If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Monday, 30 June 2008

Never wish me long life

Where no physical violence is involved, I am a reasonably brave man. I routinely rush in where angels fear to tread. Yet my brave soul feels shaky if I have to call a friend suddenly or telephone an aunt.

The reason? More likely than not, I’d be greeted with a ‘You’ll live a hundred years, I was just thinking of you’, or ‘You’d live a hundred years. We were just talking about you’.

Have you ever thought how often someone thinks of you just when you had to do something with the same someone? Can such preponderance of mutual recollections be mere coincidences? Can such things be explained “scientifically” by the theories of probability or randomness? I believe no. Statistics is beyond my ken, but I know that our mighty science knows little about the human mind. I tend to think our mind has a sensor unknown to scientists. It gives us a nudge when a friend is just outside the door, and is about to press the bell. Or when my daughter at the other end of the country picks up the phone to call me ….

So far so good. To hear that someone thinks of me, that I have a room in someone’s mind, gives me a sense of belonging and warmth. But the hundred year bit? My god, living a hundred years!

Nair-da is a Malayali settled in Calcutta who speaks a beautiful flowery Bengali with a thick Malayalam accent. When I met him last, Nair-da, an archetypal bachelor and non-conformist, used to live in what could be described as the untidiest flat in Calcutta, surrounded by books, cigarette butts and unwashed tea cups. It was a house of openness and chaos, where nothing was swept under the carpet, literally and metaphorically. Needless to say, Nair da loved his Charminars and almost lived on them. I once ventured to lecture him on the evils of smoking and asked him to give it up.

He said, innocently: ‘Give me one good reason, and I will.’

‘You’d live longer,’ and I was trapped. Nair da shot back in his flamboyant Bengali, ‘Preposterous! For living this appalling, wretched, meaningless life longer, you suggest that I give up the only pleasure of living!’

I agree. I have not advised anyone to give up smoking ever since. ‘Live a hundred years’ could be the worst curse you could bestow upon me or anyone. Live hundred years, with friends dead and family drifted away, live in the company of cats and constipation, loneliness and Alzheimer’s. No, please don’t. If you are a friend reading this piece, never wish me long life. If you, dear reader, are a beautiful woman, (Like Nirad C, I too think, "Could I be so unfortunate that there would be none?"), smile your charming smile at these lines. I will trade my long life just for your smile.

The western world and Japan are groaning under the weight of an ageing society. Days are not far off when every working Japanese will have to support three old people besides their own family. We Indians need not worry on that score. We offer no social security to the old. We just let them decay and die.

‘Inqilab Zindabad!’, ‘Viva la revolution!’, ‘Long Live the Revolution!’ Twentieth century’s attempt to redraw the map of human evolution ended before evolutionary history could bat an eyelid. The Russian Revolution died at a young age of 76. China took less time to desert the god that failed. Another rebellion ended abruptly in the killing fields of Kampuchea, with a fifth of the country’s population dead. Perhaps these happened as the revolutionaries were more concerned with the longevity of the revolution, and not its quality.

On my tenth birthday, my dad gave me a book, on the first page of which he wrote: Dear Son, Live well, Live long.

Baba was one of those millions whose world had been shattered by the partition of India. Before that he had had the taste of a tough childhood after losing his father early. After the partition, he started from scratch all over again and had to fight a grim battle all his life. Thanks to an unbending faith in Gandhiji, he had an inflexible conscience and refused to make even the tiniest compromise. In the process, he had his moments of joy, but also suffered terrible failures and indignities. It was hardly surprising that he knew living well comes before living long. … In the end he managed to renounce everything except cigarettes and khadi, left home and died fighting fit, a smoker and hermit, long before Alzheimer’s could catch up with him.

The Russian revolution did die, but the ideas don’t. Equality of all is a fascinating concept the time of which may not have arrived, but all the same, it is a concept that cannot be wished away by supply side economists, high priests of “winner takes all” and a greedy civilization that guzzles down natural resources at an alarming speed. My father is no more, the book he gave me has been lost to the tides of time, but I haven’t forgotten his words.

Next time when you are thinking of someone and they happen to ring up, please say: “I was just thinking of you. You’ll live a great life.”