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The time of their life

Author: admin

Celebrating milestone birthdays and living each day ‘their way’, Tina Ambani and Shobhaa De share their learnings on love, relationships, age and attitude in conversation with Arati Rajan Menon

 
Energy. It’s everywhere. Infectious and irresistible, it crackles in the air and bounces off the walls. This is a special evening: Tina Ambani and Shobhaa De in front of the camera, framed by an ethereal Mumbai seascape, two livewires wearing their years with panache (and fame with incredible lightness), living life “our way”, and loving it. It’s also a special year: Tina turns 60 this month, Shobhaa turned 70 in January—and has written a cracker of a book, Seventy…And to Hell with It, to celebrate.

Their chemistry is palpable as they move in for a bear hug. “What a journey it’s been for us!” exclaims Tina, to which Shobhaa responds, “We really have come full circle.” Indeed. They first met at a South Mumbai boutique when Tina was 16 and Shobhaa 26 and “clicked” instantly; soon after, the glamorous model turned editor was directing Hindi cinema’s hottest new discovery for a magazine shoot; behind the lens was the iconic Gautam Rajadhyaksha (a dear friend they both miss “deeply”). “I was in awe of her when I first met her,” recalls Tina. “This was the Shobhaa!” For her part, Shobhaa was struck by Tina’s vivacity. “She was so unselfconscious and carefree,” she remembers. “It was a breath of fresh air to work with a star with no airs or tantrums, no nakhra.”

Over the years, this mutual admiration has only deepened. And while they cherish their roles as wives and mothers—Tina has two sons; Shobhaa, four daughters, two sons—it is immediately apparent that the greatest glue between them is their shared identity as working women. “It may sound politically incorrect but we could have both been trophy wives and done nothing but be decorative,” says Shobhaa. “However, we chose to carve our own identities. When you have opportunities and a brain, why not make the most of them?” Tina credits this in large part to their traditional but forward-thinking families: “They allowed us to break the mould.”

Today, Shobhaa, a best-selling author (of 20 books and counting), columnist, social commentator and opinion shaper with a Twitter following of over 2.5 million, making her a key media influencer, remains as prolific as ever. And Tina steers her initiatives in the areas of art, silver citizens and healthcare while overseeing the CSR activities of Reliance Group. However, their achievements and confessedly “privileged lives” aside, they are both quick to perceive the universality of the human experience with the passage of time. So when we invited them to sit together for a chat on life, love, relationships, age and attitude, they agreed instantly. “These conversations about women, between women, about age and related issues are very important to have,” affirms Shobhaa. Here’s what they said.

FREEDOM TO FLY

 
Tina: For the past year, I have been wondering about turning 60; there was a sense of trepidation at first; I was a bit unnerved. But upon introspection, I realised I’m in the best phase of my life. I know myself. I know the people around me. I know how to act and react to everything. This is my time, for myself. Take travel, for instance, it’s something I’ve wanted to do all my life. And I am at a point where I can just pick up and go. So the more I thought about it, the better I felt. And when, recently, someone was speculating about my age, I said, ‘You know, I turn 60 next month’. I realised how good I felt about it. It felt great to say it out loud.

Shobhaa: This is the time to make the most of every opportunity, indulge every passion. For instance, at the age of 77, my husband Dilip is about to unveil his second exhibition of smart-phone art. His digital portraits are outstanding, the complexity of his compositions incredible. He uses his stylus like a brush, dipping into colours, shading and mixing; it’s a painstaking process that requires such concentration and patience. It’s amazing to watch. So now is the time to fulfil any dream that is realistic to achieve. I don’t mean suddenly deciding to climb Mount Everest, but the small dreams, the doables, things you may have postponed because of your responsibilities. As a young wife, then a mother, there is a huge accumulated package of expectations from so many people. And then suddenly, at turning 70, you feel light. I now feel like I’ve grown wings and am ready to fly!

Tina: That‘s the best part about growing older; you can indulge your own creativity. After all the obligations are over, you can find yourself. You take stock of your life—that’s the stage I’m in—and you are confident enough to tell others, ‘Look, this is all I can do.’ You can define your boundaries without hurting anyone or feeling a sense of guilt and move on with your life.

Shobhaa: Precisely. I can just dream of going to South America and take a month off to do it. This was unthinkable earlier. However, I can’t say you are completely liberated. Another set of responsibilities does creep in. Family members around you may not be in the best of health and that’s a concern. But in terms of personal growth and evolution, you have arrived at a stage where you really feel comfortable about your life and it leads to a stage of deep peace and fulfilment. It also gives you enormous courage to do the things you may not have dared before.

STAYING RELEVANT

 
Shobhaa: After writing my book, you’d be amazed how complete strangers walk up to me at an airport or on the street and say with pride, ‘Madam, I’m 83,’ or ‘I am 65’—it seems to have set off a chain reaction. It’s wonderful to see people no longer ashamed to acknowledge their age, which never should have happened in the first place. But our society, every society, is very ageist and cruel towards women of a certain vintage. So when I put things in perspective, I feel very lucky. At the age of 70, I am not just physically alive to each moment but productive and relevant. In an earlier generation, to live up to 70 was a miracle in itself and, for most women, the sell-by date was probably 35—once your childbearing years are done, you are seen as a cow that needs to be put to pasture. It’s good that things have changed. I see so many older women at the top of their game and it’s very empowering. We are more aware of fitness, eat a heathier diet, know our bodies and minds, take better care of ourselves than our mothers.

Tina: It‘s very important to stay active and do things that keep you relevant. It’s about having a sense of purpose; I can sense that within me. Of late, I’ve become an early riser. I‘m so motivated and believe this is a life-changing time. I want to become very healthy; I want to empower and discover myself further.

ENERGY RESERVES

 
Shobhaa: Mental energy? Limitless…. and the minute you start limiting that search, you are already depleting those reserves. Physical reserves are different, of course. Let’s be honest.

Tina: Infinite! It’s what drives us. I get lots of energy from within.

Shobhaa: People often ask me where I get my energy from. I think it’s god-given; I don‘t have a rational explanation for it. I enjoy every moment of my life. I always have, like Tina, and I don’t want to miss out on anything.

Tina: Yes, because we want to live a full life, we don’t miss out on anything and are interested in everything!

SEX

 
Shobhaa: Important. I think it’s a primal connection and should never ever be underrated.

Tina: Yes, it is such a connecting and life-affirming process, an integral part of a relationship between two people to explore and get to really know each other. Mentally connecting with the person and conversing with them is only part of the equation. Physical intimacy completes the picture and it is another part of the relationship that evolves with time.

Shobhaa: Yes, sex when you are 70 is different than when you are 20. It takes on different dimensions but it is still two people physically expressing something to one another. It doesn’t have to be a performance. And nobody should be sitting in judgement, saying, ‘Oh my god, can’t imagine these old folks rattling around in bed.’ It’s nobody else’s business; it’s the intimacy you seek and you are lucky if you find it.

COUPLED

 
Tina: Anil and I are stronger than ever.

Shobhaa: I would say the same. The marriage bond is at a different level. For instance, I am much more expressive and demonstrative than I ever was in the earlier years—I now feel that was a loss for me and him.

Tina: But I thought you were always a very expressive person….

Shobhaa: No, I was very reserved. But now I realise that tenderness is an important component to cement any relationship, to show the other person you care. Not grand big gestures but little ones, the small things, to show concern, involvement, love, acceptance. And I think I’m a better person for it.

Tina: In our case, we have had a rollercoaster journey together. Today, I feel we really know each other and connect. Words are superfluous; we can read between the lines.

Shobhaa: The level of trust definitely goes up with time and so does the dependency—and I have no problem with that. Earlier I would have said, ‘I am my own person, he is his own person, we are both individuals.’ Now, I feel it is really okay to say we are co-dependent. In fact, it’s something I cherish. Every marriage has great turbulence and highs and lows. And both of us are alpha personalities, so there are bound to be clashes. But those experiences have taught us and helped bring us to this point, this very stable, comforting and comfortable stage.

PARENTING

 
Tina: It’s the toughest and the best job ever, delightful and challenging in equal measure!

Shobhaa: I am shamelessly intrusive as a parent, almost disgustingly so. I feel embarrassed about it sometimes and I have tried to change myself and respect their privacy zones and all that but I’ve been an absolute failure at it!

Tina: I am not too intrusive. I feel it’s important to give my boys that space. Also, I’ve been fiercely independent myself and have not brooked any interference in my life so I try to do the same for them. In any case, I’m not a micro-manager by nature. But I am very intuitive about them and I always know what’s going on in their life. Even though they end up telling me everything anyway!

MENOPAUSE

 
Tina: Done with! I didn’t even realise actually; I didn’t have any problems before or after.

Shobhaa: For me, too, it was a non-issue. It all went off quite easily. I didn’t have mood swings or hot flashes. I had actually pre-warned my family that if they saw any sudden behavioural quirks in me, they shouldn’t think I was going nuts, that they needed to be a little more sensitive. And they were!

Tina: I think I had so many interesting things happening in my life when I was menopausal that it had no great significance, actually none at all.

AGEING NATURALLY?

 
Tina: Yes. So far, naturally.

Shobhaa: Naturally as well. I have no problem with my lines, with the bits and bobs that jiggle and shake. And the grey hair we try and cover as best as we can. That, too, because my children have a fit about it—I would be quite happy to leave it the way it is and go naturally grey. Going under the knife is not an option at all. It doesn’t mean I love the idea of getting extra lines on my face but I just don’t trust intrusive procedures and surgeries that are unnecessary.

Tina: God has been kind; I have good genes and haven’t faced any problems. Honestly, I don’t know how I’ll react if I get any more wrinkles or lines. But I think it won’t unduly trouble me. I think one needs to age gracefully—that’s the best way—and be comfortable in one’s skin.

Shobhaa: And when you wear your lines with pride, each one tells a story.

INNER CIRCLE

 
Together: Very, very few!

Shobhaa: I can barely count them on one hand. My family is my trusted inner circle, my daughters in particular. With them I have no filters, no secrets. You don’t have daughters, Tina….

Tina: Yes, but I have my sisters! That’s my support system. We are always there for each other in every way.

Shobhaa: Outside the family, I have very few friends, most of whom go back 40 years or so. They really know you for who you are and like you for who you are, not for who you are married to or your achievements. You can be your naked self with them, warts and all.

Tina: Yes, outside the family, I do have two or three really close friends from school, college and the early years. And they will be brutally frank; they can say anything to you and it’s great because they keep life real.

SHEDDING THE BAGGAGE

 
Tina: I have actually come to a point in my life where I don’t think anything belongs to me. I feel I’m just a custodian of everything and whatever I leave behind may also ultimately fade. So I have just decided to enjoy this moment, cherish the life I have, and live it well.

Shobhaa: I started cutting the flab a long time ago from my life, more than 10 to 15 years ago. I was pretty sure about what and who I didn’t wish to associate with. I wanted to focus my energy on things that bring value and meaning to my life. I think I am pursuing that path. What I would like to manage better is my level of impatience. And I would like to actually do more of what Oprah recently said—to touch people’s lives. I may have done a little, but in retrospect it was absolutely nothing and I would like to do something more permanent, more substantial. I hate using the cliché ‘giving back to society’. But increasingly I need to anchor myself to something beyond acquisitions; none of that has any meaning for me now. There is more to life than ‘I, me, myself’.

STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES

 
Shobhaa: Oh, there are plenty of weaknesses!

Tina: I’d like to be a calmer human being and learn to handle adverse situations better, with less irritation and impatience. I think I am in the process of doing that; I want all negativity to leave my life. My greatest strength is a very strong sense of self-belief. I am very secure with who I am.

Shobhaa: I would say my strength is an uncompromising sense of honesty. It gets me into trouble and comes with a huge price tag but I’d never short-change or delude myself in any aspect of my life, or what I see around me. Like the saying goes, ‘to thine own self be true’; I’ve tried my best to live with that as a guiding principle.

SPIRITUAL FOUNDATION

 
Tina: For me, spirituality is what you experience and learn from, while religion is something you have been taught. I am not a very ritualistic person. I started going to temples because of Anil and now I feel I am at the initial stage of my spiritual discovery. However, it helps to have an idol or icon to focus on when you pray, something tangible to which you can connect and relate. For instance, I am a big Shiva bhakt and I feel the need to look upon him when I pray. I’m also a follower of Krishna and, of course, Durga—I read my paath and pray every day.

Shobhaa: I am pretty ritualistic. I believe there is logic to rituals in our communities—they keep families together, they give us the opportunity to interact and share ideas, even cuisine; they keep our cultural traditions alive. I light my diyas every day, I use my japa mala—the same one you gave me many years ago when you went to Kedarnath, Tina! I also like my temple visits that happen without too much planning. For instance, when I was recently in Chennai, my friend took me to one of the oldest Shiva temples in the city; it happened spontaneously and we got the most incredible darshan that gave me a great sense of peace, calm and strength. Having said that, I think at the end of the day, spirituality is about finding certain qualities within yourself and living with a sense of goodness, truth and integrity. If you can do that, you really don’t need to prove anything to anybody about your belief system.

SIMPLE PLEASURES

 
Shobhaa: Tiny, everyday pleasures are the only pleasures that count. I have a tremendous sense of adventure and curiosity. I love meeting new people—people are my narcotic! I don’t think any human being in the world is a boring person.

Tina: Just walking around, eating street food and buying something from the roadside, like a simple shirt… it’s the normal things that are ultimately special. Like when I come home from work and my dog Kaiser rushes to me and showers me with love!

Shobhaa: I like things that delight me; it could even be an inexpensive, glittering bauble, something that goes jingle jangle and at that moment I am like a kid—I get so excited and want to wear it right away. It’s just something that captures your imagination and gives you a thrill. I have a few plants on my balcony and when they flower it’s like a personal triumph! I take pictures of the blooms from every angle and it gives me a big kick.

SILVER POWER

 
Tina: I think it is important to give silvers a platform to realise how empowered they can be. That was the genesis of Harmony. Also, rather than depending on the government, society and other external factors, the process has to be internal. Silvers have to first empower themselves. It is so important to stay relevant for one’s own self and sake. This is the best phase of life where one can realise one’s dreams rather than live in a cocoon. If we can inculcate that spirit, I think we would see the true extent and potential of silver power.

Shobhaa: Society conspires to marginalise senior citizens, to make them feel they are of no consequence or use in the larger scheme of things. They are viewed as a liability. So you have to fight against this, find the inner strength to remain productive in whatever way, even if it is for your own family to respect you. You have to make the effort and it is an individual effort.

THE LEARNINGS

 
Shobhaa: This is a thought that crystallised when I was writing my book; it’s a very cheesy line from a Bollywood song: Pyaar do, pyaar lo. Without love, nothing has meaning. You can have all the success in the world but without someone to love and someone who loves you back, it’s worth nothing.

Tina: I’ve learnt that you need to be true to whatever you are doing—whether it is with your work or in your relationships, with family, friends, everybody. If you are honest, straightforward and truthful, life becomes easier, simpler and less complicated. There are consequences, of course, but life gives you the strength to handle those!

EXPIRY DATES

 
Tina: None, no question about it. You only have one life to experience—make each day count.

Shobhaa: I heard this once and it stuck in my head—‘Life is not a dress rehearsal, this is it.’ So live it with all your passion. You only get one shot, and I don’t want to blow it.

THE NEXT DECADE?

 
Tina: I’m going to take life as it comes, each day at a time. As I said, this time is life-changing for me. I am working really hard and doing whatever I can to improve my health, which is a priority for me, and living the life I have crafted for myself. This is a journey of self-discovery and self-actualisation—it’s both enriching and empowering.

Shobhaa: I have no grand plans at all. I am feeling really very light on so many levels. I would like to seek something I haven’t tried earlier. It could be something very simple, for my own pleasure, like learning to play a musical instrument. Of course, my biggest dream is to go to Argentina and dance the tango with a ponytailed stranger—it was my fantasy when I was a teenager, and it remains one!

Photos: Ryan Martis
Makeup: Recinda Martis
Hair: Ronella Baptista
Featured in Harmony — Celebrate Age Magazine
February 2018