So many aspects of my grandmother’s life were thoroughly unsatisfactory. Higher education was a privilege reserved for the boys in the family. Her choice of spouse was completely dictated by the parents and how she had other marriageable sisters ‘behind’ her. There was no question of her working outside the house. Her sphere of influence lay within the house, but within that, her word was law. And even my grandfather, twice her physical size and gravitas, had to cower and listen to what she said. But when she was fifty, she had the pleasure of the company of her grandchildren and their devoted adoration. It makes sense that just as your oestrogen flow is waning, you get a boost of oxytocin, from your grandchildren. My mother, at fifty-three, was a first-time grandma when my brother’s son was born. I don’t have the luxury of having my son even reaching the age when children realize their parents were right after all. I had him at thirty-three. All those years lost when I thought it was more important to see the Louvre, Van Gogh Museum, Egypt. Small wonder the parents of his friends look almost like they could be my children.
But then, the only thing your life teaches you is how to live your life. And that’s only if you’re very lucky. And you listen very hard. Life teaches elliptically, epigrammatically, and most importantly, retrospectively. Reviewing the past is a luxury I cannot afford. It’s a stupid trap that can catapult me into a depression that will have my husband send me packing to an ashram in Benaras. It was nice while it lasted, though – this youth. When I was fifteen I thought the most important things were to look and sound intelligent and also what people thought of me. It took me ten years to figure out that it was to follow my dreams and not to care what anyone thinks and make my family the most important thing in my life, and show it to them, and stand by my friends. And by then it was too late, I had lost a brother and my life turned upside down even before it properly began.
There is a grace period you’re allotted when the future is ahead of you, before people you knew when you were an adolescent start saying things like, ‘what happened to you? I thought you were going to have such a big career?’ or ‘god, you were so talented, you don’t sing anymore?’or ‘Oh my god, you haven’t published anything yet?’ or, – and this is the worst – ‘I’m so impressed with all the ways you stay creative, which translates to ‘it’s astounding that your body hasn’t been found decomposing in a hessian sack in the National Highway 4. I’ve got a front-row seat to some kind of Darwinian adaptation taking place. Oh, brave new world that hath such confident young women in it!
I am not becoming anything anymore. This is as good as it will ever get. That’s the kind of thudding honesty you acquire when you are nearing fifty, and it’s that kind of thing that can lead to all manner of behavioural problems. It makes people like me, who have never put any make-up ever in life, look for a concealer. Two years back I did not even know one had this as a make-up item. Something to hide that blob atop my eyelid which elicits every single person to ask if I have checked my cholesterol. I have been told by my cousin that concealers work magically and that cauterization is not necessary. Also, I am conditioned by years of living in UK to not leave without receiving something free, and moisturizers are the Holy Grail of all facial products. They tone, repair, rejuvenate and stimulate and generally restore your faith in the value of a liberal arts degree.
Hair has fallen out of the top of my head, and medicines make them fall even more, although I think the primary culprit was the water of UK. As if they had not plundered our countries enough already, the country has its eyes set on the lush hair of sub-continental women. As I was saying, I have lost hair from where they should be but some of it has migrated to my chin. And my legs, which were positively hirsute when I was young, have also lost hair. Now, when I am not likely to wear a little black dress. It’s so unfair.
But I know it’s not personal. Facial hair is an equal opportunity offender. I have, on more than one occasion at a red light, looked across traffic lanes and seen women in BMW and Honda Accords alike checking for chin hair. So does the lady on the rickshaw, with her elbow perched on her knee, trying to pull that hair but making it look like she was a female version of Rodin’s Thinker. I am contemplating making a pact with cousin – if I should fall into a coma, we will pledge to pluck each other’s stray chin hairs while awaiting implementation of our DNRs. Runa, you listening? Sometimes, I lie in a foetal position on the chance that the effects of gravity on the aging process might be retarded if I ceased all movement.
As a teenager, I enjoyed evening singing practice with my octogenarian singing teacher. I’d fight with him and ask to extend the afternoon siesta just 15 more minutes, as he sat on the edge of my bed, cajoling me to get up and sing. Now, I already am someone’s old person. I’ve assumed my colleagues at work think of me as their more experienced peer, but no, surely they’ve noticed the many years between us? I am their old person.
Of course, if my kid becomes famous or extremely successful in whatever field he goes into, – right now it’s a subject of debate – I might receive a mental boost or at least get a lot of dinner invitations basking in his reflected glow. I make a mental note to push him harder in school. There are other things I think I should worry about but don’t and that worries me. Will my son get admitted to a good college? Will he find a good partner and will she hate me? (I now know he is not gay, so don’t catch me on the use of the gender!) Instead, I worry about whether my dog will outlive me, and if he does, who will look after him, because, hell, now my husband does nothing for him other than cuddling and declaring how much he loves him. Even when I am two minutes from dying, I have to postpone that and take him out multiple times during the day for his lamppost rituals. I worry about who will fluff the cushions and how the pillows will take the shape of the heads of my husband and son. I worry about the brass planters losing their shine, I worry about no one looking after my paintings.
A few years back, I was walking on the footpath at night in a busy Calcutta thoroughfare. I felt a scooter follow me, changing pace as I changed mine. It wasn’t terribly late, and I was wearing my usual clothes of capris and t-shirt. This went on for a while, when I decided I needed to turn and look at the chaps. As I did, they saw my face and scrammed. Not out of fear, but for having completely misjudged my age from behind. I was their mother’s age. For the first time in my life the sobering realization sank, in that should my person ever be violated, no one would suggest it was because I had worn something provocative or I was attractive. No, it would be characterized as a hate crime against women. Just that.
I am that age when I love it when someone else’s complexion is not flawless and dewy. I know I shouldn’t be so judgmental, but one of the few things I’ve been successful at maintaining into middle age is long-held resentments. Diets, meditation practice, zumba and regular flossing were all passing flirtations, but my distrust of perkiness? Intact.
Where are my keys? Or my cell phone? Good question. I started losing track of them ten years ago when I found the latter in the freezer, with a film of ice on it. Currently I am making do with sundry spectacles strewn around the house to watch TV when I need to, because I have lost mine and am too broke to get a new pair. I never have any idea what to wear. I am aging out of my wardrobe. I still hold on to clothes I have no hope in hell of fitting into ever. I try not to think about my lack of waist. I also try not to think of how waistlessness has a direct link to pigs, as Satyajit Ray told us. I gave up trying to find my keys because I’d rather use my remaining brain cells to scour my memory for movie titles, and names of the spouses of old friends. I catch myself punching the air with a triumphant “Yes!” when my brain has successfully located this mostly useless information.
And although I am an atheist, the only way I can afford the longer life span and existential satisfaction that the Amway supplements I can’t afford are supposed to afford me will be to find gainful employment in the afterlife. Nearing fifty as a woman is the time you think of the gorgeous person who eyed you but whom you ignored because you were looking for brains and sense of humour in your man. He is the path not taken. It is also when I started to suspect the timbre of my husband’s snoring is specifically calibrated to annoy me. It is when you realize you have a peaceful content marriage if you share less than 5 sentences in a day with your spouse; and all your communication is about your dog, son or some party you have to attend, if he remembers not to switch off the AC when he leaves the room and you are still there.
It is when I realize I am essentially living my grandma’s life. Minus the grandchildren.