“I dread no more the first white in my hair,
Or even age itself, the easy shoe,
The cane, the wrinkled hands, the special chair:
Time, doing this to me, may alter too
My anguish, into something I can bear”
― Edna St. Vincent Millay
September to me is the cruelest month, has been for a very long time anyway. One September, after having seen the last remains of my brother, we came back home where my Baba was waiting with some relatives. He had refused to go. Fair enough, I had said, but you might regret it later. No, I wont, he told me, quite unwavering in his conviction. When we got back, with that muddled part of my brain that was catching words here and there among the relatives and friends who were there, but as though all of it was some sort of out-of-body experience, an aunt pointed out to my father how much older Subhashis’s dad was. Subhashis was the other boy with my brother. Baba’s response, “He is lucky, he will have less years to live and bear this burden”.
Now Baba and Ma are around that age. And they have lived all those impossible years. And I don’t know what I was expecting and why had I not been expecting it. Baba is the person who, till the last couple of months, used to remind me to send him the money to pay the electricity bill, the corporation tax, the life insurance cheques. My bills. Because I would forget. These are the only three things/paperwork in my life that are in any order – he has them neatly filed. Everything else, tax papers, bills, are all stuffed into this drawer safe in my conviction that they are all there and if push came to shove, I would need to get everything out and things I was looking for would be found. But this month, I had to remind him that my bill needs to be paid (he has a chap who goes and does that – my father does not believe in doing anything over the net, and till recently, would brook no argument at all.). Gosh, he’s going to be 80 next year! And god knows why I had been labouring under the delusion that he was about 74-75. When I am ill, and I frequently am, my parents are the ones who still go clucking around me, and my dad still goes to the temple and we find out only after the crisis has passed that he has promised some goddess some money or gold nose-pin. That pandit of Dhaka Kalibari has had a lifestyle change just from what my dad gives him. I used to argue that I deserved them. I stopped a long while back, letting him be with his own beliefs, not sweating the small stuff. And suddenly, in the last few weeks, I looked at myself in the mirror and noticed that while I had for long been plaguing my niece and son and friends’ children to pluck my grey hair, I was not prepared to discover that my parents were now noticeably older. Looking decrepit. They were not supposed to.
My parents are not the type to cut themselves some slack or let themselves off any imaginary hook. The money we give them is almost never spent on them – for some weird reason they think it is necessary to save more money for us, and definitely not spend any more than what they have to. Even a few month’s back, my father laughed when he told me he got pick-pocketed. I asked him why he was laughing and he said, “they chose the wrong person to do it, my wallet never has more than 20 rupees”. He goes apoplectic every month when my electricity bill comes – he cannot understand how we can still be using the AC in September (while he sits in his room sweating buckets but refuses to put even the fan on). They have a north-facing top-floor flat, so he just opens the main door and gets what he calls ‘god’s AC” – the south winds. We keep telling them to do what they want to do and not do things for others – even us – any more, to ask for help when its too heavy, too far, too near, too cold, too bright, too dark. Whatever. But they have yet to make the mental transition from giving help to needing help.
80 years is old age when you talk of someone you don’t know or care for. When it is your own, that ceases to matter, you cannot think of it that clinically. This feeling of unease in me has been growing over the last several weeks, punctuated by deep sorrow at the passing away of a couple of very dear friends. Unlikely friendship, one of them – between an 84 year old man and myself. He was a close friend’s father, but the friendship was not related to that. I can’t even remember honestly when and why and how it happened. But it did. He was not your imagined Uncle-Podgerish avuncular man. He called a spade a spade and sometimes even things which weren’t spade a spade, he was intransigent. But we would ring each other up religiously every week, and discuss his failing health and politics and I would ask him not to walk so much in the heat but he would not listen and would walk anyway, go to Calcutta Club, have his tea. He had a man in a little place near Lord Sinha Road who would type out his emails which he would hand-write and that man would send them out to other young friends of his, now abroad. I would tell him, as I am sure his children did, that it was a ridiculous exercise when he had computers in his own house from where he could do it. But that never cut any ice. It was always, “Oh, I know all that but I prefer it this way”. Go figure. Anyone who knew about our friendship found it either cute or strange. People who knew him found it even stranger. He would get me little gifts from Kalimpong, where he had a family home – nothing grand, but just enough to let me know he thought of me, and thank god life has taught me to treasure gifts carefully. He was ill, but I was completely unprepared for his sudden death. I went slack-jawed when I heard it. Last time I spoke to him, a week before, he was irritable and stubborn, – which was normal. Mamata Banerjee was being roundly cursed, which also was normal. He did seem a little unmindful, but not enough for me to worry. And then, I hear suddenly, that he is gone. Just like that.
Two of my favourite people in the world are octogenarians in two corners of Europe, one in Poland and another in UK. And whoever told you distances don’t matter in relationships was bullshitting. Of course they do. I can go, do a hop-skip-and-jump and see my parents, and thank god for that. But when I want to see these two men, I realize life, work, and (mostly) money and visas are problems which happen to you while you are ‘busy making other plans’. And I don’t even know if I will ever see them again. One of them, a gentleman is an uncle of a friend, but that soon became irrelevant and he became the generic uncle. He was over 70, when a couple of Greek men were playing drums just in the middle of Leicester Square in London at 1 in the morning, and we just got out of a restaurant. It was cold, but the music had an electric quality to it and we all stopped to listen. Baromama (the oldest maternal uncle, in Bengali) was the first one – and oldest by a few decades – among that sizable crowd who started dancing to the beat, and suddenly all of us – different colour, language, country, just united by the magic of the music- we were all dancing in that most wondrous of nights. Baromama was never much of a talker, but he used to listen, not sullenly, but very pleasantly, silently participating in everything, throwing one salvo, a teasing word at me and eliciting my response and enjoying the fact that it would unfailingly come. If you tried offering him tea or coffee after dark, he would glare at you. He probably still will. But I don’t know if I will get to see that. He sounds frail when we talk on the phone, his sighs deeper.
My other uncle, in Poland, in another of my unlikely friendships – is now a much older person than the one I befriended years back in that place of magical memories of gossamer and gilt that I grew up in. (This is what memories do to you – that place of unbelievable dirt and bad roads and corrupt officials are now no longer in our memory. We can only think of the happy times). He is Polish and I soon became his ‘Indian daughter’. The love that oozes out from that family even after so many years and across thousands of miles is another of life’s magic. I just have to say ‘hello’, and he goes “Laliiii!……” and talks on in his broken English which are often punctuated by Hindi. He looks the same, but he is not the same. Ewa, his daughter tells me he has grown quieter. And much much weaker. But ask him what he wants to do most and he will tell you, “I want to visit India once more, see your father, go to Dhanbad, to Sudamdih”. The old age is sort of visible in his facial details. All traces that life left there, are there. But his eyes are still bright and twinkling, and they do transcend the time that otherwise marks the face. He tells me the perks of old age is that he can behave however he wants and get away with it.
Skin wrinkled, sagging, ravaged by time. Somehow our grandparents did not make us feel this way about them. Their age was their own embellishment. They would sit and although my grandparents died when I was in my twenties I never actually remember them young. They were severe and similar old bodies who enthralled us with their stories. In our imagination, they wore star specked clothes and walked in a tinkle of darkness. The grandmas always wore pristine white saris with various sorts of borders, and my granddad would smoke a pack of cigarettes every day until one day he gave it up, just like that. And with the money he saved thus, a rupee a day, he would buy us siblings sweets. He would wear his full-sleeved jumper below his half-sleeved one, decades before it became fashion for us. Grandparents were people who were always old, eternal. Their passing away were shocks to the system, but parents can’t grow old? It’s ridiculous! For god’s sake, my brother still rings up my dad when his car breaks down in Jamshedpur and advice is given and followed over the phone.
I don’t believe in the myth that we grow wiser with age. We don’t. The stupid remain stupid even when they hit a century. But see, in my disbelief is my wisdom, which did come with age. So now I don’t know what to believe. Parents are not disposable members of the family. Even when you think of slobbering old age, mislaying teeth and bifocals, their countenance captures our attention because there are many stories there, unknown, full of pain or beauty, which pours their reflection into the features, stories we can read with some compassion or at least get a slight hint of its meaning. They live in a world of continual loss and the men and women we knew in our childhood surprise us now when we see them in sepia-tinted pictures. They could continually reminisce but they don’t, because they don’t want us to dwell in the past, because we are their future as our children are ours. With all that my parents have endured, they could have easily been bitter, their minds becoming the refuge for old thoughts, idle, indigent. They have seen sudden death, immense joys and impossible sorrows, times when the edge between life and death were thin. But I have seen them chase gloom away, sweeping the premises clean. My dad is the one who read to me, back when I was still in middle school, a poem called “Prayer for my Daughter” (I think, I am too lazy to check, that as well as that of the author, It was probably Yeats or Yates) and the part I loved best was,
“When you are old and grey and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep”
A man is not old till regrets take the place of his dreams. Someone said that. My parents, their bodies bent and frail with age, still dream impossible dreams (and just so you know the scale of it – they actually dream my son will one day occupy the Master’s Lodge of Cambridge, where when they had gone, Amartya Sen used to live).
I will rest with that happy thought.