At age 12, Milind Soman fell in love. She didn’t love him. At least he thought she didn’t. He couldn’t know for sure, he hadn’t asked. At 17, she did love him. Why he loved her he did not know. And why she loved him back was a mystery even greater. When they split, he mourned her.

This cycle was to repeat itself. He fell in love. He fell out of love. He got married. He got divorced. Along the way, he became first a national swimming champion and then one of the country’s most well-known models and a sex symbol. He met thousands of women. So many were beautiful—he could tell, objectively, that they were gorgeous, had great bodies, were sexy—yet most didn’t attract him. The few that did, he still couldn’t explain why they did, or why he attracted them.

At 48, he stood in a dark corner of a nightclub. He rarely went to them. This was an obligatory short visit, and he stood in the shadows, hoping he wouldn’t be noticed. But noticed he was, by many—but only one mattered. He saw her; she came up and met him. The same flutter in the heart, like when he was 12. The same inexplicability as to what drew them together.

At 50, what? Soman has been with the woman he met in that nightclub for two years now—her details concealed from us, the details of her allure concealed from him. He still enjoys this mystery. But he does understand far more now, about himself, about what he wants to receive, and what he can give.

“At 50, you have learnt to accept yourself, and that helps you also understand and accept your partner better," he says, sitting at the Café Coffee Day near Shivaji Park, in Mumbai.

A fairly obvious observation. Obvious to observe, but not always easy to practise. For often, what you have to accept about yourself is not what is considered widely acceptable. Soman had to accept that perhaps he was not cut out for settling down, the way we expect our good boys and girls to.

“I’ve learnt that I’m unpredictable and unstable, not emotionally, but in terms of my lifestyle. I don’t have a job. I don’t have a career. I travel a lot. I like to experience different things."

In the past few years, Soman has been concentrating on his passion for fitness. He ran the Ironman in Zurich, Switzerland, last year, has appeared in television shows about running and has been spreading awareness about breast cancer through the women’s marathon Pinkathon. He has acted in and produced films sporadically, but he has “no goals". He is one of the few people in the entertainment industry who is happy to say he has nothing lined up in terms of work or projects—and enjoys the feeling.

“I don’t have a pattern in my life. That makes me a great boyfriend because it’s exciting. But I may not make a great husband."

It all sounds a bit devil-may-care. The kind of thing a 20-year-old may say to a woman at a bar right before running his hand through his slicked back hair and casually flicking his Zippo open on his faded jeans.

But Soman does not betray any machismo as he speaks of his realizations. At 50, he has become set in his ways. And his ways happen to shoot off in different directions, pulling away from the anchor that a home and family would come to represent if he chose to have them.

His marriage to French actor Mylène Jampanoï did not work out because of the physical distance between them—she lived in Paris and he, in Mumbai. “She wanted us to live together, but somehow that didn’t work out quickly enough," he explains. “There was nothing I could do. So I had to go through that heartbreak."

But he still believes that one can last forever, even in his case, with all his unpredictability. “The girl I’m with right now actually likes my restlessness. She accepts that I may be in one place today and a different one tomorrow, or doing one thing today and something else tomorrow. In fact, she’s a bit like that (the two live in separate cities).

“When you grow older, you realize that all that matters is the connection between two people. What the other person’s dreams are, what they do, what they want to be, that’s their business and you have to give them space for that."

In his 20s, Soman had no idea what he wanted. Feelings rushed through him without offering much explanation for their presence. Sex was the No.1 thing on his mind. “I don’t even think you have a mind at that age." If he had 20 options, he was confused between all of them.

At 50, Soman knows exactly what he wants and how to get it. The sex? It is not as much of a priority. “There are so many other things you are interested in. So many thoughts and ideas to discuss, so many experiences to have, so many things to explore."

It is easier, though. “At this age, you’re completely comfortable with yourself. I would never feel awkward walking into a bedroom with a woman now. But, at 20, I would be worried about so many things: What is she going to think, will she like me, do I have any body odour, should I take my clothes off or leave them on?"

There are a lot of women who would quite like to walk, un-awkwardly, into a bedroom with Soman. Ever since he appeared shirtless in the video for Alisha Chinai’s hit song Made In India, in 1995, and then shed the rest of his garments for a Tuff shoes advertisement—which had him and then girlfriend Madhu Sapre locking arms and legs through the twists of a python—hundreds of women across the country have been infatuated with him. Not perhaps the most comfortable scenario for the women he ends up dating.

Jealousy is something everyone, whether they date someone famous or not, deals with at one time or another. But it wears off with age, Soman says. Now, he is comfortable even if a woman he is with flirts with other men. “That may be part of who she is. Once you accept yourself, you also allow your partner to be who she is. Maybe she likes to flirt, she likes to play that game, but it just remains there. If I don’t like it, I have to deal with it. I have to understand that flirting is nothing; it’s just giving her the same pleasure someone else might get from eating a cake."

Soman sounds Zen-like in his approach to love. Heartbreak, divorce and jealousy are all spoken of casually, like ephemeral incidents in a 50-year journey. But the girls he has dated have usually been much younger than him. Jampanoï was about 15 years his junior, Goswami 21 years, and his current girlfriend is much younger too. “The generation gap does play a bit of a role," he admits. “There is a gap in experience. Sometimes, you feel like you know everything. But different generations have different perspectives. Their imagination is in a different space. And you can learn from that. But you have to have a shared vision and an open mind."

His mind is still open. Clear, on what he wants from life and what he can deliver in a relationship, but open to where a relationship could go within the contours of his own personality. “Right now, I’m taking this relationship as it goes. I don’t have any expectations of it following any particular path. She might want to get married, have kids…. We haven’t discussed it yet, but I’m open to talking about anything."

The most important thing is that every time he sees her, every time he speaks to her, there is a spark, just like there was when he first fell in love.

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