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       Volume 11 |Issue 51| December 28, 2012 |


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Syed Maqsud Jamil

Vulnerability and dispossession are irreversible facts of old age. Both the brave and the weak accept the reality that the end is foreseeable; that death the hunter is waiting around the corner. A good physique and good health can defer but the inevitable will overpower when its time has come. The thought lurks at the back of the mind while business as usual goes on. Or when the body has broken down or the mind has become clouded the will wilts. Dying can be a besieged state and the thoughts are of twilight zone. It can as well be a return to second childhood. However there are those who analyse the end in existential terms, when the body perishes and the soul if there is any is anybody's guess. They blithely say that when death arrives they will not be there. It is like the age old saying 'Jab tak shas tab tak aas' (As long as you are breathing there is hope).

Old age or death knell can be a time for a final statement of life well lived, a duty well served or of exclamation, lamentation or remorse - of being devastated by destiny, wrongly treated, being unjustly deprived, of tasks unfulfilled and mauled by one's own because of lowly station in life, as many miseries providence can conceive of. For the successful it is bidding goodbye with grace and in glory.

Some go as unsung heroes. There are those who leave behind a tale of unmitigated woe. King Lear of Shakespeare is an oft-quoted example of dotage compounded by senility. King Lear in his miseries exclaims, “Pray, do not mock me: / I am a very foolish fond old man, / Fourscore and upward, not an hour more / or less; / And, to deal plainly, / I fear I am not in perfect mind — "

The US's former president the elder Bush is carrying on at the age of 88. His mind does not struggle; he shared in an interview that sometimes his mind wants his legs to move, but they won't. Prince Philip had an open heart surgery at the age of 90. He does not falter in the protocol of following the Queen at a studied distance. The Queen is now 86 and is believed she will go a long way following the genetic trait of Queen Mother who died at the age of 101.

The helplessness in old age and the sudden predatory nature of death are moving human tales. Noted filmmaker Satyajit Ray's masterly treatment of nonagenarian Indir Thakuran's character and her death in the film Pather Panchali lifted reality to a lofty height in the excellence of cinematic art. Ravaged by old age and consigned to a forsaken state by that capricious player Fate, Indir Thakuran was nobody's charge to look after. Those she knew to be her own treated her with scorn, so she was driven from one house to another.

Apu's father Harihar was her nearest that she could conceive of in old age and Durga was her shelter. Yet Sarbajaya, Apu's mother was inexplicably harsh with Indir Thakuran looking on her as another mouth to feed in a family with little income. In Harihar's house she used to sing under the eave's shade after the sun had set longing for a journey to eternity. “Hori din je gelo sondhey holo, par koroamare. Ami deen bhikari, amar naiko ghar, Hori amay koro par, ami deen bhikari, pothey mori, dekho go amare.” (Lord! The day is gone, evening has descended. Help me to you, I am a lowly beggar, I do not have any shelter, Lord! Help me to you, I am a lowly beggar, I die on the road, show me your grace). Ironically she came back to Harihar's house to die. The vessel for the journey has arrived and it carried her to her Lord! This may be a piece of fiction but for poor men and women the brutalities and neglect of old age can be a case for social indictment.

On the higher plane, the 83-year old maternal uncle of my friend offers a different tale of old age. He retired as the highest official of a government department back in the late eighties. He lives in California with his wife, driving his car, visiting places and his children, meeting his relations and attending meetings of senior citizens. Excepting for his hearing aid and cataract operation doctors have given him a clean bill of health. His mind is sharp and he regularly sits with the laptop. The things he believes in are doing his jobs and performing his tasks. He thinks there is an allotted time for everything, the time for his end will come when it will come and it is his business to take care of the day that he gets. He visits Bangladesh every year for a two-month sojourn, collecting rents from the apartments he has. His nephew however derisively calls him the 'accumulator'. His wife is like the female character in Chekov's short story 'Darling' trumpeting the success of her dear husband.

The gentleman reminds me of WB Yeats masterpiece “Sailing to Byzantium”. In it Yeats has spoken of spiritual and emotional advancement of self to a hallowed lofty height of a definitive identity delinked from the animal part of human beings that perishes in death and of the banality of old age.

“That is no country for old men. The young /In one another's arms, birds in the trees /— Those dying generations — at their song, /The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,/Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long/Whatever is begotten, born, and dies./Caught in that sensual music all neglect/Monuments of unageing intellect.//

An aged man is but a paltry thing,/A tattered coat upon a stick, unless/Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing/For every tatter in its mortal dress,/Nor is there singing school but studying/Monuments of its own magnificence;/And therefore I have sailed the seas and come/To the holy city of Byzantium”.


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