be busy with their own lives. But now, they’ve made a lot more time for me. It’s very important to have family close by, and not far away, somewhere in the States or somewhere like that, where you see them once a year. So that’s been very, very important. 

Anna: Shout-out to your daughter here, if you’re listening!

Can I ask you, Aloka - is it possible to come to terms with losing a partner? How do you deal with that sort of grief?

Aloka: My advice is: It’s probably different when somebody passes away young in life unexpectedly, but as you get older - once you cross your 70s and things like that - I think it’s something that’s important that one should prepare for…and take it in your stride when it happens. Because it’s inevitable. Two people cannot go simultaneously; there will be a gap. It could be a long gap; it could be a short gap.

I’ve seen my mother do it when my father passed away. She lived for quite a few years after that. She used to go on a spree, buying saris and having her hair done, and things like that - never let it get her down because she was very sure that her state of depression would affect us. So for our sakes’, she continued to do whatever she used to do normally. I think that’s very important; that life has to go on. All of us will go one day. So, when it happens at the right time, be happy that they didn’t suffer too much. And move on. Things will change; some things you have to adapt to. But you have to move on in life; not keep looking back over your shoulder.

Anna: Did you continue working immediately after? 

Aloka: Yes. There was still COVID going on, so, immediately was a little difficult. But I got back to work as soon as possible. That has helped. I mean, the time I spent at work has reduced, but still. That continuity helps a lot. 

Anna: Have you picked up a new hobby; done something new? 

Aloka: I haven’t done anything new very much. Work is what keeps me happy. The hobbies have intensified, but they’re the same. I still do my crosswords and my writings, and my little blogs or whatever: I can continue to do that. I used to cook more often. That has reduced because the population in the house has reduced. The big foodie has gone so I don’t do that very often. But one thing which was done is: I think something we had deliberately planned. A lot of things, like bank accounts etc, etc., we had done it in joint name and things like that. A lot of friends stepped up to get those - because these were COVID times - to talk to the bank and make things work. So the financial transition was fairly smooth.

Anna: We should all be aware that we are at some time going to lose a partner. What are the papers you must put in an order? Where can one find support? What legal issues can you encounter? 

Aloka: I think it’s very important, for both, for the husband as well as the wife, because it can happen either way, to make respective wills and put them in places - how you’re going to divide your estate/property amongst family members is very important. In all things, like bank accounts, stock holdings, properties. There should always be a nominee for the movable properties, because without that, it becomes very difficult to do. So, it’s best to get your papers and everything in order, list out your assets, make a statement, and give it to somebody trustworthy - doesn’t have to be a lawyer; it has to be somebody known to you. Give it to them and leave it with them. And make wills. Make wills so that everything is clear. I mean, it’s not shameful. There’s nothing wrong. A lot of people don’t make wills, because, oh, how can I do that? It means I’m dying: that’s silly. It’s practical to do all that and put your papers in order - makes life much simpler. 

Anna: Did you two ever talk or prepare for the separation? Was it difficult bringing it up? Some people think it’s ashubh baath (inauspicious talk). 

Aloka: No, it was not ever thought of as ashubh baath. But, he was older and - I don’t know - this was some kind of a foregone conclusion that we had, that he would go first. I don’t know why we did that. But barring that “50th wedding anniversary, and you can’t do anything funny before that,” I don’t think we had a very open conversation. I think both of us knew it was inevitable. He made his will; I made my will. Both sides were, in practical terms, quite prepared.

You cannot be emotionally prepared. When it happens, it will happen. It also depends on how one passes away. He passed away very peacefully - in the sense he had his chicken curry rice and a drink, went to sleep and didn’t wake up, which was a fairly peaceful kind of thing. He had just come back from hospital but came back very happy, feeling, “I can have a drink now - I’ve had enough bisibele baath” kind of thing; died in a happy frame of mind, not cribbing about it. 

Anna: Is there anything that you did not expect would happen? What is the biggest change that you can tell us about - one big change…that took you unawares…

Aloka: One big change that took me unawares - I think everything, very honestly, Anu. Because in that sense, one never mentally prepares for it. One doesn’t plan - one plans the practical things ahead: this is what will happen to the estate/money or property or whatever. But what will I do?

The first few months were very tough. So I did go and spend a lot of time with my daughter to move away. I went to Delhi; spent a lot of time with my brother-in-law; he came here to spend a lot of time - that family support helped. But it’s not something you can prepare for or plan for in any way. So that was sort of, impulsive action - a reaction rather than a proactive approach. Anna: Thank you, Aloka. Thank you for sharing these thoughts. The idea is to open up conversations among women who have lost their partners and are struggling to make sense of it, to recognise that loss is inevitable and that it is prudent to be prepared in physical ways, at least. If you have lost your partner, and would like to share your thoughts on living life single after loss, email us at editor@thehindu.co.in. Signing off on this episode of Women Uninterrupted, a podcast where we host difficult, different and uninterrupted conversations, brought to you by The Hindu.

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