Well, 76. Much, much above the mandatory age limit of 65, above which one cannot stir out of home during these lockdown days. The movement ban is indeed intended to ensure the safety of the elderly, their well being, I know and do not complain, but it still casts an unpleasant spell on life, gives an ache to the heart.
Old men are so unlike the youngsters and the middle aged. The latter two groups have all the healthy years ahead, but for the aged the days of free movement in this world are really numbered. The time is not far off when they show tell-tale symptoms, ominous signs of real old age, like for instance forgetting the way back home. Once such conditions set in, the entire family is sure to put its collective foot down and strictly ask you to remain indoors, perhaps for the rest of your life. For many, if that happens there can only be a fervent wish for the final deliverance.
That is why I feel that old men like me should be allowed to, to use an old expression, make hay while the sun shines. In their case the sun many not shine for long, so it will be better to let them make hay as they pleased, let them enjoy life with such small mercies as going on a small drive or a small walk, engaging in small talk with neighbours they meet on the way, make small purchases of milk, groceries or the like and smugly return home with the profound feeling that they are fulfilling their life’s mission in the best possible manner.
There are many lucky guys who do not look their age at all. One of my classmates, of my age, to cite an example, does not have a single grey hair on his head. Because he is cleanly tonsured, a Yul Brynner style he adopted in his forties. In that style he looks as agile as Yul Brynner in his prime. Another friend, one year senior to me in college, looks a middle aged man, if not an oldish youngster, with his smart dress and blackened hair.
A friend suggested that I can go out, if I am prepared to have a sartorial makeover. Wear blue Denim pants, faded if possible, and T-shirt blazoning some outrageous writing on the front. With a cap, normally worn by morning walkers, and the face mask, I can cover, or cover up, all my grey hair and grey moustache and pass off as one below 65.
But I am a perennially diffident man. I simply do not have the guts to deal with the situation if the hawk- eye of a roadside cop sees through my façade. So, that makeover prospect is out.
Unlike my friends cited, I have always been considered much above my real age. I was hardly 40 when some neighbourhood kids started calling me ‘Appuppa’ (Grandpa) instead of the usual ‘Uncle.’ Initially I was a little annoyed, but then thought the kids must have seen some grandpa like qualities in me. And one day I was in for a bigger shock. I was away to a village and on the way back I stopped at a wayside office on some errand and was talking to the lady officer there. I saw a wrinkled old woman, with all the trappings of a vagrant, with a long stick on one end of which she carried a big cloth bundle, crossing the road and coming to the office. The lady officer told me that the woman belonged to an affluent family in the locality, but always wandered here and there like a vagrant. The woman came straight into the office and loudly asked me ‘Ammava, enthokkeyundu visheshangal?’ (Hi Uncle, what news?)
Patiently I asked how old she was. She said she was 86. I said I was only nearing 60 and calling me ‘Ammava’ may be a little too exaggerated. ‘Can’t you instead call me Chetta?' (Elder brother) , I suggested. She promptly agreed, asking: ‘Appozhe Chetta, enthokkeyundu visheshangal?’ (Then, Elder Brother, what news?)
This Ammavan sobriquet stuck somehow, my youngish looking old friend addressing me always as Ammavan and giving it wide currency in his family and friends' circle..
I do not know if as an adolescent or youngster I had given due respect to the aged I came across in life. Probably yes, but I am not quite sure. What I remember is that occasionally at least I relished anything derogatory to them or anything that made fun of them. One of my favourite quotes in my later college life was T S Eliot’s take on old men, ‘I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.’ To me that was an image of an old man with lousy dress sense, an image that came to mind whenever I thought of old men. Eliot was hardly twenty when he wrote that poem, The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock. I was 22 or so when I took it to heart, never realizing that such a phase may come to me also, in the course of the slow but steady march of time.
It was also in my youth that I heard the popular Beatles song When I am Sixty-Four. It had meaningful lyrics by Paul McCartney, written when he was only 16, and was credited to both him and John Lennon. ‘Will you still need me, will you still feed me/ When I'm sixty-four?’
When I get older losing my hair
Many years from now
Will you still be sending me a Valentine,
Birthday greetings,bottle of wine?
If I'd been out till quarter to three
Would you lock the door?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me
When I'm sixty-four?
I am not 64 but 76 now and so far the going has been good. I have been well fed and well looked after. But what does the future hold for me? And for aged people like me? How long and how well? Only future can say. Or will it be like what Mathew Arnold said in one of his most famous poems, Growing Old:
What is it to grow old?
Is it to lose the glory of the form,
The luster of the eye?
Is it for beauty to forego her wreath?
Yes, but not this alone.
Is it to feel our strength —
Not our bloom only, but our strength — decay?
Is it to feel each limb
Grow stiffer, every function less exact,
Each nerve more loosely strung?
Yes, this, and more; but not
Ah, ’tis not what in youth we dreamed ’twould be!
’Tis not to have our life
Mellowed and softened as with sunset glow,
A golden day’s decline.
Arnold says old age is not what we dreamed of in our youth. That is absolutely true. But even in old age can't we have dreams, or perhaps hopes, of our own, though mellowed and softened with the sunset's glow?