Roaring Into Twilight

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Illustration: Anand Naorem

ONE UNSUSPECTING MORNING three years ago, my father walked down the stairs and never came back. He was on his way to drop my three-yearold son to school when his great head suddenly tilted gently over his shoulder with a sigh, and he lost consciousness under the mango tree in front of my house. The doctors said, the lights went out in his brain. He had had a massive haemorrhage. He was a little short of 75.

The shock hit us hard. There had been no preamble, no illness, no creeping frailty, and for a long while after, whenever I was alone, especially in a plane staring at the borderless void outside, a shooting pain would jolt through me, unbidden, unlatching itself like a toy box hinged on a faulty spring. But slowly, as unbidden, a curious sense of calm and invulnerability came to replace the pain.

My father was not a well-known man but he left a grand legacy. For 40 years he had been a doctor in some of the most neglected corners of India — the tea gardens of Bengal and, later, in the primitive Bihar district of Madhepura. In the absence of any medical infrastructure, he was all things to all patients — a general practitioner, an orthopaedist, a neurosurgeon, a gynaecologist, a plastic surgeon, a paediatrician. He was blessed with that increasingly rare gift — a doctor’s intuition and a humanist’s brain, and he performed impossible surgeries in impossible conditions. Delivering stuck breech babies, building absent stomach walls, fixing abdomens gored by elephants, restoring life (and sometimes beauty) to victims with 95 percent burns. All on a makeshift operation table under the light of an inverted table lamp. And no air-conditioning. He had a pithy dictum he lived by. Mind over matter, mind over matter, he would say, and with that inexpensive ammunition he took everything in his stride.

Strangely, as the first months passed, my father’s death left me with a powerful gift. Each time I thought of him, I’d smile. Remembering his boundary-less love of mangoes and boiled eggs. His sudden guffaws. His fullthroated anecdotes of rampaging animals and drunk tribals and despairing tea-planters. His understated wisdoms. Death suddenly meant very little, and the fear of losing was replaced by the unassailable calm of having known someone who had lived fully and without regret.

TEHELKA’s special edition this week — The Elixir of Youth — celebrates this triumph of the lived life over the assaults of age and death. It features extraordinary men and women — 75 and above — who are still in youthful mid-stream, joyously, defiantly in the thick of life.

Ninety-four-year-old MF Husain dashing about the globe like a sci-fi gypsy, buying luxury cars and painting with feverish excitement. Eighty-sixyear- old Ram Jethmalani still picking burly fights with the powerful and the corrupt, and thrashing younger men at badminton. Seventy-eight-yearold Bejan Daruwalla bellowing hellos to his Ganesha idols, while chuckling at the antics of Tom and Jerry. Seventyfive- year-old Waheeda Rehman sitting in sub-zero cold without complaint to finish a shot. Eighty-year-old Krishnammal travelling from village to village, sleeping on whatever mat comes her way, tirelessly fighting for the landless. Eighty-five-year-old RK Laxman still capable of cracking a daily pungent joke on India. And 101-year-old Rashid Saheb still strapped to the pleasures of his soaring throat.

These men and women prove that dipping strengths — even death — can be merely immaterial fluctuations in the great business of life

Old age usually comes packed in fearful stereotypes: complaints, loneliness, a calling in of old debts, a demand for duteous love. A crippling obsession with failing sap and aching bones. The young avoid the old, simultaneously bored and terrified of this image of what they will become. But these men and women prove that old age is a contagion you can by-pass. And dipping strength, sickness — even death — can be merely immaterial fluctuations in the great business of life.

In the 50-odd portraits in this issue, different people have spoken of different ruses: meditation, yoga, diets, a regimen of exercise. But the real weapon they collectively wield is an impetuous zest for life and a vivid frame of mind.

The first string in this frame — the one most undervalued — is the capacity to take boundless pleasure in things, both frivolous and deep. Shanti Bhushan in his soap serials; Charles Correa in his sudokus; Bhanu Athaiya in her hairbands; Akbar Padamsee in the quality of rain; Shyam Benegal in a new film; Homai Vyarawala in spicy food; Soli Sorabjee in the company of women. It keeps them interested; it makes them interesting.

Then there is the great quartet: passion, curiosity, continuing engagement and zero sense of entitlement. Part of the legend of MF Husain is that at 94, he has the curiosity of the new born. He is freshly learning Arabic; is fascinated by new gadgets; the thoughts of the young; and the innovations of a new century. Exiled from a country he has loved, at the fag end of his life, he wasted no time in querulous complaint and waited for no one to hoist his refuge for him. He built himself a new world and placed himself at its joyous centre. He lives as if there is no end in sight; and because of this, when the end does come, he will have subdued its importance.

This issue may be centred on people above 75, but all its inspirations are for the young. We picked well-known people so that their stories would resonate for everyone. But the real beauty of these eminent people is that their spirit can be exhilaratingly commonplace.

I had never noticed my father was growing old: he had given no sign of it. He gave no notice for his death either. All we were left with when he was gone, then, was the memory of a rich man and the glorious elixir of his life.

The physical passage of years is inevitable; but the offence of old age is not. The stories of the men and women in this issue is public proof of that hopeful thought.