By Suresh Pattali
Dear Mr Emile Ratelband,
Trust you’re doing well. Though we haven’t met, you look and sound effervescent in the videos and TV interviews I have seen of you. May God keep you so forever.
I am aware it isn’t easy to debate a positivity guru and TV personality like you. Talking ageism to a 69-year-old veteran, rich with all mortal experiences, would be like preaching to a priest. The news that you have asked a court in your native Netherlands to grant a new birthday that would make you 49 wasn’t news at all to me. For I had made a similar attempt around seven years ago.
Though we two were theoretically on the same page, our affidavits differed on a couple of points. While you want your age revised to a more youthful number, I want my entire life reversed. Kind of factory reset with memory back-up. While you have moved a court of law, in 2011 I petitioned the Almighty himself through my column, It’s Yesterday Once More. “It’s my unquenchable yearning to live life again. And live with all its follies. Give me a second chance. I would tread my own footprints. I would sing the songs of experience with the same village girls,” I had pleaded.
Dear Emile, seven years on, I am still awaiting the judgement, while my marketability takes a plunge daily on Tinder and other dating apps. My prayer seems to have fallen on deaf ears and my parlour visits to cover up the greying sideburns have become more frequent. On a scale of 0-10, with 10 being the highest, my chances of winning is an abysmal zero because it needs a divine intervention. A judicial and bureaucratic intervention to make you officially 49 from the biological 69 also seems to be highly unlikely.
Emile, the phenomenon of ageing had been haunting me since the age of 22 when I had just picked up a job in a Bombay newspaper and rented a 2BHK apartment in the Kurla Railway Quarters. I had sublet one room to a Bengali couple whose four-year-old son ‘abused’ me day in, day out by calling a 22-year-old boyish-looking me as Kakaji (meaning uncle). Though it’s a Bombay culture to call anybody uncle, my heart skipped a beat at being called so. It still rings in my ears like a death knell. At that age, I was raring to grow, but the thought that there’s an uncle — a sleeping giant — within me, put a brake on my biological ambitions. I suddenly wanted to slow down. I refused to do what the grown-ups loved to do. I wanted to withdraw into the comfort of the cotton candy days rather than do racing, clubbing and dating.
Girls ultimately changed me. I was back in the fast lane. Years of clubbing later, I found myself on a highway that had no U-turn. I wanted to brake at each milestone I sped past — marriage, first baby, second baby, etc — but life never stopped. The more I wished to slow down, the faster it went. Occasionally, wifey started to rub it in by calling me “old man”. As in “what’s up, old man?”, “How are you old man?” etc, which was unfair because I never gave such prefixes or suffixes to anybody. It’s high time women realised reciprocity is key to a healthy love life.
Emile, it pained when I realised the old man reference was, in fact, a reminder to pull the chain on my coquettish mannerism. I felt an invisible bridle around my drive and spirit. I pulled back from the flirting crowds at parties and instead discussed the rupee devaluation or the climate accord. Life turned into an ember that crumbles. They conveniently call it midlife crisis, a term society invented to cover up its crime of dumping on the wayside a generation of yesteryear youths.
Things were never the same again. We tend to give up on ourselves when children take over the mission of harassment and tell us, “Listen dad, don’t dye. Age gracefully. White is anyway the new rage.” When my son said that on my face, at a time the dye was still wet on the sideburns, I was so hurt I wanted to condemn him to a university in Saint Petersburg for the rest of his life.
And then my life changed during a journey. When the ambulance was winding its way through the morning traffic choke in Sharjah, there was a new awakening. When the line between life and death blurs, your perspective takes a whole new angle. Everything around you become so beautiful. Everyone around you become so good. The doctor, the nurse, the ambulance driver… they all looked like angels guarding over you. They smile at you, they comfort you, and they alleviate your pain with pethedine. They resuscitate you and your spirit. They even wink at you.
Yes, a Priya Warrier wink. Emile, do you watch Indian movies? If not I suggest you at least see the song teaser Manikya Malaraya Poovi from the Malayalam film Oru Adaar Love. The ambulance journey was my Manikya Malaraya moment. As she pushed the stretcher to the catheter lab, she touched my hand and said, “You’ll be all right.”
I was wide awake on the operating table. It was quiet and dark, except for the surgical lights and monitor screens. As robotic arms did aerobatics over my chest, I wasn’t scared. I was watching her face behind the green-clad doctor. Her lips quivered as if she was reciting prayers. Her hazel eyes glowed like a cat. In a drug-induced hallucination, I saw her standing on the edge of the operating table. Like Rose in the Hollywood movie Titanic, she spread her hands like wings. I held her from behind as she crooned, Your Heart Will Go On.
The doctor punctured a blood vessel on my thigh and sent the catheter all the way up. I watched the rhythm of my life as the heart pumped on. It looked like the Champs Elysées the day after a White Sunday. Like a war zone scattered with carcasses of dreams — each plaque representing a failed affair. The catheter cleared up the mess like a civic team and hung up balloons in the heart’s key promenades. It was a celebration of life. A new beginning. A new hope. A new dream. Suddenly, there’s much more room in my heart.
“Can I fly to Nepal? I mean I am supposed to,” I asked the doctor on the sixth day as he came for a ward visit. In his trail was a group of interns and nurses. Her hazel eyes talked to me from the crowd.
“Why not? Go and climb Everest,” the doctor joked amid a chorus of laughter. Like a morning ray struggling through a cumulonimbus cloud, her glance filtered through a sea of white uniforms. Hiding behind the interns, she tilted her head like a curious kid, flashed a wink and disappeared behind the ICU door.
Emile, in hindsight it was the second chance I had petitioned for. I wouldn’t ask for more. At this age, we both need to really grow up and understand the wise saying that age is just a number that doesn’t mean anything. It’s our life. Let’s live it in full, on our own terms, and in our own space. Have you listened to the Indian yogi Sadhguru? “You have to create your own well-being and find your own place of happiness. As long as you are in good mood and good health, think about happy things, do happy things daily and have fun in doing, then you will pass your time happily every day.
“One day passes without happiness, you will lose one day. One day passes with happiness and then you gain one day.”
Emile, try out the Sadhguru math. Each day gained might make you 49. Some day.
Suresh is senior editor. He believes procrastination ruins lives