Tuesday, March 25, 2014

When Old Age Comes Calling

This is a representative photo 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Whenever I look at childhood albums, one photo always makes me squirm. It was of me standing three feet away from an Alsatian dog that belonged to George Thomas and his wife Molly. Standing right next to the animal, in a garden, was my bold childhood friend, Suresh. No matter how much the elders coaxed me, I was too scared to step close to the dog. And so Molly Aunty laughed and shouted, “Okay”, and the photo was taken. Looking back, I realise that I had unconsciously adopted my mother's irrational fear of dogs.

It was a time in the 1970s when my parents were young and energetic, with jet-black hair and pearly white teeth, in the bloom of health, enjoying life to the hilt. And we had gone from Kolkata with the Jacob family to spend a vacation in a small town in Orissa.

George Thomas was a senior manager in a private firm and lived in a large bungalow with his effervescent wife Molly. She was childless, but never seemed to mind it. And I remember all the laughter, jokes, the occasional teasing, and the imbibing of alcohol among the adults as we children played on the lawn. Undoubtedly, all of us had a good time.

Fast-forward more than 40 years: A couple of weeks ago, along with my parents, I meet Molly Aunty for the first time since that vacation. She has greyed, wears spectacles, and lives in a single room in an old people's home in Kochi. Her Chennai-based husband had died of a heart attack a few years ago. And the moment she sees me, she exclaims, “I still have that photo of you and Suresh standing next to our Alsatian dog. Both of you were sweet and well-behaved children.”

But soon her face falls as she ponders about her life. “I don't feel strong enough when I walk now,” she says. “I fell down sometime ago. It has affected my confidence.” She pauses and says, in a low voice, “Nobody comes to see me.”

But Molly Aunty quickly becomes magnanimous. “I can't blame people these days,” she says. “They are under so much pressure. We should not burden them with our problems.”
As she speaks, I am trying hard to recall the image of that jolly woman of a long time ago. As if sensing my thoughts, she suddenly clasps my mother's hands and says, with a youthful smile, “What wonderful times we had, isn't it?” And my mother smiles and presses her friend's hand in return.

What can both of them say? Everybody is given a youth. And when you have that, you live as if you will remain young forever. And then time comes and knocks it away, puts in middle age, then after a while it knocks that away and then you slide into into old age.

In his book, 'A World Growing Old', author Jeremy Seabrook writes, “Ageing seems to take most people by surprise. There are no rites of passage, no ceremonies, and no rituals to mark the entrance into old age. There is also little evidence that old age is a time of serenity.

In the middle stages of my own life, I am fearful that, one day, old age will creep onto me, like a thief in the night, and, most probably, leave me devastated. 

(Published as a middle in The New Indian Express, South India)  

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