Who's afraid of 50?

| Updated on: Jan 13, 2011
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These women's fear of turning 50 seems to belong to an era long past.

Bulbul Sharma's women are interesting, diverse… meek, tame, intelligent, rebellious, and the like. But they have one thing in common… all of them are fifty, or about to cross that important milestone.

But the different ways in which each woman looks at this stage of her life, setting off on a voyage of self-discovery, makes the book Now that I'm 50 (Women Unlimited), a compilation of short stories, an absorbing read.

Madhu, in Birthday Surprise , is the brilliant housewife who can arrange a dinner for 20 at an hour's notice, arrange flowers, cut fruits in intricate patterns, “coax her old cook never to go on leave, detect the smallest fudging of household accounts by just sniffing the air in the kitchen,” and wins a prize for her garden every year.

But this smart housewife is at a loss when her husband, Jeevan, takes her to Pattaya in Thailand to celebrate her 50th birthday. From the balcony of her hotel room that overlooks the street, she is amazed to find “so many foreign men who seemed to have Thai wives”.

Jeevan spends most of his time with his business accomplice, visiting watch factories. During the long lonely spells in her room, she starts wondering about her existence. “Who was she? What had she done with her life? What had she really done for herself?” She was no longer excited at the “heavy gold necklace with an ugly diamond cluster pendant — yet another tedious surprise — (that was) sitting silently in his suitcase glittering away silently, waiting to surprise her in the morning.”

She is amazed at his transformation from his “usual sleepy self” to an excited man whose skin is glowing “as if it had been polished with oil”. What unfolds initially shakes this efficient woman from her depths, but she rebounds to cope with the crisis and, in the process, discovers the world of the Thai girls who inhabit the house with the red door, which can be seen from her balcony.

Then there is Nimmi in Should She, Or Shouldn't She ? with her life dictated by her husband, Mohan; even after 30 years of marriage, “a wave of panic rose in her stomach when he turned his bulging green eyes on her with some diktat or the other. The dog and the mother get much better treatment from him than she does. His toast had to be right and ready just when he came to the table. “The fruit was cut by Nimmi but placed on his plate by his mother. He had very light tea with just two drops of milk, and Nimmi's hand sometimes shook when she had to pour the milk.” An extra half-drop got an admonition.

Sometimes she thinks if “she dropped dead right now on this polished dining table surrounded by tarnished salt cellars, no one would notice for weeks.” Her mother-in-law would blame it on the lousy dowry she brought, and Mohan would curse her for making a mess and scratching the fine table as she fell on it!

One fine day she decides to just walk out, and what happens forms the rest of the story.

Strangers in the Park is about the timid and conservative Sudha's meeting with Ranjit, an interesting man, in the Lodi Gardens where she walks daily. Defying her disapproving friends and family — her husband died 10 years ago — she becomes his friend.

Malti, in Fifty Phobia , is trim and beautiful, and armed with the power of ‘good food thought', fills her world with diet cokes, chopped cucumber and carrots, celery and bean sprouts and boiled chicken. She is obsessed about her workouts and meditation and massage regimen, looks like 30 instead of 50 and is terrified of aging. She'd “rather die than be like those fat, old women with grey hair and puffy faces. No one looked at old women, they could be part of the furniture”.

The stories are related simply and matter-of-factly without much flourish, and will certainly touch a raw spot or nerve in women who read them. Bulbul's characters are not extraordinary… most of them are ordinary women and, unfortunately, remain ordinary even in their depiction. The collection is a quick and interesting read, but the excessive phobia of the women who hit the 50-mark is exaggerated. In an era when women embark on interesting journeys well beyond 50, and where Shobhaa De can pen an entire book, even though with trite narrative, Shobaa at Sixty , these women's fear of turning 50 seems to belong to an era long past.

This is an easy book to read, but unfortunately none of the characters are powerful enough to be remembered after you've flipped through the pages. A very ordinary offering from Women Unlimited, an associate of Kali for Women, so well known for its books with powerful gender themes.

Published on January 13, 2011

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