Mark Twain once said, “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” One couldn’t agree more. Take the case of the 95-year-old former Indonesian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Last year, he resigned owing to palace intrigues. He has now launched a new party and is clearly in no mood to rest on his laurels.
Back home, E Sreedharan, the agile and energetic ‘Metro Man’, who is now 88, took many by surprise in February after he decided to begin a new innings as a political candidate of the BJP in Kerala. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that after the age of 70, we experience cognitive decline. But it takes courage to go against the grain and embrace challenges, irrespective of age.
Elderly people are, more often than not, pigeon-holed as petulant, impatient and cynical and as having lost the zest and enthusiasm for life. In the poem, ‘Gerontion’, T S Eliot referred to old age as something which is undesirable, as it brings in its wake bitterness and a desperate attempt to make sense of one’s life. Be that as it may, there are numerous instances of older adults defying age stereotypes and making their lives exemplary and inspiring enough for others to emulate.
Last year, during the presidential campaign in the US, the issue of age cropped up with a rare ferocity. Both the Presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders (78) and Joe Biden (77) were considered ‘too old’ to run the country, so much so that a magazine in the United States ran a feature that labelled the 2020 race ‘the dementia campaign’.
Biden, who is always a cool customer, hit back at his critics, saying that he was in mint condition, as sound as a bell, offering as evidence a doctor’s report and a claim that he could do 44 push-ups. He said that voters would decide whether he had the ‘cognitive capability’ and the ‘energy’ to do the job. He did end up having the last laugh, having been sworn in as the 46th president of the United States.
Oldies in politics
Two thousand years ago, Plutarch of Chaeronea, a Greek philosopher of the Roman empire, wrote an essay entitled, ‘Should an old man engage in politics?’ Plutarch knew in his bones the mental and physical decline comes with age. After all, he wrote his essay when he himself was around 70 and had been involved in the hurly-burly of local politics his whole life. He was of the opinion that old men should remain engaged in politics.
He also believed that in the case of older politicians, their greatest asset was not the ‘wisdom that comes with age, but the composure that comes with experience’. That is why, Plutarch argues, the people, when circumstances require, will sometimes ‘bring an old man back from his farm’, even if he prefers to remain in retirement, and then ‘compel him to take the helm and stabilise their affairs’. In ‘Republic’, Plato said that the rulers of a state should be older, and those who are ruled, younger.
PM Morarji Desai
In Indian politics, Morarji Desai has the enviable distinction of being the oldest person to hold the office of Prime Minister, at the age of 81, in the history of Indian politics. In 1977, Desai became the fourth prime minister of India, leading the government formed by the Janata Party. He died at the age of 99, in 1995. The Washington Post had described him as the ‘dour and ascetic prime minister of India’.
Besides politicians, there are instances of writers and painters too, who, despite their advancing years, discovered sources of serendipity and mined a rich seam of creativity in their works. Then there are business tycoons like Warren Buffett who continue to display marvellous business acumen even at an advanced age. Buffett, who celebrated his 90th birthday last year, manages his own business and shows no signs of slowing down.
At the age of 96, writer Harry Bernstein earned belated literary fame with his memoir. Back home, writers like Nirad C Chaudhuri and Khushwant Singh, defying the tyranny of age, kept on producing works of rare literary merit.
Painters and writers like Picasso, Michelangelo, Bach, Goethe, Stravinsky, Tolstoy, to name but a few, utilised their advancing years by pushing the envelope, taking risks with themselves and their expressive pursuits. Picasso painted with an indefatigable energy till late into the night before he died the next day at the age of 91.
As they say, it is never too late to start something new. Rabindranath Tagore developed interest in painting at the age of 63 and, like poetry and prose, proved his mastery over this medium as well. All these greats from numerous fields lived and ennobled the free life of the mind till their death.
The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi.