By Neha Kirpal
Ritu Lumba has had an eventful life to say the least – from being a working mother of two sons with an ailing husband, losing her spouse to cancer before reaching midlife, learning golf at 50, surviving a standoff with Maoists as a school principal, earning a Bharat Nirman Award, to a second marriage with an 88-year-old when she was 70 herself.
Three years later, Ritu is still living life to her fullest. “A woman can do anything as long as she has the passion, drive, focus and support,” she says.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Women are like tea bags. We don’t know our true strength until we are in hot water.” Ritu’s life exemplifies this spirit completely. One of three sisters, Ritu was born to an Army family. This meant frequent postings to new cities, with Ritu studying in seven schools and three colleges. Graduating at the age of 17, she managed to complete her B.Ed. before she turned 19.
Though she was keen to pursue higher studies, her father was due to retire, so he emotionally blackmailed her into getting married. And so, at the tender age of 19, she was married to Anil, a handsome, intelligent and witty tea planter from Assam.
The initial four years of married life went by like a dream, complete with a huge bungalow in Assam’s tea plantations, a lovely garden and lots of domestic help. Ritu was soon blessed with two boys. However, this lifestyle was shortlived, as her recently widowed mother-in-law pressurised her son to quit his job and move to Delhi to be with her.
While he had been assured of starting a new venture with his uncle’s help, things did not work out well and he was out of employment for more than a year. To keep the home fires burning, Ritu took up a teaching offer for a measly salary of Rs 250 per month.
When there was a vacancy at the Zaire Embassy, Ritu gave a series of interviews for the position. Finally, she was rejected on grounds of inexperience. Shaken and upset, she expressed her discontentment to the Ambassador. She asked him to give her a chance to prove herself. Finally, she was hired and was asked to learn French. Not only did she do that, she also ended up teaching English to the Ambassador, while working as a social secretary cum receptionist.
However, within a few months, her family had to move to Kolkata, as her husband’s previous company reinstated him in their head office. Life took a drastic turn when Anil was diagnosed with cancer. Ritu was totally shattered, but the doctor told her to be optimistic for his sake. So, she would put on makeup and walk about with a cheerful countenance.
She decided to take each day as it came and live life to the fullest. She also decided to build her inner strength, remain positive and face this adverse period of her life with hope, determination and a smile. She would look at those worse off than her and count her blessings.
Tending to her ailing husband and managing his bouts of frustration, anger and moments of depression was a daunting task. Further, financial constraints also took a toll on Ritu. Her sons were too young for her to share much of her grief and worry. In retrospect, Ritu says, “Though they had a difficult childhood and had to face many hardships, it made them more humane, compassionate and understanding.”
After having worked for more than 13 years as a teacher in a primary school, Ritu was appointed as the junior headmistress of a school in North Kolkata. Simultaneously, she enrolled in a Master’s in history. A few months later, her husband had to be shifted to Hinduja Hospital in Mumbai and put in total isolation, as his immunity was very low. The chemotherapy was so aggressive that he was in a semi-coma stage. Ritu was given special permission to stay with him. While being a full-time nurse for her husband, Ritu continued studying for her Master’s. Unfortunately, by the end 1992, her husband succumbed to cancer. Ritu was 45 years old.
The following year, Ritu was offered the post of headmistress in Kolkata’s renowned Birla School. In 1995, she was awarded the Bharat Nirman Award for for being a trendsetter in the field of education. By now, both her sons were working and had moved to other cities (they are currently both in Dubai). In 1997, Ritu moved to Delhi to stay with her father as her mother passed away. She received an offer to join the CISCE Board, and worked in the Research Development, Consultancy Division and Examination Wing for two years.
While in Delhi, she became a member of the army golf course and began playing the sport at the ripe age of 50. Having always been a sportsperson, however, it came to her easily. In no time, she went on to win numerous amateur tournaments across the country. She has had a hole-in-one thrice in the last three years – a rare accomplishment for most golfers.
Subsequently, she was invited to head the Chandbagh School in Kathmandu. Though a prestigious post, it came with a multitude of problems from both locals and Maoists. During her four-year stint there, she was threatened by the Maoists several times via phone and letters. They demanded extortion money, and placed explosive devices in 10 private schools.
Ritu approached the Indian Embassy, who moved her to its premises till the furore died down. She also had an open confrontation with the Maoists in her office with the promise that no weapons or guards from either side would be permitted. After much deliberation, they were convinced, and asked the school to write their speeches. Ritu offered to form a committee to edit their speeches for them. After the issue was resolved, she continued to work at the school for another three years.
In 2005, she moved back to Delhi, where she was now appointed as a marketing head of the Gokarna Golf Resort. It was here that she met her future husband, Col. HN Singh, at a party. He had recently lost his wife and was sad and melancholic. Their friendship lasted for over 13 years, and resulted in marriage in 2017.
It was an extremely bold and unusual step – considering that Ritu was nearly 70 and her companion was 88 at the time – and created quite a sensation. Everyone wondered why they wanted to get married at this stage of their lives. His family members were also against the idea, as they felt insecure about their family wealth being divided. It took quite some time for them to realise that Ritu had not married him to usurp his wealth.
The understanding between the couple is clear – what’s his is his, and what’s hers is hers. They both have their own independent homes within a distance of 300 yards. They go on holidays together, play golf, watch movies and TV serials as well as enjoy their evenings together. “The need for two people to be together doesn’t fade away with time and age. In fact, the need only gets stronger after one crosses the age of 60,” says Ritu.
Their togetherness has given a fresh lease to their lives, and they feel fortunate to be independent and yet together. “A lot of couples who would love to be together are not able to face family and societal pressures. Sharing and being able to have somebody to talk to makes a big difference to one’s life,” adds Ritu.
Her message to women everywhere: “Learn to respect yourself, love yourself and the world will not be able to hate you – in fact, they will love you more than you think.”