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LIFE BEGINS AT EIGHTY
- Four personalities and the uses of age

A fundamental difference between peasant and industrial society relates to their attitudes towards old age. In the agrarian world, the elderly are venerated, in and for themselves, and for the knowledge they possess about the land and the seasons. Thus a young farmer looks for guidance to an older farmer; a young weaver to a weaver more experienced than she. In pre-modern times, social and domestic life rested on an intense intermingling of the generations. In industrial society, however, the elderly are seen as something of an embarrassment; they are ignored, rather than adored, by the young. One reason for this is the rapid pace of technological change in the modern world. The skills that one acquires when one is young are rendered comprehensively redundant by the time one is old. Thus lawyers in their sixties are not usually conversant with the nuances of intellectual property rights, and retired doctors often clueless about the advances in open-heart surgery. The elderly in our time are literally of no “use”; and are hence relegated to a ghetto of their own.

A partial exception must, however, be made for the profession of history. For the historian writing about the past, the longer a person has lived, the more valuable or interesting he or she potentially is. Thus my own first teacher in history was a man sixty years older than myself. His name was C.S. Venkatachar, and he had held high office in the crucial years leading up to Partition and independence. He had been commissioner of Allahabad during the Quit India movement; dewan of Jodhpur at the time the princely order was winding down; then secretary, ministry of states, government of India; and finally, secretary to free India’s first president, Rajendra Prasad.

Venkatachar had been both witness to and participant in events of epochal importance. This did not, however, lead him to think that he had fully comprehended them. He spent his retirement reading the rich and ever-proliferating literature on Indian nationalism and British colonialism. Those subjects were then (and still remain) of abiding interest to me. Thus on Gandhi, Nehru, Patel and Jinnah; on communal violence, caste conflict, colonial arrogance, and princely impotence — on topics such as these Venkatachar was a sure guide, directing me to specific books and, when these proved inadequate, to the storehouse of his own memory.

Not long after I met Venkatachar, I began a friendship with a man even older than him. This was K. Swaminathan, who was then completing his term as the chief editor of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. Thirty years spent with Gandhi’s words had given him an unparalleled insight into the mind of the Mahatma. With the arrogance of youth, I thought I knew something about the topic myself. And so Swaminathan and I began a long argument (conducted mostly by postcard) about Gandhi — about his spiritualism (whether it was intrinsic to his thought), about his economic ideas (whether they were relevant to the modern world), about his disciples (whether Vinoba Bhave was a true one). It was the most educative of correspondence courses, made more valuable by its being free, and more palatable by the fact that I was never patronized. (Only once did Swaminathan pull rank on me, when he began a disagreement by saying: “When I was president of the Oxford Majlis in the Nineteen Twenties…”)

Venkatachar and Swaminathan were to me both teachers and friends. Sivarama Karanth was neither, but my two meetings with him when he was in his nineties (of which I have written elsewhere) were to leave a powerful impression. As did my solitary encounter with a remarkable eighty-year-old foreigner, named Trevor Huddleston. An Anglican priest trained in the Benedictine tradition, Huddleston had served in South Africa in the Fifties. He worked among the poor in Cape Town and Johannesburg, demonstrating to them that he was one Englishman who could totally disregard distinctions of class and race. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has written movingly of how, as a nine-year-old-boy, he saw this slim, handsome white priest take off his hat to greet Tutu’s mother, a mere cleaning lady.

Huddleston also met and befriended the young Nelson Mandela, and bought the brilliant young musician, Hugh Masekela, his first trombone. But the authorities grew suspicious, and had him deported. Back in England, Huddleston wrote Naught for your Comfort, a stirring indictment of the apartheid regime, a kind of non-fiction equivalent of Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country.

When I met Huddleston, in London in 1991, he had not been back to South Africa for 35 years. But in this time that land, and its problems, had dominated his work. In the evening of his life, he retained a robust optimism. I remember two things about our meeting. One was his laughter — for as Desmond Tutu once remarked, “The nicest thing about Trevor was that he laughed like an African — with his whole body.” The other was his quiet resolve to, as he put it, “see apartheid dead before I am”. This he happily did. In 1995, with a democratic regime finally in place in South Africa, Trevor Huddleston returned to a hero’s welcome in his adopted land.

I have written, all too briefly, of four men who retained their vigour and intelligence into their eighties. Let me end with a great old lady who has done likewise. This is the actress, Zohra Segal. The story of her life is told in her charming memoir, Stages, published by Kali for Women in 1997. She speaks there of her work with Uday Shankar in the Thirties, with Prithviraj Kapoor in the Forties and Fifties, and on the London stage in the Sixties and Seventies. She also speaks of why, in 1987, at the advanced age of 75, she decided to come back to India because “India is where I want to die”. Fortunately for us, that hasn’t happened yet.

When her memoir was published, Zohra Segal had been acting for 60 years. And there was more to come. In 2001, I saw her star with her sister Uzra Butt in Shahid Nadeem’s “Aik Thi Nani”. There she played a liberal and fun-loving grandmother from India, the counterpoint to her chauvinist sister from Pakistan. Two years later, I saw her in Roysten Abel’s “The Spirit of Anne Frank” where, for a change, she played a sour old Hindu crone of the sangh parivar. The play also starred Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das, but at the end, most of the cheers were for Zohra. She acknowledged them in these words: “I knew I would be a hit in Bangalore, but not such a hit.”

Last month I was in Delhi, dining alone in a restaurant, when I saw Zohra Segal come in with some younger friends. I suppressed the instinct to play the besotted fan (“Madam, I saw you declaim Hafiz Jalandhri on TV — you were simply wonderful”), and chose to watch silently instead. I couldn’t hear the conversation, for their table was some distance away, and I am slightly deaf. But I saw Zohra eating, and that was enough. She tucked into the aloo dum and mah ki daal with the gusto of a twenty-year-old which, of course, in spirit she still is.

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