KATHARINA VARGHESE finds a point of view rarely taken ...
It's that time of year when you must slow down a little. As the summer peaks, nature demands that you take it easy. So sit back, arms pillowing your head, and think of age, of mortality, of the obliteration of the self. That is what Tyeb Mehta's Woman on Rickshaw, used so aptly on the cover of Grey Areas: An Anthology of Indian Fiction on Ageing, appears to do.
And as you look on,
the cracks that begin around her eyes
spread beyond her skin.
And the hills crack.
And the temples crack.
(From ‘An Old Woman', by Arun Kolatkar)
That poem, early in the anthology, extends the age marked in the crow's feet near a woman's eyes to the whole world.
Quite the opposite happens in the poem that closes this anthology:
“Old women once
They had deep woods in them,
lakes, mountains, volcanoes even,
even raging gulfs.
When the earth was in heat
they melted, shrank,
leaving only their maps.
You can fold them
and keep them handy:
who knows, they might help you find
your way home.”
(From K Satchidanandan, ‘Old Women')
If the women inspire poetry, the old men make for some remarkable tales in this anthology. Abdul Bismillah's ‘The Second Shock' is a story simply told, yet it leaves you reeling. A classic tale of age and youth, of community life and endless ribbing suddenly silenced — not by death, as you might assume, but by something worse. Read it, for any attempt to describe it would only detract from the epiphany that comes at the end.
First written in Hindi in 1980, this short story was translated to English for the first time 13 years later. One fervently hopes Grey Areas will give it a long shelf-life, for it has so far appeared only in magazines.
Search for the past
The unnamed old woman in Manto's ‘I Swear By God!' wanders across cities, absolutely certain that her daughter is still alive; that she survived the partition riots. She searches relentlessly, with little money and dressed in rags. When she does find her daughter, however, the relationship she had imagined no longer exists. The daughter has moved on. To her, the mother is better left a memory.
Age, however, is defiant. No worrying about impressions. Eccentricities are allowed freer rein. The old woman in Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay's ‘Drabomoyee Goes to Kashi' lumps tradition, with aplomb. Drabomoyee cannot bear the religious cant from her fellow-lodger at Kashi. Her monologue is defiant, irritated, naughty. She longs for the comforting presence of Mungli, her cow. She wonders how the cucumbers are getting on, back home, and how the jackfruit tree must be. And when she returns, she knows she is home, a place she discovers as if for the first time.
For the Chacha Mangal Sain in Bhisham Sahni's story, home and family are separate things. In the poor neighbourhood where Chacha's voice is still heard, he is a happy man. But if the nephew and his wife lock him up in the greater ‘comfort' of their home, Chahcha's spirit is gone. He knows he is regarded as no more than a burden and a pest. So off he goes, back where he belongs. But then, does one ever completely belong? Or does one only ask that because one belongs everywhere?
As one leafs through Grey Areas: An Anthology of Indian Fiction on Ageing, one asks, “Why did no one think of this before?” and “How did Ira Raja come up with the idea, in the first place?”
But don't look to Raja's introduction for answers. What she offers is an impersonal and academic discussion of age as a category of identity; of narrative, memory and selfhood. Despite that, here is a book older readers will gravitate to. So would Oxford University Press consider using a slightly larger font when the book is reprinted, please?
Grey Areas: An Anthology of Indian Fiction on Ageing; Ed. Ira Raja; OUP; Rs.695.