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Suddenly sixty

July 17, 2004

Without warning, I find that I am sixty. Oh, there were reminders, but I find they were totally inadequate to prepare me for the reality. For me, sixty represents the cut-off point between middle-age and old-age.

It's true that I don't feel any different; indeed, when colleagues retiring from government service at the mandatory retirement age of 60 would say to me: "Yar, buddhay ho gai!", I would respond: "You may be old; I certainly am not."

I always believed in the old cliche of 'you are as young as you feel', but now am suddenly confronted with the reality of time passing me by. Earlier, a sixtieth birthday, like death, was something that happened to other people, not to you. But like a mugger in the night, my sixtieth year has sneaked up on me, stealthily and mercilessly.

Inevitably, I have been reflecting on what I have learned and what I have unlearned these last 40-odd years since I became an adult. Out of these four decades, the last three have been spent, among other things, on commenting on politics.

And what a complete waste of time it has been. While my columns in this and other publications have given me an outlet for my anger at the dishonesty and inefficiency around me, they have not even made a dent in the system. In fact, things have got steadily worse. I have little doubt my writing has done me far more good than it has anybody else.

But the passage of time has mellowed me: my sense of indignation has been gradually replaced by a tired cynicism. I now have few hopes, and expect people in power to behave badly. And they don't let me down. But I have learned to be tolerant of differences of all kinds: cultures, colour, creed. And I no longer set myself up in judgment over others.

At one time, my writing was marked (and looking back, marred) by an immature reliance on strong adjectives to underline my rage. Before his death, my father, an erudite scholar with a phenomenal store of knowledge and wisdom, would gently chide me and suggest that I could make the same points without getting emotional. I put this advice down to his age, but now feel he was right.

I used to fight with editors for typos and editorial changes in my pieces, imagining some conspiracy to gag me. Now, I take all the in-house censorship in my stride, recalling the sage counsel my old friend and guru, I.H. Burney, the crusading editor of the weekly Outlook, gave me years ago. "Remember", he said. "Everything we write in dailies and weeklies is used to wrap betel-leaves the next day."

But I am glad of my interest in writing as it has given me a focus. Too many ex-colleagues in government service find the transition to retired life very difficult to make.

I have been to several retirement parties which seemed like funerals. I have been fortunate in having developed the inner resources to read, think and write wherever I am.

Another thing I have learned is that kindness to others, specially to strangers, costs nothing and is occasionally repaid in unexpected ways. Too often, we are impatient and hasty in the way we deal with others, particularly those less fortunate than we are.

We are reluctant to say 'please' and 'thank you' to servants or underlings at work, as though we were being asked to hand over large sums to them. We are similarly loath to praise, but we are quick to condemn.

What has been more difficult is to learn the value of plain, unvarnished speech. In the subcontinent, we tend to circumlocution, and never say 'no', even when we want to.

The result is that we make promises we never intend to keep, and relationships are built on the shifting sands of hyperbole and white lies. When we can't deliver, as we always knew we wouldn't be able to, we make up excuses. This tendency to shy away from the truth in order to avoid giving offence makes honest and open communication impossible.

Watching people behave badly over money has been a revolting experience. In my thirty years in government service, I have watched colleagues squabble over plots of land in official housing societies.

They have routinely misstated the number of plots they already had so they could grab more. When I took early retirement, I was stupid enough not to have a single plot, and no doubt many colleagues considered me a fool. But I have no real regrets.

As my father used to say: "Paisa hat ka mail hai; ata hai or jata hai." ("Money is like dirt on the hands; it comes and goes."). And so it has been with me. Good friends, a loving and supportive family and good memories are far more valuable than large bank accounts. And on all three counts, I have been blessed.

When I left the government to accept a private-sector job, I received a salary several times my old take-home pay. When I told my old friend Farid Khan that I did not know how to spend so much money, he laughed and said: "Don't worry, you'll find a way." And I did. And enjoyed every minute of it.

Recently, I watched a re-run of that wonderful Robin Williams film "Dead Poets' Society", and a line stayed in my mind: "Suck the marrow out of life." The concept of squeezing all that is important out of life and discarding the rubbish is one I have lived by without realizing it.

My belief in a literal afterlife has been somewhat tenuous at best, so I believe in living life to the hilt in the here and now. I feel that as long as I deliberately do not harm others, I should explore life as fully as possible while I am fit enough to enjoy it.

But on my sixtieth birthday, I am haunted as never before by the thought that I have not achieved what I might have done. Too often, I have dilly dallied instead of pressing on.

I am conscious of having wasted time, because I thought there was an endless supply of this precious commodity. Now, the years I can expect to live productively can be counted on the fingers of both hands.

Another line in the "Dead Poets' Society" was the Latin exhortation 'Carpe Diem!': 'Seize the day!' From now on, this will be my motto.