I shall be fifty in a few months’ time. Half a century spent on earth. A lot of my elders, not a few contemporaries, and even a sad number of juniors have already left, and obviously much less time is left for me than I have already spent: it does not make a very big difference now whether that is a few months or a few decades. The Bible says that a man who has lived ‘three score years and ten’ has had a full life and should be glad to go: I learnt about this when I was only a boy ( I spent my first long sleepless nights brooding over death at the ripe old age of seven!), and I have spent all my adult life marveling at what a wise saying that was, and how little it has been invalidated by several recent centuries of social change and technological progress. If I live on much beyond 70, I shall know I am living on borrowed time, and try to conduct myself accordingly. In fact, I don’t find it a cheery thought that a lot of my elders have lived into their late eighties…
My parents married very young. It was in 1988 that we celebrated both their silver jubilee and my father’s fiftieth birthday, and it seems as though it was only yesterday, and now it’s my turn to be fifty! Here is an excerpt from my diary written twelve years ago:
“The strangest thing about my life at this moment is that I’ve just turned 38 and I can’t feel a thing about it, except perhaps wonder (what is one supposed to feel anyway?), and the funniest thing is that I am very happy and a little sad about my life at the same time (is that the way most people without major successes and major troubles start feeling at about this time in their lives?) I distinctly remember feeling wise and old at the age of eleven, like young Scout at the end of To kill a Mockingbird, and wondering whether I’ll ever manage to turn 18 (and it wasn’t mere childish fancy – after five years of journalism and twenty years of teaching I know that I had read more and understood more and reflected more by the age of sixteen than ninety percent of people do in their entire lives, and a quarter century removed I also know that I am not very much wiser and cleverer than I used to be: in that sense I never found out what it means to become a ‘normal’ adult!). Now lo and behold, I’m pushing 40 already and there’s precious little to show for it, either by way of fame and money or even a paunch and grey hairs. Physically I’m just about as active as I ever was – I never was the athletic type anyway – and if it’s a telltale sign of advancing years that one becomes garrulous and pontificatory, well, I always loved to lecture people once I had overcome my intense innate shyness; now the shyness is all gone, but dislike of society (of society, not of all men) has taken its place, and if anything, I lecture much less these days; indeed, try to avoid talking to people outside the family unless they are paying me for it! If worry is another sign of middle age, I worried just as much as a boy as I do now: only I was troubled by examinations and my parents’ rocky marriage then, and I worry about the future of my wife and child now, so there. When did all those years fly by, and where did they go? It’s all passed like the rising mist – and that leads to the unavoidable but sobering thought that the rest of my life (another thirty or thirty five years, maybe?) is also going to whiz by, and before I know it will be ‘Sunset and evening star, and after that the dark…….’
I don’t feel down in the dumps like Macbeth,
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace to the last syllable of recorded time
And all our yesterdays have been candles
Lighting fools the way to dusty death:
but who can disagree with Prospero when he declares
Our lives are such stuff as dreams are made on,
And the end is rounded with a sleep…?
People have done Nobel Prize-winning work before they were 38, become Presidents and acknowledged saints and self-made tycoons; Alexander and Shankaracharya and Shelley were dead; my own father had spectacularly ruined what could have been a good career and sired three children by this time. After showing some early promise, I’ve only just managed to get a complete formal education and become a recognised hardworking schoolmaster, a family man, a strenuous saver and taxpayer, besides remaining a whimsical scribbler and bemused spectator of life and manners. So in a sense I have done nothing, my life is worth nothing. On the other hand, strange to say, I feel more secure and content with my life than I have ever been before – I feel so good, in fact, that my only real worry is that this idyllic existence might come to an abrupt end all too soon through some unexpected quirk of fickle fortune. You’d call that strange, wouldn’t you? How dare a man feel so good about himself with so little to his credit, and if he has somehow managed to work the impossible, why on earth should he still crib about feeling uneasy?”
Given that I was already feeling that way back in 2001, it is nothing short of bizarre that another twelve years have simply slipped away almost unnoticed, despite so much that has happened in between (see the post titled ‘Forty five and counting’, which I wrote back in 2008). I am definitely on my way to old age, I have a grown up daughter on the threshold of adult life now, and so many of my dear old boys and girls, now grown up enough to understand and appreciate the meaning of this essay, were far too young then to do so! I am not often at a loss for words, but I find it well nigh impossible to express just how I feel about this… but the overarching and undeniable fact is, the Shadow looms ever larger now.
[I pause at this point. Let me see whether some people would like me to carry on. Madhuchhanda Ray Choudhury’s remark ‘I wonder if it really matters’ on my last post gave me a big boost to start writing in this vein, so I guess she deserves a word of thanks, though I don’t know her at all, and she didn’t sound as though she was trying to be friends.]