Old age was an indecent state that had to be ended before it was too late…at eighty-one years of age, Dr Urbino had enough lucidity to realize that he was attached to this world by a few slender threads….
Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel García Márquez
We generally associate old age with inertia, purposelessness and intimations of mortality. There is a general belief that once you cross seventy-five years, you experience cognitive decline. But that is not always true. For 95-year-old former Indonesian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, age is just a number and it has made no difference to his political ambition. Last year he launched his new party with renewed vigour. In India, the octogenarian Metroman, Dr Elattuvalapil Sreedharan (88), kicked off his new innings as a politician in Kerala in February this year. These octogenarians are focusing on their work without the pitfalls of impatience and cynicism.
Those at the other end of the age spectrum with advancing age are more often than not stereotyped as petulant and cynical, who are content to spend their time watching the world go by. Most of them have a tendency to look back on the past and hold regrets. In the poem, ‘Gerontion’, T.S. Eliot referred to old age as something which is undesirable, as it brings in its wake bitterness and the struggle to make sense of one’s life. Similarly, in the poem, Sailing to Byzantium, W.B. Yeats says that once a person crosses the line into old age, he tends to become as worthless and helpless “like a scarecrow”.
Be that as it may, there are numerous instances of politicians, writers, musician and painters who have faced the insidious snares of old age with rare courage and determination.
Last year, during the presidential campaign in the US, both the Presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders (78) and Joe Biden (77) were considered “too old” to run the country, so much so that a magazine in the United States ran a feature that labelled the 2020 race “the dementia campaign.” Biden hit back at his critics, saying that he was in fine fettle, offering as evidence a doctor’s report and a claim that he could do forty-four push-ups. No wonder, he had the last laugh as he went on to become the 46th president of the United States.
Two thousand years ago, Plutarch of Chaeronea, a Greek philosopher of the Roman empire, wrote an essay entitled, “Should an old man engage in politics?” Plutarch knew that mental and physical decline comes with age. After all, he wrote his essay at the age of seventy and showed a keen interest in local politics. Plutarch believed that old men should never shy away from participating in politics. He also believed that in the case of older politicians, their greatest asset is not the “wisdom that comes with age, but the composure that comes with experience.”
Morarji Desai happens to be the only Indian politician to become prime minister at the age of 81. In 1977, Desai took the oath of office as the fourth Prime Minister and led the government formed by the Janata Party. He died at the age of 99 in 1995.
Besides politicians, there are instances of writers, singers and painters too, who, despite their advancing years, discovered sources of serendipity and mined a rich seam of creativity in their works. At the age of 96, writer Harry Bernstein earned belated literary fame with his memoir. Famous American singer-songwriter and Nobel Prize winner, Bob Dylan, who recently turned 80, is still going great guns. Having penned more than 600 songs in his career, these days, since he can’t hold a guitar, Dylan performs propped up by a piano.
Back home, writers like Nirad C. Chaudhary and Khushwant Singh, defying the tyranny of age, kept on producing works of rare literary merit till their death. Their advancing age hardly blunted their creative edge. If there is one writer in India who continues to write with rare maniacal energy and unflagging zeal, it is none other than the venerable and prolific Ruskin Bond. His latest book, based on some of his memorable short stories, was released on his 87th birthday in May 19. The effervescent Bond, who lives with his adopted family in Landour, Mussoorie’s lvy Cottage, finds his zest for living undiminished. He is happy, as always, living close to nature.
For the creatively inclined, age is never a restrictive factor. Instead of being snuffed out like a candle, they blaze and shine like a meteor. Painters and writers like Picasso, Tagore, Michelangelo, Bach, Goethe, Stravinsky, to name but a few utilised their advancing years by pushing the envelope of creativity. It is never too late to start something new. Rabindranath Tagore developed an interest in painting at the age of 63 and, like poetry and prose, proved his remarkable mastery over this medium as well. Dylan Thomas once wrote …, “old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”