We are all time travellers Watching a loved one grow old is painful, even as it shines a light on our own passage through life.

The author's parents Madhav Rao and Manorama.
The author’s parents Madhav Rao and Manorama.

It’s true. Age has a way of creeping up. Today you are sixteen, tomorrow it’s your 60th and one day you wonder where it all went. You count the minutes by the years you’ve invested in trying to figure out who your real friends are, and how you wept as the mysteries of family unravelled, and wondered whether you’d saved enough to make some dreams come true, and simply wait for the children to grow up and be on their own feet, so you could have your life back. All the while your life’s simply been surging ahead, relentlessly, inexorably, and mothers and fathers have been growing older.

Sandhya-Rao-with-author-credit
Sandhya Rao

See how far the feet have travelled, criss-­crossing places and weaving together people and lives and experiences, creating storms and stories, leaving memories in the wake of goodbyes. The helloes are unknown, uncertain, but filled with hope and expectation. Goodbyes are final and forever.

I was 16 once, not long ago, and at 16, my mother who was 38, seemed all-knowing, all mother. The person camouflaged by the persona I had seen as a child and a teenager and a youth, tore through the disguise much much later. Meanwhile, countries won freedom as people lost theirs. Governments rose and fell, and rose again in different forms. Leaders have shown the light, and then faded, some shot out of existence, some clinging on for dear power. New discoveries, new planets, new books, new songs, new bands, new stars. The population’s bursting. There’s technology like never before, and possibilities never imagined.

 

Move over

It’s like the universe is saying, move over, old woman, your time is done and now, like The Beatles, I want to ask: “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?” Indeed, it is a far distance. I felt like I would never get there, not 25, not 35, and certainly not 60! No, that was not for me… I thought, like Simon and Garfunkel in a song: “Can you imagine us years from today,/Sharing a park bench quietly/How terribly strange to be seventy.”

Well, The Beatles don’t make music together any more, and even S&G have gone their separate ways as they’ve grown older. The music remains.

Knowing all this, we still believe that old age is for the old. My mother was once the apple of her father’s eye. She loved and still loves all four-legged creatures, she grew up surrounded by cows and goats and deer and dogs and cats, and even a ­mongoose once. She lived in small towns and villages in Tamil Nadu, and spent a large part of her life in Satyamangalam, now synonymous only with a bandit, but then known for its forests and sandal trees. She heard Gandhiji’s call for freedom and with her brother spun on the takli from balls of cottonwool. She listened goggle-eyed and open-mouthed to her grandfather, a policeman, spin the most fascinating yarns, even as my sister and cousins and I listened to his daughter, my grandmother, tell taller than tall tales with utter conviction.

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Plucked from a simple, idyllic, rural environment and dropped into a well-oiled boarding school scenario at age 10 or 11, my mother took to her new life without a murmur, even contending with a thus-far unfamiliar English language. She sang her way through college and became president of the student’s union. Then came marriage into a family that spoke a language she had not heard until then, and adjusting with a whole host of new things associated with marriage, including husband, cooking and keeping house, children, transfers, finance, new places and people, working, caring… and so much more.

She soon grew into a larger-than-life figure who took whole families under her wing, in much the same way her mother and mother-in-law had done in their time. She was strong, she was decisive, she was positive, she was life-affirming.

 

Coming to terms

Now she is 83, which is not old by our standards, but the years of caring have taken their toll, and it’s heart-­breaking to see how fragile she’s become. When you are young, you look forward to the future. When you grow old, you look back on the past. But when past and future meld with the white light of the present, it seems you can only time-travel. In this journey, there are no shadows, no shades of grey. Just a white light that leads you from one moment to the next, where life and all those who peopled it blur into an undefined glare. There are moments, of course, when time splits to allow memory and feelings to meet and mingle. But those are momentary.

It was the English poet William Wordsworth who wrote, in the context of the French Revolution, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven.” Surely that is true. To be young in itself is a wonderful thing. No wonder the young revel in themselves as much as they do, and indeed they should. Because youth is ephemeral, time is of this moment, then gone. We know because we see it all around us. So, talk to the elderly. More importantly, listen to their stories. They are unique and they are true and they will remain in your memory even if the physical vestiges disappear.

And the next time the word ‘old’ pops up, remember wine: the older it gets, the finer it tastes. Or pickles, the longer they marinate, the more delicious the flavours.

As always, William Shakespeare gets it right when he describes ­Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.” Adding on years isn’t only about growing old, that’s the least of it, because you can be ‘young’ when you are ‘old’ and you can be ‘old’ when you are ‘young’. It is about experiences that warm the blood, and wisdom that powers the brain. No matter how hard young people aspire for these, they can never have it, because they do not have the years on their side.

You are born, you live and you time-travel… it’s all a mind-game, isn’t it?

 Courtesy: BusinessLine on Campus (BLoC), a web resource for B-schoolers.

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