Middle-age for Indian men begins late because their childhood is prolonged. If adulthood is defined by the act of leaving home, many Indian men never grow up. Itís not unusual for them to live with their parents as working men if their jobs donít take them away from home. The parents donít think this is strange and their son saves rent and earns social credit for being a caring child. This happens less often now as a globalized India exports its young professionals, and even those who suffer the misfortune of not working abroad find themselves in Indian cities far from the parental home. But even so, the mismatch between salaries and property values postpones the purchase of a place to live in separately, which, in many Western countries is the act that inaugurates an autonomous adulthood.
So a drawn-out dependency endorsed by a social consensus that sees this dependency as normal, even desirable, helps him live without stigma, a life for which he doesnít pay all the bills, where his claim to being middle class (or upper middle class) is subsidized by his parents and where his standing within his extended family is a function of his parentsí standing. Itís a kind of infantilization of which he remains unaware till his parents die.
Middle-age in America happens around the age of forty-five, and it happens when your children finish school and leave home. So young adulthood and middle-life are both signalled by departures: the first begins when the boy leaves home and the second when his children leave home. In India, since thereís no history of either happening in a predictable way, even if children do leave home it signals nothing. They might come back if they get posted to the same city. The rite of passage which tells Indian men that their life has seriously changed is the death of their parents.
This changes everything. Whereas earlier the invitation card for your daughterís wedding didnít so much as mention your name (it went out, as was proper, on behalf of her grandparents), now, at the age of fifty, you and your wife are likely to have young couples stooping to touch your feet in any wedding that you attend. Itís a kind of succession: once your parents die, you and your wife become the elders, the buzurgs that they once were. While theyíre alive youíre suspended in an age-less limbo, no matter how old you are.
But buzurgs and elders are old people. Let me rephrase the sentence with which I began this column: middle-age for Indian men doesnít happen at all. There is no Indian stage of life that corresponds to middle-age because Indian men never subjectively notice or experience a time of life equivalent to Western middle-age. Thereís bachpan (childhood), jawani (youth/young manhood) and budhapa (old age). I canít think of a word or phrase for middle-age in Hindi and Urdu and I donít think there is one.
One reason for this might well be that till recently Indians didnít live long enough for society to distinguish between a long old age and middle-life. When the British left, average life expectancy for an Indian was under forty. Even allowing for the fact that middle-class Indians lived for longer than that and some exceptional individuals lived on to see eighty and more, you didnít have a critical mass of people living into their seventies. If a married man got to sixty, he married his wife all over again in celebration and gratitude. More darkly, the metaphor for old people going ga-ga was, in Hindi, sathiya jana, which literally means turning sixty. Where sixty becomes a synonym for senility and the end of life, there isnít the time to fit in middle-age.
The other reason why middle-age remains a Western import that hasnít taken root in the Indian imagination is that Indian consumers havenít been targeted in an age-specific way. People in America are used to being organized in age-bands. If you go shopping for clothes you have separate areas for infants, for children, for tweenies, for teens and grown-ups. There are summer movies for children, thereís fiction customized for every stage of childhood. By the time a child in America becomes an adult, he or she has been socialized into being treated as part of an age-defined cohort. You know whatís appropriate to read, to listen to, to wear or to buy for someone your age. Conversely, you also know whatís inappropriate. I remember mentioning in passing to a friend long resident in New York that I bought all my clothes at a cheap chain store called Old Navy. He was horrified. ďFor heavenís sake, Mukul, thatís a store for children!Ē And thrifty desis, he might have added, but didnít.
His horror meant nothing to me. Marketing aside, thereís very little in Indian popular culture thatís directed at specific age-groups. For the metropolitan middle class, popular culture has two parts: cinema and cricket.
Once youíre old enough to see ĎAí films, there are no cues to remind you how old you are. In the early Sixties, there used to be the odd Hindi film aimed mainly at children. Now, refreshingly, all Hindi films are aimed at children. Hindi films are entertainment medleys designed to appeal to everyone from the age of six to ninety. There are no middle-aged people in these films. There are the young lovers and thereís the older generation. Everyone in between is either a villain or a policeman. Regardless of how youthful the parents look, audiences understand that theyíre old. Old is their function. I can think of one example of an interesting middle-aged character in a Hindi film. In Dil Chahta Hai, Akshaye Khanna falls in love with Dimple Kapadia, an older woman. Having got this far, the director, Farhan Akhtar, was so appalled by his daring that he gave the Dimple character, Tara, cirrhosis so she could die honourably as loose women used to do in old-fashioned Hindi films.
The other half of desi popular culture is cricket and itís a well- known sociological truth that spectator sports are gigantic elixir machines designed to help grown-ups regress to age fourteen. Watching cricket persuades me that Indians are right, on the whole, to see Ďmiddle-ageí as a redundant idea. You either get your bat to a fastish ball or you donít. Thereís no in-between state. Similarly, youíre either young or youíre old. And ďthe tragedy of old age,Ē as Wilde pointed out with cruel truth, ďis not that one is old but that one is young.Ē