The time of their lives: For some women age is just a number - Hindustan Times

The time of their lives: For some women age is just a number

Apr 07, 2024 10:53 AM IST

Life expectancy is up finds a new Lancet report. But for some women, it’s not just about living longer but also living better…

For the first nine decades of her life, Prabhavati Bhagwati had focused on bringing up her daughters and being a supportive wife.

Prabhavati Bhagwati: Living her best life at 97
Prabhavati Bhagwati: Living her best life at 97

Even after his retirement as chief justice of India, her husband, P.N. Bhagwati had remained busy and active and she had remained busy and active along with him.

Then at 91, newly widowed, she was suddenly at a loose end. The daughters were established in their careers – the eldest, Parul is a doctor in the US, her second, Pallavi, a leading corporate lawyer and her youngest, Sonali, an interior designer. There was so much time and so little to do.

Her foray into business came quite by accident. Sonali’s friend Sailaja Tahiliani was hosting a party and wanted to serve something different. What if, she asked Sonali, she sent a couple of platters? Would her mother prepare the Gujarati snacks, khandvi and dhokla, she was famous for? There was a condition though. Sailaja insisted on paying.

That is how Nani’s Nashta was born. “There was no looking back, the orders just kept coming,” laughs Prabhavati, now 97. “It was all word of mouth.”

In 2019 when the pandemic arrived, business boomed. Families were stuck at home. Staff and helpers who ensure households run smoothly couldn’t get to work. Women were working from home. Kids were studying online. And everyone wanted three meals a day.

Since Prabhavati lives on her own—Sonali is a few floors up in the same building—her helpers stay with her. Moreover, living in a large, gated building complex meant there were no delivery hassles within the complex at least.

“Everybody was calling to place an order. So, we expanded the menu and introduced new items,” she says. The core speciality – Gujarati vegetarian – remained. It’s what gives her an edge in a business where she says she has no competition in Delhi. And even now, she personally washes and cuts the vegetables while a team of three, a cook, a helper and a manager, takes the orders and executes them.

“I’ve always loved feeding people and have been cooking for 30 years. The only difference is that earlier I was known as someone’s wife or mother. Now, I’m known as the person who runs ‘Nani’s Nashta’,” she says.

Longer, better, stronger

Zeenat Aman, Bhagwani Devi Dagar, Indira Jaising and Romila Thapar
Zeenat Aman, Bhagwani Devi Dagar, Indira Jaising and Romila Thapar

There has been considerable attention on India’s ageing demographic. While we are now the world’s most populous nation, beating China, India’s elderly population is predicted to double to 29.8% of the total population by 2050, finds the India Ageing Report 2023 by the United Nations Population Fund and the International Institute for Population Sciences.

It's not just that people are living longer, it’s also that they are living better and more productive lives.

There’s a caveat though: Over 40% are in the poorest wealth quintile and this level of poverty will undoubtedly affect quality of life and access to healthcare.

But for those who are lucky to be better placed, life is good. Partly it is to do with increasing lifespan. A new study published in The Lancet finds that across the world, people in 2021 lived on average 6.2 years longer than they did in 1990. In India, life expectancy had increased by 7.9 years in the past three decades.

And partly it’s the determination by individual women to go against the grain of how society expects women in general, and women-of-a-certain-age in particular to behave.

As with many female actors of her generation, Zeenat Aman took a break from her career after her marriage in 1985. In 2013, she told Hindustan Times that the death of her husband, Mazhar Khan had left her as a single mother who “needed to plan my life with my children.”

Then, in 2023, aged 71, she made her Instagram debut and has, since, dispensed wisdom and humour to 730,000 followers. Reflecting on her first year on Instagram, she posted earlier this year that the experience had been ‘transformative’. “It showed me the possibilities of being true to myself, publicly,” she said.

Pushpa Keya Bhatt, now 67, began running long distance at the age of 58 after retiring from corporate life. She is determined to spend the rest of her life doing the things she wants to, she says. Such as running the challenging 72 km stretch at Khardung La mountain pass in Ladakh. Twice.

Chandro Tomar, the ‘shooter dadi’ from Baghpat, Uttar Pradesh who died in 2021 at 89, was a sharpshooter who learned to shoot in her 60s and went to win more than 30 national champions well into her 80s.

And at 94, Bhagwani Devi Dagar brought home a bronze medal in shot put at the World Masters Athletics Championship in 2022 in Finland. The championship is designed for athletes over the age of 35 and is divided into five-year age groups.

Some careers, writing, for instance, lend themselves to longevity. Earlier this year, historian Romila Thapar, 91, published a new book, Our History, Their History, Whose History?. Translator, academic and author Aruna Chakravarti last year also published a collection of stories, Through a Looking Glass that captures the lives and stories of women.

At 83, senior advocate Indira Jaising shows no sign of slowing down and remains as feisty as ever, her passion for human rights and gender equality inside and out of the courtroom undimmed. "Mentally, I have never been brighter and spiritually I am far more content," she told me on the phone. "I plan to die on my feet, inside a courtroom, fighting for justice."

Just a number

At 78, Devi Kar is finally planning her retirement a year from now. “I’ve always worked. I don’t know of any other life,” she said.

Kar’s career in teaching began when she was still a student and asked to fill in for a teacher who was on leave. Nearly 60 years later, teaching has not just given her great joy but also a sense of self-worth. “In Kolkata teachers are still revered. Many of my students are now grandmothers and they still keep in touch. I feel so rewarded,” she says. But equally, she says, it's her students who have kept her young, cheerful and hopeful. "There's no space for cynicism," she says.

Kar remains hands-on as the executive director at two schools, Modern High School for Girls and Modern High School International—where she informs me that an equally active Nirmala Birla, the chairperson, is 88.

Although she is completely hands on, she says she has informed the board that she wants to step down a year from now after ensuring a smooth transition to her successor. What will she do then? Spend more time with her husband; continue to travel every year to New York to be with her daughter; continue to write columns and op-eds for various publications.

“There’s something new to learn every day. Something new to look forward to,” she says.

The following article is an excerpt from this week's Mind the Gap. Subscribe here.

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