Two weeks ago I was invited to be chief guest at a prominent Chennai school. Having never done that sort of thing before, I was understandably a little edgy. The principal tried to allay my anxieties. All I’d need to do, she said, is address the students of class 10 and 12, motivate them in some brilliant manner for their upcoming board examinations, and perhaps even offer advice to shape their dreams and actions for the future. But I don’t have children, I wanted to tell the principal. I have dogs. I know what my dogs dream of: a never-ending supply of home-style Pedigree chicken chunks. But children? Who knows what the kids of today want?
I might even have said something to the effect of: ‘I feel really disconnected from the youth of today.’ At least, I didn’t say ‘youths’.
India has the largest youth population in the world. There are 356 million 10-24 year olds in this country milling about with dreams in their head I have absolutely no access to because I don’t own a TV and I’m not on Twitter and I stopped keeping up with youth trends somewhere circa Justin Bieber. Partly, it’s apathy. Partly, it’s that I’ve never cared, even when I was a youth myself. I always hankered to be part of a world more adult than my own. Nothing has given me more pleasure than to bask in the afterglow of conversation in a room where the average age is 60+. I’m just the kind of person who’s more inclined to watching a movie like Amour, which deals with diaper-changing for adults, rather than Parenthood.
This isn’t to imply that I find all older people wildly interesting, because there are plenty who are cynical, judgemental, overly obsessed with their pulmonary issues, with no Yoda wisdom to offer whatsoever. But when you do meet people in the silver of their lives, who seem to have caught life by the neck and kissed its tremendous crow’s feet, licked at the stooping spine of impending death and conquered it with a ruddy smile, it makes you want to stand and applaud. Because it proves that it is possible for the human spirit to prevail. Here are people approaching the finish line, and they’re still laughing! This raises my spirits far more than an auditorium filled with checkered-uniformed kids exhibiting various stages of puberty. In fact, seeing that barricade of gingham actually inspired a kind of terror in me. What kind of people will they become? What horrible things will their generation have to face?
When I was of board-examination-sitting age, I remember being obsessed with the letters of Vincent van Gogh. He seemed to personify the quintessential suffering artist that I was enamoured with in those days. His letters were filled with ideas about landscape, literature, love, God—and to see how directly they funnelled into his art, was a thrilling discovery. These sentences in particular, stayed with me. ‘There is no such thing as an old woman!’ he wrote to his brother Theo. ‘(This isn’t to say that there are no old women, but that a woman doesn’t grow old as long as she loves and is loved.)’ I was hardly at the stage of womanhood to require this kind of comfort, but being an overly romantic cowpat, I took it.
In my mid-twenties, I met a woman who tackled this old-woman- can-remain-eternally-young idea with a different approach. She was a dancer in her seventies, and her name was Chandralekha. She told me to forget about being young. To think of myself as an ancient woman of this land. Part of her ideology had to do with connectivity—to empower oneself by dipping into the ancestral cookie jar. To know where you are from and where you are going. It suggested a continuously moving body of water running from antiquity to post-post modernity, of which I could be a part. Never mind that those wide-hipped Harappans now belong to Pakistan. Never mind my partially Celtic genes.
These days I think that Chandra and Vincent were both after the same idea. They were hinting at an abstraction—a vast and eternal lake that lies outside the scope of time. A lake of agelessness. And to arrive here you would have to stake your chips on love. Not romantic love (that’s by the by), but the love that fires through the everyday universe of wonder, imagination and creation. Not procreation, but the stuff and straw of artists’ lives.
Milan Kundera, who remains unrivalled in his descriptions of old people at swimming pools, wrote in Immortality, ‘There is a certain part of all of us that lives outside of time. Perhaps we become aware of our age only at exceptional moments and most of the time we are ageless’—an aphorism that must ring true for someone like Elvis Presley. Certainly, it’s the kind of immortality all artists are after through the making of their creations. And while beauty, youth, pleasure—all the Dorian Gray fripperies of life, can be strenuously pursued at the risk of the devil chomping on your caviar soul, the real allegory of that story is: everything must eventually wither and die, but art has the chance to prevail.
But what about non-artists? Don’t they have a similar desire to be immortal? Must they rely solely on biology and genes to hope for this transference?
In the past, any civilisation worth its totems has insisted on revering their elders. These days it appears that barring those few uncontacted Amazonian and Andamanese tribes, the cult of youth like the cult of Katy Perry (most twitted woman in the universe) has spread its fingers to the farthest reaches of the planet. Part of the reason we’re so obsessed with youth, I think, is because we are more petrified of dying than ever before. Even though we now have more real scientific knowledge than our collective world ancestors ever had about the human genome, dark matter, stem cells, exoplanets and the joys of TV show bingeing, we are less likely to walk away from our tribe when our time’s up; to lie down under our favourite tree and wait for the sky to take our final breath. In fact, a growing number of us would quite like to live forever.
This frantic quest for immortality has caused men and women around the world to inject their bodies with silicone, consume vast quantities of resveratrol, participate in iron man competitions, throw themselves out of aeroplanes, and achieve other sense-defying feats to show they’re still young in mind, body and spirit. Needless to say, this puts a lot of pressure on those people who would prefer to go gently into that good night.
Ageism has been trending recently, with Pope Francis’ speech to the European parliament, comparing Europe to a “grandmother, no longer fertile and vibrant”, and with actresses from Dame Judi Dench to Kristin Scott Thomas to Patricia Arquette rightly pointing out that the problem with ageism is that it’s also sexist, affecting far more women than men. In my estimation no one has been more valiant than Yoko Ono who, for her 82nd birthday this February, wrote an open letter to her critics, saying, ‘Let me be free. Let me be me! Don’t make me old, with your thinking and words about how I should be…Get my energy or shut up.’ How can you not empathise with someone who says, ‘Dancing in the middle of an ageism society is a lonely trip.’
While much of the age debate bothers me in obvious ways because I’m a feminist, my real problem is that I’m a reverse-ageist. In much the same way in which modern day atheists battle with religious fundamentalists by using their same strain of fiery rhetoric, I find myself doing to the kids of today what the critics are doing to Yoko. As someone who’s just shy of 40 (which is the new 20), is it really okay for me to be so uncurious about an entire swath of the world population? To glaze over when their parents start talking about the benefits of Montessori versus Krishnamurti versus Steiner? To prefer hearing about a person’s dying father’s last words rather than their baby’s first? I think it’s morally deranged because it means that I’m going to become that other kind of older person—not of the variety that kisses the crow’s feet of life, but the petulant, concerned-only-with-her-own-flatulence kind.
And so I said ‘yes’ to the chief guest-ship. I tried to imagine I was a kid again. What would I have enjoyed hearing on the eve of my board examinations with that heavy cloud of neuroticism hovering over Hindi and Chemistry, which in the end turned out not to matter at all? I wanted to sound a little hipper than what the chief guests at my school (of the retired judges/old codgers variety—oops) used to offer, trotting out their Respected Principal, Esteemed Teachers, Boys and Girls, opening zinger. What would a young person, getting ready to catapult into the jaws of life, need to know about? That it’s fun! That it all gets better until it starts to get worse! And that all this sentimental nostalgia you feel for your school friends will fade like these days, like these chequered uniforms, into a memory, which you can dip into any time you like (as long as you’ve still got it), but thankfully won’t ever have to relive…
I wrote what I thought was a somewhat inspiring speech, and practised duly on my husband, who is nine years older than me, but is assuredly much more with it. I knew it was bad because he kept shaking his head throughout, and finally stopped me and said, “No, no! You sound like a condescending auntie, they don’t want to hear that!”
After several rewrites and attempted recalibrations of auntiehood, I set off to remedy my moral derangement. The school was as a school should be: beautiful, tree-shaded, sprawling. There was a frisson in the air among the teachers and students. The end of an era, the beginning of another. I was led to the auditorium with the sound of bugles, and inside, I did the thing I’ve seen so many others do: I lit the inaugural lamp (without screwing it up). Then I was told I’d have to help with the investiture ceremony by pinning badges on the newly appointed house captains and prefects—a wholly unforeseen and overly intimate act. Thirty badges with thirty wobbly safety pins on a stage with a room full of expectant parents watching. I managed to get through it without stabbing anyone in the chest. A few badges drooped sadly from their shirt pockets, but otherwise, I’ll admit, it was rather joyous to see the bright in those young eyes for having arrived at this accomplishment in their life. And while it’s true I came home more enamoured with the old Parsi gent on the school board who kept referring to Tamil Nadu politicians as blighters, there was now space in my previously ageist imagination, for these kids who were smart, confident and crazily aware.
The American comedian George Carlin had a wonderful joke about how he wanted to live his next life backwards. To start out dead and get that out of the way. Then wake up in the nursing home feeling better everyday. Get kicked out for being too healthy. Enjoy retirement, collect your pension. Start work. You get a gold watch on your first day. Work 40 years until you’re too young to work. Get ready for high school—drink, party, be generally promiscuous. Go to primary school, become a kid, play, have no responsibilities. Become a baby. Spend the last nine months floating in spa-like conditions with room service on tap. And then—finish off as an orgasm.
As rosy and sensible as this sounds, no genius has figured out a way to assure us a future such as this. So, we’re stuck for the moment with life in the linear mode: birth, childhood, adolescence, youth, that lumbering plateau of middle age, old age, death. The trick is to find the openings. Through art, or science, or whatever great God whispers in your ears at night. To find the lake of agelessness.