With all due respect to old people,
the fact remains that a good number of them (read: majority)
are a pain in the neck. The reason we refrain from saying so
is that we are conditioned from a very early age not to say
so or even feel so. We are told that we must love and respect
our, and everybody else's, grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts,
and anybody else who is elderly and is connected to us in some
way, preferably by some blood tie, even if the amount of blood
is one and a half drops. Soon they will die, we are told, and
then you will be sorry that you argued with them, talked back
to them, did not agree with them, did not spend every week-end
with them etc.
All this is all very good. Loving and respecting
old people does no harm and the more of this, the merrier the
state of the world. What is annoying is the automatic assumption
that all old people deserve this love and respect. Just because
their hair is grey, whatever strands they have left, they are
shuffling about with walking sticks because their knees do not
work too well, their eyes are freshly-lensed after their cataract
operation, their clothes are hanging loosely as their muscles
are now non-existent, they are shouting instead of talking as
they imagine everybody else is deaf like them, I am supposed
to smile at them and agree to everything they demand out of
respect for old age.
I am prepared to make sure they have comfortable
chairs to sit on, that they are given tea and biscuits, I am
prepared to listen to them (for a reasonable amount of time),
also smile, and then they must please leave me alone. This is
my attitude towards most of the old people I know. In fact,
this is my attitude towards most of the people my age too.
Does that sound very cruel? I'm only being truthful
here. Some of the people who are now old and are expecting love
and respect as natural tributes to old age forget that in their
young and middle years they were walking horror stories who
did nothing except what served their own interest. Did they
do anything for anybody? If they did, not to worry, love and
respect will flow. If they didn't then they must please just
be very grateful if any of that come their way. It'll only be
In As You Like It, Jacques, the philosopher-friend
of Duke Senior living in exile in the Forest of Arden describes
the seven ages in the life of man. Old age is: '... second childishness,
and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
Sans everything is quite right. What they are mostly sans of
is their memory of what they were like when they were younger
and conducted themselves in ways exactly the opposite of the
ways they advocate now.
Take my mother and her friends for example,
(now you know why I'm writing under a pseudonym) in floods of
sympathetic tears watching Romeo and Juliet on TV in those days
when I was a university student. But if a classmate, even one
with absolutely no Romeo-like tendencies whatsoever made so
much as a phone call, to discuss” academic matters', we would
be asked why he called us and would he marry us. Those were
the days when making a phone call would be equated with making
a marriage proposal. Anybody belonging to the opposite sex was
a Romeo of the hated Montague clan and we needn't have bothered
to go to Friar Lawrence for our poison. The Capulet parents
of us Juliets were there to dole us the required amount happily.
And these same old people now enjoying life with their grandchildren
will give us long lectures on why it is important for young
people to be close friends with one another, and why we should
allow them to go to week-long field trips and why they should
be taken to Fantasy Kingdom every week-end (accompanied by grandparents).
Grandchildren are also allowed to watch as much
TV as they want, plus all the Hindi serials to give the grandparents
company. Schools and teachers are roundly castigated for giving
too much homework, too many tests, and too few holidays. And
the grandparents can always be relied upon to sign their test
copies. when the marks risk parental wrath and to sign letters
making up imaginary fevers and stomach aches as excuses for
homework not done.
What turns older people into termagants is when
they don't want to remain in the position of lovable grandparents.
They probably accidentally read Dylan Thomas's exhortation to
his dad, the poem in which his dying dad is asked 'not to go
gentle into the good night but to rage, rage against the dying
of the light'. His father would not listen and sank peacefully
into the good night. Now nobody is asking anybody to go into
the good night before their time is up but do you really have
to rage so loudly prior to your departure? To some extent of
course they are right to rage. Nobody is saying Dhaka is not
too overcrowded , and the traffic situation is not atrocious.
The law and order situation is a permanent nightmare. But there
are some pluses too. We love the plethora of restaurants, the
cd shops, face tissues, easily available chocolates, pizzas
delivered at home, cell phones, e mail, the easy shopping, Westecs
and Pretext and the freedom to wear shalwar kameez at any age
(used to be taboo after marriage not so long ago), the freedom
to be allowed to work at any profession, Bennetton and supermarkets
and boutiques. Life is, to a great extent, better. Why not acknowledge
that and then start raging against the rest rather than the
blanket raging and advising and reminiscing.
They all seem to have read Plato: “The older
must command, the young obey.”
Perhaps it's time they brushed up on their Aristotle
too, to get a more realistic view of themselves. ”Elderly people
are ill-natured, since after all it is ill-natured to suppose
that everything is getting worse. They live more upon memory
than upon hope. They are garrulous; they go over the past again
and again. They are sorry for themselves; they no longer know
how to laugh.'
When you think about it, how many laughing or
even smiling old people does one see around? The common expression
on their faces is that of great suffering or terrible temper
or “ I am a martyr'. It's dangerous to ask how they are doing,
unless you enjoy listening to descriptions of cataract operations,
rheumatism pains, blood pressure ups and downs, diabetic diets,
wrong diagnosis that had led to near-deaths, the ingratitude
of their children and the genius of their grandchildren.
There are people who live to an old age as incandescent
as their youth; giving off a light as luminous as they did in
their younger days until their last breath. Cases in point:
Rabindranath Tagore, Mother Teresa and, closer to home, Begum
Sufia Kamal. Some living examples: Nelson Mandela, the writer
Anita Brookner, (and my mother, close to eighty, beating everyone
at Scrabble, reciting Tagore and Nazrul Islam non-stop from
memory and writing beautiful short stories and novellas).
For the likes of them one may be inspired to
recite: 'Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite
variety,' as Shakespeare did for Cleopatra. But how many of
us are Cleopatras about whom such confident predictions can
be made? Besides she died young, didn't she, and did not hang
about to disprove Shakespeare. For lesser mortals unlike the
luminaries mentioned above, age can wither and it does.