The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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On a brief visit to the Delhi Book Fair I spent most of my time autographing my own books. Alongside where I sat was a shelf of collections of works of Urdu poets past and present, Indian and Pakistani. All beautifully produced in Devanagri script with meanings of the difficult words in footnotes. There were many buyers for these books. They could not read the Urdu-Arabic script but had developed a taste for Urdu poetry. I came to the conclusion that the only way to keep Urdu alive in India is by using Devanagri and scripts of regional languages. Many Urduwallahs, including Syed Shahabuddin, ex-member of parliament, disagree with me and insist that the only way to keep Urdu alive is by using the Urdu script. I think they are in error.

Urdu has been deprived of its economic base; you can’t get jobs and promotions unless you know Hindi, regional languages or English. It is also the victim of the wave of Hindutva sweeping over northern India, the homeland of Urdu. The Hindi lobby does not allow Urdu poetry to be included in textbooks, knowing full well that Urdu is closer to Hindustani, the language of common people, than the highly Sanskritized Hindi being churned out today. They spread the word that Urdu is the language of Muslims. This is completely false. Urdu was the lingua franca of northern India and the mother tongue of the people of the region, including people like me. I have reasons to believe Urdu poetry is richer and more quotable than any other poetry.

The latest in my collection of Urdu poetry in Devanagri script is Ranga Rang Shaaeree: 1400 Memorable and Quotable Couplets of Urdu, compiled and published by Triloki Nath Kanoj (pen-name K.N. Raz), assisted by Praveen Kumar. I was charmed to notice that the largest number of couplets is devoted to the preference of the tavern over places of worship and joys of drinking. So I raise my glass in a toast to Urdu: “Long may you live and may your enemies perish.”

Age cannot wither

Having long crossed the Biblical limits of life, three-score and ten or four-score and ten, I know I live on borrowed time. I write this piece primarily for people in my age group (80-90) and those who are saddled with looking after them — their children and grandchildren. I seek their compassion and understanding of problems that beset old people.

It is most important that an old person reconciles himself to the fact that he has become old and not try to behave like a young man; if he does so, he will only make an ass of himself. It has been truly said: Jawaanee jaatee rahee/ Aur hamein pataa bhee na chalaa/ Usee ko dhoond rahey hain/ Kamar jhukai hooey (Youth had fled/ And I did not know about it./ I seek for it on the ground/ With my back bent double).

No matter how well a person may look after himself, with age, parts of his body begin to decay. Teeth rot and have to be replaced with dentures. That needs radical changes in our diet. No more tough meat or vegetables or fruit that need to be bitten with sharp teeth. So in every home which has an old man, a parallel menu has to be made to cater to his needs. Eyes go bleary. Lucky is an old man who does not have to wear spectacles and is able to read newspapers or watch television. I still do both but only just.

Hearing becomes defective and one may need a hearing aid. I am sure my hearing is sound but my friends tell me it is not. Memory begins to play tricks. I still pride on mine: I can recite passages of poetry by the yard and hardly ever consult the telephone directory to dial a number. But I do forget faces, even of pretty girls and have problems recalling their names. It does not bother me very much.

What bothers me is having to slow down, and my inability to walk without the help of a walking stick. I recall the days of my youth when I walked from Shimla to Narkanda and back non-stop — 72 miles. Now I am reduced to doing a few rounds of my little garden and scared of walking on an uneven path lest I stumble and break one of my bones. That is often the prelude to the end of an old man’s life.

Old people become slothful, slovenly and lazy. I never suffered from the daily bath fetish. I find rubbing the vital parts of my body with a damp towel as cleansing as immersing myself in a tub or pouring lota-fulls of water on my body. I no longer bother to change for the night and sleep in the same clothes I wear all day long. When I eat, soup, daal and curry drip on my beard and on to my shirt. People around me find it repulsive. I could not care less.

More serious is the problem created by an enlarged prostate gland. The urge to empty one’s bladder often does not give one the time to get to a urinal. You wet your trousers or salwar. It is best to pretend you splashed water carelessly. Others know the truth but maintain a polite silence.

With old age, values change. Bowel movements become sluggish. One has to resort to laxatives to ensure proper evacuation. It’s odd but an old man’s day begins worrying about his bowels. If he gets a clear evacuation he feels as if he has conquered the Fort of Chittorgarh. If he does not, he remains cranky for the rest of the day.

I keep going with the help of a variety of pills, 20 every day. I grumble but I know they keep me alive and kicking.

Old age need not be an unmitigated curse. It has many advantages. You are freed of ambition to achieve more. “Of making many books, there is no end and much study is weariness of the flesh”, says the holy book. One can take liberties with young girls because they know and you know it will never go beyond a warm hug. One can get away with bad manners; people forgive you as a cranky, old grey-beard.

In my late eighties, I enjoy reading pornography. Old bawdy songs come back to my mind. One favourite used to be a Punjabi doggerel about a white bearded lusty bony. It began with toomba vajdaee na, taar bina (she cannot live without her lover). It went on to describe the antics of the buddha baba who was vadda bajogee (great miracle man, very clever). He made love to a she-camel climbing a ladder; he spent the night in the brothel and left his companion with a counterfeit four-anna piece (chavaani khotee).

Old age need not be dull or boring. Only young people should look upon the old with compassion, because they too will grow old and doddery.

To give a new meaning

Mr Buijor Mody from Bangalore has sent me a small portion of the test answers which a Haryanvi gave in medical entrance test:

Tablet: small table; Ultrasound: radical noise; Urine: opposite of “you’re out”; Rupture: ecstasy; Pacemaker: winner of the Nobel Peace Prize; Dilate: the late British princess Diana; Cyst: short from of sister; Labour Pain: hurt at work; Lactose: people without feet; Lymph: walk unsteadily; Obesity: City of obe; Antibody: against everyone; Artery: the study of fine paintings; Bacteria: back door to a cafeteria; Caesarian Section: a district in Rome; Chronic: neck of a crow; Coma: punctuation mark; Protein: in favour of teens.

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