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Of birthdays and ageing gracelessly

Frederick Noronha

Somehow I quite intensely dislike the idea of birthdays. It seems to me a superfluous, if not completely meaningless, concept. After all, if we were born, and are still alive, that itself would imply that we would need to have been born on one (random) day or the other.

So, why celebrate that day alone? Are we so desperate to feel ‘special’? Secondly, every day can be a ‘birthday’, a day to celebrate, if we do something useful and creative on that day itself. Should we succumb to the tyranny of the calendar alone to feel special, wanted and somehow useful in society?

The concept of keeping a ‘gratitude journal’ is an interesting idea. Using it, we keep track of the things we need to be grateful for in life. This reminds us that life is more than a blur, every day can be special, and we should not forget the little things in our lives. Google for the term to learn more.

Interestingly, as you go through life, you also realise that your own approaches are often shared by others. While a few tend to continue to celebrate their birthdays as if they were seven-year-olds – sorry, politicians! – there are others who have quite dispensed with it. Some even shun it, and use it as a day for reflection.

Unfortunately, social media tools like Facebook have made it rather difficult to have quiet birthdays in these days. Facebook announces to the world that routine day in your life, and friends (or Facebook friends) tend to feel obliged to wish you for it.

In case you’re reading me wrong, it’s not true that this dislike for birthdays comes from the realisation that we are ageing, with every year, every month, every day, hour and second. Ageing is a part of life. We need to accept it. If you spend your time productively, what is here to worry about the passage of time?

We all know, and accept, the fact that our life spans are finite. That we all have to go, one day or the other. Konkani has some pithy sayings to remind us about this. For instance, ‘Vo sonvsar char disacho’. Or, our world lasts for four days… meaning, life lasts a very short time, and we’re here to go.

Even more colourful is the saying written above the entrance to the graveyard in villages like Guirim: ‘Aiz maka, faleam tuka.’ Meaning, today it’s my turn, and tomorrow it will definitely be yours.

In any case, the Eastern attitude towards advancing age is different from that in the West. Societies in the West tend to unabashedly worship youth and youthfulness. In our parts of the globe, age has long been respected.

From our youngest times, we were taught to respect elders primarily because of their age. No questions were asked about how much they knew or what they were worth, but it was presumed that all elders were worthy of respect. In fact, the Konkani word for a senior (‘zantto’) carries with it the connotations of someone who ‘knows’. In this context, ageing has some welcome attributes.

On a related front, one has rather mixed feelings about this whole concept of ‘senior citizen’. It is quite possible that someone in a higher age bracket might need some preference, the opportunity to avoid queues, and recognition that they are no longer spring chickens.

But should it necessarily follow that everyone who is above 60, 65 or whatever, is in need of such a facility? In some ways, such an approach is both condescending and opportunistic. It is quite possible that some 15 year old, for reasons of health or whatever, might need help and preferences more than a 65 year old. Should age be the only criteria, rather than actual need?

This reminds me of the Kadamba bus shuttle service, where a billboard outside the ticket queue prominently brackets journalists with senior citizens, pregnant women and the handicapped, and gives them the right to jump the queue to buy tickets. One could argue that journalists are in a hurry, and need to “get to the story” speedily. But, isn’t this true of just about everyone else? All of us have extra work and a lack of time, so to suggest that only journos are in a hurry to get from Panaji to Margao, or vice versa, is simply untrue. Likewise, each one undertakes their own service to society in their own special way.

Which takes me to a recent episode about what happened during a trip by the useful Kadamba shuttle itself. (Wish there were more on the route, and more effectively organised, instead of the slow manner in which tickets are sold and boarding undertaken.)

We all boarded the bus, and were ready to leave, when a woman asked a man to vacate his seat, and give it over to her. Technically, she was right. This was one of those seats reserved for women.

But there was another issue here. As we all know, the Kadamba shuttle service sells only as many tickets as there are seats on every trip. This means that everyone ends up with a seat.

While the two argued, the mini-bus full of passengers was kept waiting. While the woman demanded her right, the man refused to budge. He could have taken the easier route and given up, but opted not to do so! As both stuck to their ground, everyone got delayed. Finally, the issue was somehow sorted out, but with nobody feeling particularly victorious.

The story did not end there. Somewhere along the way, keeping aside discretion, I thought of intervening. I told the woman in question that she was right, but why make an issue? She would get a seat in any case. At this point, she told me, in a way that only someone who sharpens their tongue regularly could: “You anyway are seated at the right place. But this man is not.” I checked once again and, horror of horrors, I myself was seated in a senior citizen’s seat!

We are used to so many rights, privileges and entitlements in our lives. Is it possible to see things in some other way? As we turn senior, with life having been generous to us in various ways, is it possible to look at life in terms of giving back and helping build? There is an enormous set of skills waiting to be tapped. As Goa increasingly turns into a greying society – Godrej hair-dye aside – we need to consider
such possibilities.

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