At my age, senile dementia is not a joke. Nor is Alzheimer’s. Or Parkinson’s Disease. Every once in a while a name or a term slips away from me in the course of a conversation, like a dog scurrying under the bed at the mention of a bath. I can see the tip of its tail but I can’t call it out. Because I’ve forgotten its name, of course. And I worry. Is this a sign of decay? Then – like most married men – I am reassured by The Wife. Who gives me in rapid succession a pitying look, the word I’m searching for and an admonition to talk less. I do take some precautions to avoid Alzheimer’s. I work my way through a few cigarillos a day. All in the interests of better mental health, because I read somewhere that smokers are immune to Alzheimer’s. Or wait – was it Parkinson’s that they mentioned? There you go, I’ve forgotten again.
I wonder – how does one stay mentally young? Not everyone can follow the advice and example of Mr. Hugh Hefner, so what are the options? Solving crosswords? Learning salsa? Eating arugula? None of them as much fun as the Hefner Highway, but easy to try. What else? Listening to hip-hop? I’ll pass on that one. I can think of few things more ridiculous than a middle-aged man wearing his trousers round his knees and bobbing up and down while jerking his hands strangely. Dementia would be by far the easier option!
I do have a viable option for mental zing - the company of the young. About 6 years ago I discovered blogs, and through them a community of (mostly) young people who were bright, articulate, interesting. They surprised me. They shook me up. And they reassured me. They do listen to music I find strange, with even stranger names. (I mean, Arctic Monkeys?) But back in the day, Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd must have been equally incomprehensible. And these young people listen to Procol Harum as readily as to Lokkhichara. They emote over Robindro Shongeet as much as they follow China Mieville. Their tastes are eclectic, their minds elastic. When I find myself mentally retreating from the things they introduce me to, I think back to my teens. To the way my father and his father freely dispensed their opinions of the books I read, the clothes I wore, the music I listened to and the company I kept. I remember my resentment then. And I resolve to be less judgemental now, more open-minded. (Though it will be a long time before I listen to Lady Gaga by choice!)
I must confess I derive tangible benefits from the company of the young. Updates on the latest gizmos. The low-down on the international literary scene. Quirky software that speeds up my phone, or helps me edit sound-tracks. Knowledge of the by-lanes and flesh-pots of my own city, and of places surprisingly far and wide. And very often, the help of kind young limbs to reach out, walk over, lift and shift. What’s more, they help me put myself in perspective. From my reactions to them, I can better understand my parents’ generation; from their tolerance of me, I learn to be patient myself.
These youngsters shake me out of my cynicism too. They’re willing to give. Not money, but time. Which, if you think it over, is in the truest sense giving of oneself. They believe. In causes, in people. And in the future. After all these years of seeing the seamier side of life, it’s refreshing to see these young people forego their own pleasures. To teach poor children, to clean public spaces, to help with their own blood. I admire their energy, their selflessness. And I am humbled.
I won’t for a moment suggest that the young are angels without exception. Good grief, no! Some of them are beyond redemption. I’m not referring here just to call-centre love intrigues that lead to murder. Or the kidnapping of friends for ransom. Or the random violence whereby a game of cricket leads to a 14-yr-old being maimed for life. The young commit worse transgressions on a regular basis. They use textese even outside SMS. They think “American Pie” is a Madonna number. The girls shave their heads, the boys wear their hair long. They insert strange metallic objects into parts of themselves, at least those parts not yet covered by strange tattooes. They’re different. Of course, being different is not in itself a crime ( I think). But wait. Tattooes, body piercing, long hair, drugs? Why is it that the first mental picture is of a “Naga sanyasi”? The brand ambassador of Gen-Next?
Nor am I suggesting that senior citizens (a term used by the young, I believe, to refer to any person over the age of 25) are devoid of value. We oldies get a lot done too. I’m proud to have contemporaries who still have mental flexibility, tolerance, energy and compassion. These qualities are not the prerogative of youth. Or perhaps they are. Perhaps youth is defined not by a figure but the very possession of these qualities. And the country of old men exists only in the mind.