Given the position that elders hold in our society, be it as parents or teachers or political leaders, you would imagine that, traditionally, we do not participate in the cult of the young and lovely. In the stories that we valorize and tell over and over again, age takes precedence over beauty, wisdom is more important than energy. But despite the apparent respect we have for older people, we don’t have many stories about how people age in love and in togetherness or how they adjust to a world that changes around them. Our love stories, Nala and Damayanti, Savitri and Satyavan, Rama and Sita, are all about young people, their love in its first rosy flush, their romance in its first delicate bloom. Heer-Ranjha, Laila-Majnu are interrupted by death before they can be reunited and grow old together. They remain forever young, forever in love.

In Sanskrit stories, lovers are almost always described in formulaic phrases that translate as “endowed with youth and beauty". We rarely hear about them as older people who have learnt that the rose has thorns, that there is a pain not only in separation but in love itself. Of course, we do not expect the gods to age, but we know nothing of how mortal lovers in these stories age together. We don’t even know if they age like us, with grey hair and wrinkles and creaky bones. The universe of “story literatures" tends to be more realistic in terms of older people falling in love. But the older woman who falls in love with a younger man, even if she is a courtesan, becomes a laughing stock while the older man besotted with his young wife (who is usually cuckolding him) is mocked gently. In our myths, though, it is possible for a younger woman to be paired with an older man: Ahalya and Gautama come immediately to mind. One might think also of the apsara Menaka, eternally “endowed with youth and beauty", who is sent to seduce the possibly much older Vishwamitra. Neither of these couples grew old together: Gautama turned his young and lovely wife into a stone because she had sought a more attractive lover and Vishwamitra abandoned both Menaka and their daughter in his quest for ascetic superiority.

Where we do encounter husbands and wives growing old together is in the Ramayan and the Mahabharat. The epics remain silent on how old people actually are—we calculate through other indications that Rama is about 16 when he marries Sita and that he is about 24 when he goes into exile. The hyperbolic Bala Kanda of Valmiki’s Ramayan tells us that Dasharatha is 60,000 years old when his children are born, but in the more reasonable and realistic Ayodhya Kanda, when Dasharatha is ready to crown young Rama, he tells the assembled kings that he wants to give up his duties because he “has grown old in the shadow of the royal umbrella". Although Dasharatha has three wives, it is clear that in these later years of his life, it is Kaikeyi who has the king’s heart. Kaikeyi summons Dasharatha after his proclamation of Rama’s coronation. Innocent of the cataclysm that awaits him, he enters the room and sees her lying on the floor. “He caressed her gently, with deep humility, as a tusker might stroke his mate who has been injured by a hunter’s arrow. The lovelorn king spoke anxiously...“Could I have displeased you in any way?...Is there anything I can do to make you happy? Would you like an innocent man punished? Or a guilty man set free? I will do anything you ask, even give up my life!"...Dasharatha, who was held completely in thrall by his younger wife, smiled and said, “...You know how much I love you. Ask me for anything and lift my heart from the depths of despair. I swear by all the merit I have earned for my good deeds that I shall do whatever you ask!" Dasharatha, the noble, wise and just king, is willing to stake his reputation in this world and his merit in the next world just to keep his young wife happy. Perhaps because it is with her that he feels young and loved, a man rather than a king.

The king’s infatuation appears to be a well-known fact in the palace, judging from Lakshmana’s reaction to the news of Rama’s exile. He says to Kaushalya, “I do not like the fact that Rama has to give up the kingdom and go into the forest because of a woman’s whim. The king is old and senile and succumbs to his lust. Who knows what he might say in the throes of passion!"

Kaushalya, Dasharatha’s senior wife and royal consort, is painfully aware of her own place in the king’s life and heart. When Rama tells her that he is going into exile, Kaushalya is devastated. She says, “Earlier, too, I had neither the good fortune nor the happiness of being my husband’s favourite. But I waited for the joy that would arise from the birth of a son. Though I am superior to all the king’s other wives, I have had to tolerate many remarks from them that have wounded me deeply. Whose sorrow could be greater than mine? I have been insulted while you are still here. Imagine what will happen when you are gone!"

Sumitra, the mother of the twins, Lakshmana and Shatrughna, is practically non-existent in the story and it is to Kaushalya that Dasharatha turns when Rama leaves the city. As the three queens lead him back into the palace, he lashes out at Kaikeyi, “Do not touch me, you wicked creature. I never wish to set eyes on you again! Henceforth, you are neither my wife nor even a member of my family!" Later, he asks to be taken to Kaushalya’s chambers, where he says to her, “Kaushalya, touch me, I cannot see you. My eyes which followed Rama have not yet returned to me." Kaushalya sat beside the grieving king and wept softly.

Dasharatha’s last days are filled with a tenderness for a wife he never loved but who stood by him despite that. Kaushalya’s bitterness is eased somewhat by the fact that her husband eventually died in her arms, rejecting the other woman to whom he had previously surrendered in every way. As with Gandhari and Dhritarashtra in the Mahabharat, the ageing king and queen in the Ramayan come together with resignation rather than love, with an acceptance that one’s old age should be spent with familiars, if not beloveds, with a weary gratitude rather than with a remembered passion. They mourn the loss of their children together, a bond that far exceeds any other infatuation or distraction. After the bloody war is over in the Mahabharat, Kunti walks with Gandhari and Dhritarashtra towards a blazing forest and we assume that all three are consumed in those flames. Dasharatha dies soon after Rama’s departure but Kaushalya is reinstated as the Queen Mother after his death.

This picture of how people spend their later years is not the most exciting. But set this against the prescription of vanaprastha, the forest life suggested for those who have fulfilled their worldly responsibilities—married off their children, paid their debts, settled their dues, both karmic and temporal—and perhaps the lack of continued romance has a larger context. Older people retire from domesticity and while they might continue to live together, their focus shifts away from each other. Layer this further with the ideal of asceticism and celibacy and you can imagine that older people are certainly expected to turn away from each other’s physicality and sublimate whatever sexual desire they might have had for each other. Rama and Sita meet many sages and their wives during their time in the forest. These virtuous couples live simple lives in peaceful communities, with other people like themselves, their days and nights punctuated by the rituals of fasting and praying. The sages are wise and mellow (unlike Durvasa, Narada and Vishwamitra, who are not married), their wives are gentle, providing succour as well as companionship. While the setting for their lives might be idyllic, it might even be an appropriate preparation for the great journey ahead, it is anything but romantic.

It’s probably worthwhile to remember that what we find in the Hindu epics and Sanskrit literature are descriptions of upper-caste lives and loves, pertaining to Brahmins and Kshatriyas primarily, and perhaps a merchant or two. Our robust folk tales, which come from across the spectrum of caste, class and creed, possibly speak of a more lively future for those of us who continue to love and lust into our old age.

Arshia Sattar is an author and translator whose favourite mythological romance is that of Savitri and Satyavan.

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