Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
AGEING: October 18, 1998
A grim ordeal
No one is so old as to think he cannot live one more year.
A doyen of The Hindu - the late S. A. Govindarajan - once gave me a copy of his tiny book of essays (memoirs, mostly) with its title joyously borrowed from Shakespeare's "As You Like It".
The book had an epigraph, too, from Jacques' famous speech on "The Seven Ages of Man" which ends as follows:
"Last scene of all
In the concluding line the, usually perceptive, Bard is surprisingly unmindful of man's earliest calamity - loss of hair - due, no doubt, to his own paltry endowment on top! As for the "sans teeth"-"sans eyes" stages, Shakespeare can hardly be blamed for not foreseeing the amazing advances in Modern Dentistry and Ophthalmology. The toothless can now (for those who can afford it, that is) get themselves fitted with tooth implants and thesightless can actually hope for new eyes. Loss of taste, alas, looks pretty irreversible. However, it is the "sans everything" that is a cause of concern. I take this to be an oblique and mischievous reference to the loss of sexual vigour. Perhaps, here too, there is hope. Viagra, that miracle drug - subject of a stormy debate recently in the Gujarat Assembly - might take care of that, too, and the geriatric crowd will once again be able to marry nubile damsels and exercise the masculine prerogative with the old impunity.
In a recent cover story, Outlook (July 22, 1998) has reported that as many as nine pharmaceutical firms in (India including an obscure - Madras-based pharmaceutical) are busy training their R&D (some quietly cloning, no doubt, the new miracle drug, patent laws be damned) towards unleashing an Indian Viagra in our own vast domestic "impotence market". Surely the future here - even for the aged - looks quite bright.
But for the silent majority, old age will continue to hold its customary terrors. There is the sheer horror of advancing age with the grim shadow of approaching death: the vast quantities of multi-coloured pills to be swallowed daily just to postpone the inevitable, the recurring bouts of insomnia which turn night into day and vice versa and, worst of all, the terminal confinement to bed and inactivity. I have personally known just one soul all my life to have triumphed over age and adverse circumstance. She is Kamala - the crippled, unwed sister of a late, lamented colleague of mine in Bangalore - who has braved it all and still welcomes her numerous guests and well-wishers with the most radiant of smiles. The Kamalas of the world are the closest we get to sainthood (in these 'extraordinary' beings, adversity has been conquered instead of conquering as is its customary wont) but for the rest, old age is a grim ordeal, to be borne in pain and self-pity.
But the worst affliction of all in old age - almost certainly in India - is still ungrateful children and the Bard, as usual, has given us the most unforgettable portrait of this 'malady' in "King Lear" more than 400 years ago. But the frequently horrendous treatment of the old (and hence unwanted) by the young is only now being studied here in our part of the world (see the story in India Today (July 13, 1998),especially of the plight of a widow in Delhi, suffering from stomach cancer, who is allowed access to her painkillers "only after signing away, in parts, the fixed deposits and other financial assets she had inherited from her husband").
I often come across countless instances, on my visits to Chennai, of filial ingratitude often accompanied by cruelty. Gone are the days of "Haridas" and that unforgettable song (M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar's "Annayim Thandayim Thane") which was on everyone's lips in Madras exactly 50 years ago! Today, instead of filial piety and repentance which marked the end of "Haridas", we are witness to the exponential growth of old-age homes (again, let me repeat, for those who can afford it). It is not just the mistreatment of parents by sons that causes concern but it is wanton cruelty by hitherto docile daughters that we are witnessing now. Apparently, in that sunless land of cruelty, sex is, finally, no bar! Who said there is no equality of the sexes in India? In suffering, at least, jointly or separately in old age, men and women are more than equal. No reservation quotas are necessary here, nor parliamentary interventions either.
Lest the reader get the impression that I have been targetting only the young in the foregoing paragraph, let me point out that there are countless varieties of suffering attendant on old age. Probably the worst is sheer boredom which springs primarily from the lack of any goals or unfulfilled ideals earlier in life.
The result is often sheer inanity which has to be seen to be believed. Men are particularly vulnerable here - particularly in Tamil Nadu - with the women too wedded to the kitchen and children (particularly grandchildren) to even have the time to be bored. But the men have, particularly in their years of retirement, all the time in the world but simply don't know what to do with it. Apart from non-stop lechery (just about anything in a saree will do, irrespective of age) all they can really do is pluck unwanted hair from sundry parts of the body when not engaged in finding fault with everybody and everything. The majority turn obsessively, in a sudden surge of altruism after a lifetime of selfishness, to match-making and finding suitable grooms for all and sundry.
Even an eminent professor of English of my acquaintance surprised me once by boasting about how many marriages he had engineered or master-minded. Still, the most frequent cause of suffering in old age in India is financial stringency. Pensions are frequently paltry and certainly not the privilege of all and, anyway, what can an impecunious country like India, with close to a billion people, do under the present circumstances? Personal savings dwindle rapidly and family resources get depleted with repeated calls on it. Illness, with its mounting medical bills, can take a heavy toll while dowries for daughters - still the norm in many forward communities, despite recent legislation - cripple countless families taking them to the brink of bankruptcy. Meanwhile, the State is too feeble itself to care for the elderly and the derelict.
A hitherto unexamined cause for suffering in the sunset years is sudden friction between long-wedded couples. This is due, not infrequently, to the precipitous decline of the sexual appetite in Indian women with the onset of menopause. The man continues to be interested (if not wholly able to perform adequately!) but the lady is not willing anymore. (Truthfulness, however, compels me to point out the reverse as well - among the more affluent sections, at any rate. Here, the woman - free at long last of the crippling fears of pregnancy - is all too willing and eager, too, perhaps, only to find the man a limp rag!). Only a sprightly doctor-friend of mine (at least 75, if a day) seems to have overcome this fate worse than death. He keeps his aged wife's sexual fires stoked by judicious visits to soft porn movies (he recently took her to Basu Bhattacharya's "Aastha" - a watered down Indian version of Luis Bunuel's"Belle De Jour" (1966) - which features the still delectable Rekha). But the vast majority, trapped inexorably in a dying but still smouldering sexuality, merely fester and rant at each other. However cultural mores could be changing. Active sexual life, among elderly men and women, is no doubt prolonged today in direct proportion to the decline of older religious values like detachment, sanyas etc. The new lease of life for sexuality - what with the spread of Cable TV and titillating serials like
"The Bold and the Beautiful" and "Baywatch" - may well be on its way. Still, the sexual nirvana attained by that 88-year old black (cited in the famous Kinsey Report on the human male (1949)), who averaged between one to four times a week with his 90-year old wife, may well prove an unattainable goal for most Indians - even with the blessings of VIAGRA!
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