<%-- Page Title--%> This Much I Know <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 118 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

August 15, 2003

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Yes it can


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 by accident.

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.