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Shobhaa De is turning 70 in her usual manner. By writing an irreverent book about it

By December 20, 2017No Comments

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Reflections on, among other things, ageing and friendship, eating beef and tackling Twitter trolls.

Shoba De

There is a phrase I hate hearing myself utter – “as one grows older”. What happens when you get older? Do horns appear? Do your toenails fall off? Well, they can. Your hair certainly does, from all over. Teeth too. Your equipment dries up but doesn’t rust. You may get cataracts, and knees might require replacement, as could hips. It’s all rather pitiable, dreadful and messy, so why talk about it? Nobody but other fuddy-duddies wants to know what really happens “as one grows older”. Your bowel movements should remain a deep dark secret. Along with flatulence and fibroids. As some star said, “A good doctor can give you what god didn’t.” So please spare the world. Your medical history is for you and you alone.

The other equally irritating line is, “When you get to my age!” I say that less. But when people around me use it, I feel tempted to pipe in with a cheeky and rude, “Yes, honey, when I get to your age, I will still be wearing high heels and red lipstick. And deep-purple outfits.” Or I feel like mocking the person with an offensive comeback, “Oh dear, are you referring to adult diapers?” These responses are not intended to offend my age group. I know we all have to endure some terrible affliction or another and suffer. I prefer to suffer privately and not inflict suffering on others.

Age has its uses too. I use mine when it suits me, like asking for an airport buggy after flashing my senior citizen status. Or promptly accepting help from youngsters to carry heavy shopping bags. If you can’t leverage age, don’t mention it.

When I am on a flight, I often meet interesting people. It starts off with a studiedly casual, “My wife is a big fan of yours” (Lies! The man needs an excuse to strike up a conversation!), then comes the selfie request (“for my daughter…”), and once this connection has been established, a free-flowing conversation begins. I wonder what sort of a thrill these men get by chatting with a strange woman they are never likely to meet again. At some point, we end up discussing children. And I mention grandchildren. Something goes “boinggggg!” inside the fellow’s simple, little head. The expression in his eyes alters in an instant. His voice drops. Sometimes he folds his hands and says, “Namasteyji,” reverentially. A few men actually dive for my feet. A perfectly normal conversation abruptly changes course, and we start talking about pilgrimages.

The age thing again. This is just so silly! I am not the one who has initiated the conversation. Is the man terrified I might bite him? A little later, I get it. The man is nervous. To start a conversation with a strange lady is not part of our great Indian culture. To start a conversation with a lady who is a senior citizen? A grandmother? A naani – hey, bhagwan! A dialogue needs a filter, a justification (“My wife is your fan…”). Or else, guilt happens.

At the time of writing, I am a good few months away from hitting that silly number. But my sweet family is busy planning many surprises, which may include a cruise. We are serial cruisers. I believe families that cruise together, stay together, and drink a lot together! I don’t want to cramp their enthusiasm by interfering. But I have a few plans of my own, should someone ask me.

A few things I am certain about – there has to be lots of singing and dancing. A few things remain fluid and open. Being an improvisational artist, I like the idea of deciding in December what to do in the first week of January. Everything is possible, if you dream it. Who knows what December may inspire? It’s important to keep options, and the mind, open but I notice most people at seventy are creatures of habit. They don’t want to change a thing. They like their routines. They are comfortable with the familiar. Anything else throws them, and leads to confusion and disorientation.

I want to urge them to break out of that cage of fixed notions. Give life a try – raw, real life. It’s not all that scary, you know.

In fact, doing something totally unexpected, even potentially dangerous, may turn out to be the most exciting risk you have ever taken! At the very least you will go to the great beyond having experienced an adrenaline fix, an unbelievable high. That should be tempting enough. I hope my children are skipping this part – or they may tie me up!

Watching the sequel to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (rather unimaginatively titled The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), I was most amused by a scene in which Richard Gere, playing a tired hotel inspector, first appears on screen. I for one gasped audibly and loudly cheered when one of the senior citizen actresses in the movie commented, “The lord have mercy on my ovaries!” Yes, it was an age thing. Most of the women in the cinema hall were “over the hill” like me. So were the actresses in the movie (except for the hero’s fiancée).

We were responding to a memory – and not the man in that scene. Our memory had frozen, and we were swooning over Richard Gere’s character in Pretty Woman, which had just celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary. Just as we were twenty-five years older, so was Richard Gere. That’s a quarter century of nostalgia. We were no longer “fan girls” of Gere – we were fan buddhis!

That cruel word – buddhi! It has such a deeply wounding effect when hurled at a woman well past her prime.

And this is where a small story comes in. At a family gathering being celebrated in a trendy, new midtown cafe, the earliest reservation given to our party of twelve was for 10 pm. By the time family members started to roll up, the scene outside the cafe was pretty lively – lots of young, affluent people were gearing up for a long and hard night of partying (it was Friday night, after all). Three ladies from our group arrived together and struggled to push their way past the crowded door, where clumps of youngsters were enjoying a smoke.

Spotting the ladies, a cheeky girl, cigarette in hand, turned to them and said loudly, “Wow! What an inspiration you guys are to our generation. Keep it up, aunties!” One of the “aunties” bristled at this “insult” and ticked off the person sharply. The others were equally miffed.

It made me wonder – are we getting extra touchy when it comes to accepting age? Is that why the lady in our group reacted so strongly to what could have been an innocent compliment? Perhaps the young woman had spoken out of turn, perhaps she was a little high, perhaps she was acting smart, perhaps she was being spontaneous. By not giving her the benefit of the doubt, we had betrayed our insecurities.

We were talking about the “incident” two days later, thereby giving it far more importance than it warranted. Of course, young people are cheeky and merciless. They appear to lack sensitivity sometimes, but have we forgotten our own youth and how we used to be? In the eyes of the outside world, we are indeed “buddhi”s – our hair is grey or greying, our gait is slower than it used to be, we look like we may require the use of a walker soon, and our posture is not exactly upright – in fact, we slouch and stoop. So what? Aunty or buddhi – there is no escaping age.

Shoba De Book

Excerpted with permission from Seventy…And To Hell With It, Shobhaa Dé, Penguin Random House India.

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