How to beat the unbeatable

Vaqar Ahmed grapples with an age-old problem: old age

How to beat the unbeatable
Old age is often touted as something that brings with it wisdom, knowledge and peace. Everyone is supposed to pay the old respect, and children are exhorted to follow the wise words of their grandparents. All this makes out old age as some kind of golden period of life.

As someone on the cusp of reaching the exalted status of a senior citizen, I beg to differ.

To put it bluntly, old age is the worst period of life. Infirmities that come with getting old are nothing to celebrate and everything to mourn.

Some say that one is as young as one feels. Yes, one can feel very young mentally, but is it possible to translate that mental youth into physical action? Try playing a game of squash or go on a tough trek and the answer will become evident.

And old age is not beautiful. The hard truth is that beauty is indeed skin deep: loose parchment-like skin, cobwebs under the eyes, a sagging chin and grey or no hair do not win a beauty competition.

The problem with old age is that it marches in like a German Panzer division with a long column of physical and mental issues. Bad vision, check; poor hearing, check, some disease known as….err, I forget the name. Leading the march is grey hair. That rascal, the writer P.G. Wodehouse, once wrote, “There is only one cure for grey hair. It was invented by a Frenchman. It is called the guillotine.” As you get old, along with grey hair comes that most ridiculous of effects known as male pattern baldness. Providence was not kind enough, even, to distribute baldness uniformly. Look at the picture of an older audience sitting in a concert and the sight of shiny pates surround by scraggly gray hair makes them look like a group of clowns waiting for their turn to perform.

Great poets, being intelligent people, have never made out old age to be anything but what it is: a difficult part of life before you leave this world. Dagh Dehlvi put it thus:

Hoosh u hawas u tab u tawann Dagh ja chukey

Aab hum bhi jaaney waaley hain samaan tu giya


[Dagh, your strength and your senses have departed

Now it is your turn to follow the baggage]

And the humble Ustad Qamar Jalalvi expressed angst at getting old in these lines:

Bey-vajah kham nahin hai kamar main meri,

Jhuk jhuk ke dhundta hun jawani ki dhargai.


[It is not without reason that my back is bent

It comes from bending down, searching for my lost youth]

In this age of modern science, the old are living to be very old so the “just old” have to take care of the very old. This is a double whammy. Those who can barely find their own prescription glasses are obliged to look for the glasses of their parents. On behalf of all the old and doddering I would humbly request medical researchers to either keep us eternally healthy or let us die early with dignity!

Old age brings different sets of special problems for men and women. For men, the whole foundation of maleness crumbles. As a perceptive old man said, “You know you are old if, when a young lady says ‘yes’, you are thrilled, but if she says ‘no’, you are relieved.” For some ladies, meanwhile, a search for the right anti-aging cream intensifies.

Thor, the mighty Norse god, tries to wrestle with Old Age - and fails

Since turning fifty I have become over-sensitive to certain forms of address. I seethe with anger when a young lady addresses me as ‘Uncle’. “I am not your damn Uncle!” I want to scream.“I am a man!” Of course, if I say this, I would immediately be branded a dirty old man. The rulebook of human society says, “An old man with desires is not a desirable old man.”

A good friend on the wrong side of sixty was in a bus once when a lady with a young boy sat next to him. Like all little boys, this one got restless and jumped into the lap of my friend. The mother shouted at the boy, “Stop, don’t bother dada!” Now dada being a paternal grandfather, my friend – who is healthy as a horse and prides himself on his youthful looks – was stunned. He could take being an uncle but a grandfather was too much.

In the Western world, the old are carted off to the so-called “Seniors Homes” that often have the appearance of a morgue. These good folks have outlived their utility to the capitalist system and are thus disposed of, like any other commodity. In our part of the world old people get a better deal. For meals, a bland tasting puree of rice and lentils known as “khichri” is prepared for them as their grandchildren run around and fetch them their dentures. Most become morose and petulant but some do remain feisty. I know of a lady of ninety who wanted exactly the same sunglasses as the ones Benazir Bhutto was wearing on the day when she was assassinated.
Great poets, being intelligent people, have never made out old age to be anything but what it is:
a difficult part of life before you leave this world

Only the private medical care system benefits from old age. The older you are, the more visits there are to the doctors and hospital. During the time when my own octogenarian mother was ill, the hospital became a second home to me. Luckily, this particular hospital, being of the fancy variety, was a good place to stay informed on the latest fashions of the country. It helped that it had a restaurant with nice sandwiches. It also became a kind of social club as other friends with their parents were regularly found lurking in the corridors. The conversation would be around cheerful topics like blood tests, urine tests, X-rays and MRIs. All doctors would be criticised and the hospital owners branded as robber barons and extortionists.

I think that the only thing more difficult than taking care of an old person is to be taken care of as an old person. I dread the day when I will have be assisted to perform the simplest of tasks.

My mother used to say said that her only wish was that God would take her away if she became dependent on others in daily life. She was lucky and her wish was granted. Would I be as lucky as her? I hope so.

For my remaining life, I plan to follow the advice of my favorite writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “The secret of a good old age is simply an honourable pact with solitude.”