Posted by: gdevi | May 24, 2010

Seven Ages of Man

I was at the post office today when an old man, an old, old man, must be at least ninety years old, old, old man came in and went to the counter with a piece of paper. What is this? he demanded to the postal clerk. The clerk looked at it and said, Oh this is from the IRS. Yes what is it? the old man demanded in an impatient voice. Well, you sent something to the IRS, right? the clerk said. Yes yes. What does it say? the old man said. Well this is the acknowledgment from the IRS that they got it, the postal clerk said. Oh, the old man said. I can’t read anything, the old man said. And he turned around and walked out of the post office.  I was at the next counter and I looked at the postal clerk who was smiling. We will be all like this in a few years, I said to the postal clerk.  Yep, we get them here all the time, the clerk said. They cannot read the mail.

Oh, old age!

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the canon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

— Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act 2, Sc. 7

I never knew my father’s father–he had died in my father’s youth and I have a vague memory of my mother’s father.  The family lore is that he was a lawyer who never really went to court; he read and declaimed on a variety of topics to the people who hung around him. He was well-read and a charismatic talker. My grandmother was a resourceful woman who made most of what little they had and took care of him as well as their nine children.  He was very witty though; apparently one day, one of my uncles who was studying for engineering but who rarely went to the University–he was brilliant; his university first rank to this day has not been broken by anyone–was as usual sleeping in on a week day and his friend came looking for him in the morning and apparently my grandfather told him, pointing to my uncle fast asleep under a blanket, “there he is, doing research in deep sleep!” Almost everyone in our family quotes my grandfather’s exemplary observation while talking about certain members of the extended family, “thank god they are relatives, and not absolutes!” I think we all inherited his wackismus.  I remember both of my grandmothers very well. In some ways, their life trajectories were very different. My father’s mother was widowed in her early thirties and she single-handedly brought up their five children.  She had great love and respect for my dead grandfather and used to tell us all these stories about him; apparently he was quite rakish in his youth but never after he held my hand, she used to tell us. The only time I have heard her say something resembling a criticism is when she recounts how she received an appointment order from Travancore State (this was before India’s independence from Britain) to be a school teacher and appuppan (grandfather) would not allow her to go; the kids were all very young then and he said she needed to stay home with them. Their youngest daughter was a sickly child and I think my grandmother’s instinct understood why he said that, though she must have longed to be a teacher as well. They owned land and paddy fields though appuppan was also the sub-registrar for the village and it must have been unusual, unconventional and even difficult for a young widow to step into the shoes of a male farmer/land-owner.  She was thin, petite, beautiful and strong; I remember as a child always seeing my grandmother working in the fields or working in the yard, always doing something, planting, weeding, feeding the cattle; she never rested. Almost everyone in the neighborhood, man, woman and child, all had a kind of quiet respect for her; nobody tried anything with her even though she was a small, young woman.  Everyone called her “amma,” mother.   One of the unforgettable stories ammumma told us was from her childhood; apparently when she was a baby, my great grand-parents lived nextdoor to a couple that was childless. Every morning, ammumma told us, the father in that house would sweep their sandy front yard and then ask my ammumma who was about four years old then to come and walk on the sandy ground; he wanted to have a child’s footprint in their yard. Beautiful story, isn’t it? She loved my father most, I think, of all her children, and naturally that transferred to Appu and I and whenever we visited her, she would pluck the best cashew-nuts from the cashew-trees for us, and make a fire in the yard and roast them freshly for us. Also the ripest mangoes from the mango trees, the pineapples from the pineapple bushes, the best fish from the pond. She loved my mother the best too; it is hard not to love my mother–a very evolved human being.  Mother took very good care of my grandmother as she aged and her memory started fading and I think she had dementia, though no one ever confirmed that diagnosis. Grandmother used to visit us once in a while and when she came to our house she always slept in my room with me. She did not like the rock and roll and cricket posters I had in my room; she was particularly disturbed by my Led Zeppelin poster; Robert Plant in a tight tight pants–yes the blue outfit with the two embroidered angels at the crotch–with golden backlit hair. I used to have a poster of Imran Khan, the captain of the Pakistani cricket  team– again, in a tight white cricket outfit and the caption said, “Big Boys Play at Night.” Compared to them, the Abbey Road Beatles poster was sublime. Robert Plant is the satan, she told me. To show my respect for her, I used to take down all my rock and roll and cricket posters the day before she arrived and put them up again after she left. Grandmother loved to read–detective novels and historical novels were her specialty–and she was a great story-teller and used to tell us all the wonderful old stories that only she knew; really I have never actually been able to find them anywhere since then.  She loved sitting on our verandah and read all day till we called her for lunch or tea-time snack. One day she called me from the verandah, Gayatri, Gayatri, come here quickly, Come and see who is here. I ran to the verandah, who is it ammumma, I asked. I looked around the verandah; except for the two of us, it was empty. Who is here, ammumma? I asked again. The sun, she said, closing her eyes, the sun is here. Look at the sun.

Granny goose, as we called our mother’s mother, had a very different life. She got a lot of help from her elder brother and sisters and her family; my grandfather was a charming but difficult man, by all accounts. Mother tells of dire straits growing up but these stories of wants and needs are punctuated by the absolutely wacky world that my mother and my uncles and aunts grew up in–the big extended Hindu Nair family where the sheer volume of the number of people under one roof makes eccentricity the norm.  (My favorite story is the one where apparently everyone needed to leave the house at seven in the morning to their various universities, work places and schools, and it was my mother’s job to make the dosa for the morning breakfast. Now dosa is eaten best when it is hot or at least warm and naturally everyone wanted to eat their dosa hot. But dosa has to be made one at a time and some of them will get cold when you are making twenty to thirty dosa in the morning. No one wanted the cold dosas. This was a contentious point amongst the many members living in that house at that point in time, so my oldest uncle Gopi mammen who was at the Medical school, gentle and kind by nature, remarked one day that he does not mind eating cold dosas. So the story goes that my mother used to set the alarm for five o’clock in the morning to make dosa for Gopi mammen so that they would be sufficiently cold and soggy when he came for breakfast at seven.) Thankfully my mother and her siblings were all exceptionally gifted and they all soon became doctors, engineers, teachers, musicians, writers. The oldest son renounced the world when he was nineteen and became a sanyasi, a monk in the Ramakrishna Mission. (After nineteen years as a monk though, he fell in love with my aunt Tia and left the mission to marry her. He was my favorite uncle; he used to sing Tagore songs to sing me to sleep when I was a child; he sang wondrously. He wrote me a poem once; a doggerel. “Shillong is a little princess like Thee/ Her cascades are Thy tresses dear./ Her soft morning sun bathed in mist/ Is Thy face with its sad sweetness/ The hills, the vales, and the mountains of Shillong are Thy dreams/ And so are mine, sweet child.” They are all gone now.) Finally ammumma could rest. My mother’s mother was one of the first women graduates of her generation to graduate from an English high school in Kottayam, Kerala. In fact, the British head-mistress of Miss Baker High School in Kottayam wanted to take ammumma to the UK with her; she was one of the brightest students in that school. Ammumma did not go and instead got married like young girls of her generation did and gave birth to nine fine children who later in her life took her everywhere in the world, after my grandfather had passed away. Geography was my grandmother’s favorite subject; every time we asked a question about a place, she would say, “Isn’t there an Atlas or a Globe here”? She was very worried about the Jewish holocaust and came up with her own solution; when she went to New Zealand and stayed with my uncle Gopi mammen, her son, who was the chief of anesthesiology at the Taranaki Base Hospital (he has since died), she saw all the land in New Zealand and Australia and used to ask us why the Jewish people did not move there. I agree; that would solve the Palestinian problem as well, wouldn’t it? Late in her old age, we used to call ammumma the world traveler; she loved traveling and seeing places and her children, her grand-children or her nephews and nieces (the benefits of the extended family!) were distributed all over the world now and would take her everywhere.

Dayani has been asking us of her ancestry and we have been drawing her the family tree; that is their next school project, now that the chickens are done. With all the extended relatives and the few absolutes, I realize that it is still a whole wide world.

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