Golden oldies

Turning sixty is particularly important for Indians

One of the commonplace but disconcerting things about growing older is that public figures, famous men and women, grow younger. Watching Raghuram Rajan being interviewed in Davos, I googled him and discovered that he is five years younger than I am. For a moment I was shocked that someone who hadn't left school when I'd finished with university had been given charge of India's central bank till I remembered how old I was and then Rajan's resume and his distinction seemed normal again.

The shock of being generationally overtaken is universal but it's most acutely felt by desi men of a certain age and class. In a society as riven by hierarchies of various sorts as India's - money, caste, class, gender, language and faith - most people are used to deferring to other people younger than them. Women are expected to defer to men, the poor to the rich, clerks to MBA-ed striplings because that's the way of this world and those are rules of the game. But at the top of this heap live privileged men who have been to schools that were once the nurseries of a ruling elite; men who expect to rise to the top with age and for whom, therefore, the presence of a fast lane on the highway of distinguished ageing is a disturbance of the natural order of things.

This has something to do with the Indian veneration of age which is both excessive and inevitable in a society where, historically, life expectancy was low. Turning sixty is a matter of celebration; the sixtieth birthday of Tamil Brahmin men, their sashtiapthapoorthi, is sometimes marked by a puja. Conversely sathiya jana (literally 'turning sixty') is, in Hindi, a metaphor for senility. A lucid old age is a great slice of luck, something to be proud of. My father, who lived till he was ninety, was forever trying to add a year to his age so he could comprehensively outrank everyone around him. Every time he was caught out doing this, he would airily claim that he was 'running' the additional year he had banked away even if he hadn't completed it.

The most important phrase in the Indian salaryman's vocabulary is 'I was his senior.' It would be poignant if it didn't grow out of a swamp of entitlement. Very often it's used to define his relationship with someone who has done conspicuously better than he has. Used in this way, it is not to be construed as an admission of failure; it should be understood as a reference to a pristine ranking that clarifies and dispels the confusion and injustice that life brings in its messy wake. It's a way of saying, 'He might be a professor in an Ivy League school now, but he was my junior then ( and nothing can change that).'

What the outsider might read as pathos, the speaker sees as assertion, a harking back to a golden age where the natural order was intact. There are related phrases that play variations on this theme, such as 'he was my junior', or 'I was his junior' or others where seniority is represented as a quantity, as in 'he was my junior (or senior) by two years.' Alternatively, you could say 'I was senior to him', but generally the fact that you were ahead or behind someone in college isn't just a fact, it is a kind of identity.

You often hear people in institutional settings say 'I would like to thank my seniors for their guidance.' This is a way of acknowledging the neutrality, the fairness of bureaucratic slabs of time. Seniority is relational, therefore just; every junior can expect, in time, to be a senior. The reason Indians have made these terms their own is that they understand them as forms of fictive, bureaucratic kinship.

It is not unusual for Indians to identify themselves as the '74 'batch' or the '84 batch or whenever it was that they entered or left college. This, in itself, is not unusual; people the world over will speak of the Class of this year or that. Cohorts matter. But nowhere are they quite as seriously taken as here, where you become your vintage. I discovered this some years ago when I got a number of phone calls from journalists because a classmate of mine in college had been arrested for a series of gruesome murders. As it happened I had no memory of him and I said as much. The reaction at the other end of the phone line was first incredulous (how can you not remember?) and then knowing (yes, right, why would you acknowledge a murderer as a classmate).

Not all invocations of seniority are the same. I remember a serving general consistently addressing a retired colonel as 'sir' because he had served under him as a young officer. In the military, acknowledging seniority in this way is an act of grace. Its invocation in other institutions is no more than an assertion of status, a deliberate conflation of age and distinction. Is there a sillier designation than 'senior advocate'? I can see that in a republic you can't call a distinguished lawyer Queen's Counsel, but if QC was intended to suggest distinction, why not replace it with a term like President's Counsel or Distinguished Counsel? Similarly, why do older journalists style themselves as 'senior journalists'? It's one thing to be designated chief reporter or chief editor because it refers to a hierarchical function within a news organization, but 'senior journalist' sounds like a plaintive request for respect because you've been around a long time. To value experience is good; to wear experience as a badge of rank is not.

Oscar Wilde has a wonderful line about growing old that goes, 'The tragedy of old age is not that one is old but that one is young.' Excellent as it is, his aphorism doesn't apply to India. Here, it would have to be rewritten to read, 'The tragedy of old age is not that one is old but that one isn't older.' That is why turning sixty is particularly important for Indians because this is one birthday where the State confers on them, unconditionally, a distinguishing designation. They become what they've always longed to be: Senior Citizens.


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