During the ongoing pandemic, the problems of the elderly have come into sharper focus. In modern society, aging is not a gentle easing into retirement and a peaceful rocking chair existence, surrounded by loving grandchildren. It is also loneliness, illness, and lack of purpose.
Hence all those exhortations by 'wellness' companies to do everything to stay forever young. But growing old is tough, and definitely worse for women, whom society tends to define by their sexual attractiveness and reproductive function. Then, suddenly one day, they become invisible, and no amount of botox, make-up or hair colour helps make it better.
As friends talk part seriously-part lightly about booking places in retirement homes, stray conversations in the past come to mind—a senior actor saying that in India, people expect seniors to sit in a corner and listen to bhajans; they can’t have a life of their own-- a sex life? God forbid! A wise older woman commenting that society no longer needs the skills (sewing, knitting, making pickles and preserves, home remedies) grandmothers were known to pass on to the next generation, but they are still expected to fill in as babysitters on demand for grandkids. Women saying that the best part of growing old is that they are no longer harassed in public places by men; being ignored by waiters and sales personnel is a small price to pay.
In most of our films, old people are seen as victims of their children’s neglect, cruelty by society, or targets of crime, because of their feebleness—unless, they are Amitabh Bachchan, The Expendables or Jane Fonda.
So, it was a delight to read two recent bestselling books that have senior citizens as protagonists, who not just grow old ‘disgracefully’ but have a blast in the process.
The first is the rambunctious Terry McMillan novel with the self-explanatory title, It’s Not All Downhill From Here. She writes about the kind of female friendship, that most of us can only hope for and also overturns some racist (the women all happen to be black) and ageist stereotypes.
Loretha Curry is the successful owner of a cosmetics store, whose 68th birthday celebration is shattered by the sudden death of her husband, Carl. Her group of friends do not allow her to wallow in grief or self pity—there’s Korynthia, the gorgeous 6-foot-1-inch-tall gym instructor, pious Sadie who is a closet lesbian, Lucky, who is married to a white man and worries about a weight problem and Poochie, a wealthy widow, who has taken time off from regular luxury cruises to care for her ailing mother.
Along with the trauma of Carl's demise, Loretha has to deal with the troublesome antics of her alcoholic daughter, the deviousness of her twin sister and the demands of her 86-year-old mother; her son lives in Japan and is connected by just sporadic phone calls. On the bright side are her friends, all around the same age, who have been close since school. In spite of health issues and emotional upheavals, the women enjoy their lives, thrive in the company of the group, do not believe they have to be sober or celibate because they are aging, and they are certainly not waiting to die!
The writer is 68 herself, and said in an interview to Karen Grigsby Bates on npr.org, “I do whatever I want to do, and I don't care what age is associated with it. I don't care. Some of these kids, I have to tell them, you know what, you don't necessarily have it all figured out at 30 or 25. Life can be a stroll. It can be a roller-coaster ride. It can be uphill, downhill. But the bottomline is that you can roll with it. You don't have to have everything figured out by 25, 30 or 35. I published my first book when I was 36. I had my first and only kid when I was 32.”
She says in an answer to the sex question, “People think when you get older, you become asexual. And I don't buy it. You still have the same kinds of desires and you want intimacy. And who doesn't want a kiss and hug, among other things? That's some 1960s stuff. We don't have to apologise for this. You know, we are sexual beings at 60, 68 and I hope 80.”
Like her other bestsellers like Waiting To Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back, this one too is a feel good novel about understanding and accepting yourself, and the joys of having female friends to always have your back.
The other popular and happy-making novel is Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club, set in a retirement home, almost always portrayed as a sad, depressing place, where old people are dumped by their kids. Coopers Chase is different—an upscale place buzzing with activity and energy. A group of seniors led by Elizabeth, with a mysterious past and an 'off-putting' peremptory manner, have formed a murder club that meets every Thursday to solve cold murder cases, for their own entertainment. The police files were given to them by a former cop, Penny Gray, who now lies comatose in a nursing home. So when the group gets a chance to solve a real murder in the vicinity, they perk up.
The four members of the murder club--Elizabeth, Joyce, Ron and Ibrahim-- break all the ‘old people’ stereotypes; they are astute, indefatigable and slyly use the assumption that all seniors are dotty to their advantage. They play the geriatric card when it suits them and manipulate the police force to assign young constable Donna De Freitas to the case, because they have already befriended her and she is their willing source on the inside. Donna, who is fed up of being made to serve tea to her male seniors and sent on fruitless errands, wants to solve real crime.
When she is given the boring assignment of giving a talk to the pensioners of Coopers Chase on ‘Practical Tips On Home Security,’ she is politely told by Elizabeth that they already know about window locks and checking IDs and why they must not to give their PIN numbers to strangers (she says Nigerians) over the phone. “Well, what do we talk about then?” asks Donna. “Institutional sexism in the police force?” replies Elizabeth, who probably had firsthand experience of it in her youth. (She probably worked in intelligence, because she has been to remote places all over the world, knows several languages and has a network of resources that the local cops cannot even imagine—think of James Bond’s boss, M).
When people have lived as long as this gang of four and experienced as much as they have, their point of view is unique; they have skills they have kept polished, remember things others need to look up, and see everything with a sense of humour, because they know how a crisis usually ends. They have also decided that there is nothing which cannot be solved over tea and cake or a civilised drink There is fatigue and the occasional memory lapse—nobody said growing old was easy—but there is no obsessing over wrinkles and grey hair.
If 60-plus looks like Loretha and 70-plus like Elizabeth, then aging can be embraced without too much trepidation.
The writer is a Mumbai based columnist, critic and author.