Unhealed wounds Partridge calls Debatable question

By This above all: Khushwant Singh
  • Published 28.02.09

I do not subscribe to Robert Browning’s subsequent two lines in the poem, “Rabbi Ben Ezra”: “The best is yet to be/ The last of life, for which the first was made.”

Old age is not very pleasant. Even in good health, an old person cannot enjoy doing what he did in his younger days — the most important casualty is sex. Also, he has to watch what and how much he can eat or drink without upsetting his stomach. Teeth begin to fall out, vision gets blurred and hearing becomes defective. So what on earth did Browning mean by saying that the best is yet to be? The best is gone, never to return again, and old people have to console themselves with the little that remains. Memories, though rapidly fading, remain till the end.

This is the theme of Diana Athill’s biography, Somewhere Towards the End. She is 91. Having lived a colourful life, she now lives in retirement, looking after her garden and dreaming of days gone by. Athill was book editor of the publishing house, André Deutsch. She dealt with well-known writers like V. S. Naipaul, John Updike or Norman Mailer. She recorded her impressions in an earlier book entitled Stet: An Editor’s Life published nine years ago. Her second set of memoirs is about ageing, reliving past memories and awaiting for the end. In her own words, “It is rumination of late old age”, and undertaken because “book after book has been written about being young and even more of them about the elaborate and testing experiences that cluster round procreation, but there is not much on record about falling away...why not have a go at it?”

She admits she enjoyed sex. “I was a steamy girl,” she confesses. Despite occasionally proposed to by eligible men, she never bothered to look for a husband and preferred treating all men as lovers. She liked black men more than whites. She had no compunction about bedding married men — all to prove the point that “women too could be cheered up by sex without love.”

Athill believes that old women should strive to look as attractive as they can and not lapse into dowdiness. She wrote: “the most obvious thing about moving into my seventies was the disappearance of what used to be the most important thing in life: I might not look, or even feel, all that old, but I had ceased to be a sexual being.” Athill’s formula for fitness in old age is to go driving fast in the countryside. She imbibes some lost power from her automobile. She also thinks of her approaching end. She is not religious. Nor does she subscribe to a belief in the Day of Judgment, heaven, hell or rebirth. She writes: “What dies is not a life’s value but the worn-out (or damaged) container of the self, together with the self’s awareness of itself: away that goes into nothingness, with everyone else.” She writes honestly, lucidly and without bothering about what people may think of her.

Unhealed wounds

Reading literature on the partition of India in 1947 is like scratching a healed wound and making it bleed again. But it is a must because it also revives memories of the country a person left behind, the struggle of survivors of the holocaust to rebuild their lives in their adopted land. Pran Seth’s autobiographical novel, Lahore to Delhi: Rising from the Ashes, is all about this.

Seth was a Lahoria, born in Shahalmi Gate, a Hindu enclave in a predominantly Muslim locality. He went to D.A.V. school and graduated from Dyal Singh College. He was 22 when he was driven out of Pakistan. He took to journalism and travelled all over the country and abroad. He witnessed the murder of Mahatma Gandhi because as a reporter he had to attend each prayer meeting of the Mahatma. He now lives in Chandigarh, devoting his time to reading and writing. There is much a reader can learn from his book on India’s recent history.

Partridge calls

M.M. Khan of Howrah has reprimanded me for being unduly harsh in my criticism of the latest translation of 21 ghazals of Mirza Ghalib by two Pakistani ladies. He reminds me that just as calls of hill partridges sound different to different ears, so words are interpreted differently by different translators. He gives four versions of the partridge calls:

Muslim: Subhan teyree qudrat

Hindu: Ram, Laxman, Bharat

Wrestler: Dand, baithak, kasrat

Poet: Ishq, mohabbat, nafrat

I had a fifth one to Khan’s four: The call has two lines:

Mine: Lehsen, piyyaz, adrak

Khuda teyree qudrat

Debatable question

Is it prophetic or incidental that Abdul Qadeer Khan ,who stole the formula for making atom bombs for Pakistan and sold the same to North Korea and Libya at enormous personal profits, should have the same initials as the terrorist outfit, al-Qaida?

(Contributed by K.J.S. Ahluwalia, Amritsar)