Some summers ago, my parents and I were visiting my brother who lives in a semi-rural part of UK (I call it semi-rural because of his internet speed, which is a paltry 20mbps as his internet line is not yet fully fibre optic). His home is actually one of those picturesque old English country houses, and we had a good holiday there.
Anyway, one of my brother’s neighbours was a spry old chap who would be busy in his garden all day long during summer. My Dad, being a friendly sort, one day leaned across the wall and complimented the neighbour on his garden. The neighbour thanked him and suggested my Dad should try gardening himself. At this, my Dad shook his head saying he was too old to indulge in gardening. The neighbour politely enquired how old my dad was. On hearing he was seventy-two, the neighbour exclaimed cheerfully that my Dad was nothing but a spring chicken, as he himself was in his mid-eighties.
So why do so many Indians tend to grow old before their time? Why do so many of them become members of the League of Young ‘Old Men’?
I can think of a few reasons for this. The first is in India, you still get affordable domestic help to cook and do the other work around the house. So people in India can afford to grow old, as long as they can afford to pay someone to do their housework and take care of their homes. Whereas in the West, if you can’t take care of yourself, you don’t have many options but to get yourself admitted to a ‘Senior Citizen’s Home.’
A second reason is the joint family system still exists to a certain extent in India. My wife’s grandmother is 94, and she still stays with her two sons and their children, grandchildren, and great grandkids. I have observed that people in joint families tend to let themselves go around their mid-forties, possibly because they know they have a cushion of a family to lean on.
A third reason is that a government job was the ultimate goal for the generation who started working in the 70s and 80s in India. Once you got in, you were secure for life. The work wasn’t too hard. In fact, the legendary inefficiency of the traditional Indian government employee is something India is still battling. But anyone getting a government job was assured of retiring with a substantial pension at the age of 55, an age that defined ‘old.’
The fourth reason is what this post is really about.
I think the interaction between my Dad and my brother’s neighbour was a perfect illustration of the saying, ‘You are only as old as you think you are.’ Unlike my Dad, who labelled himself as old and dependent in a typical Indian mindset, that gentleman saw himself as ‘young’ and independent, and that’s what he came across as.
Things have been changing in India to a certain level. With globalisation, the Western trends of staying fit and healthy in old age have begun catching on. People have become more conscious of the need for a healthy diet. Exercise too has become an in thing. City parks and gyms that once used to be empty at dawn, are now full of people of all ages walking, jogging, cycling, lifting weights, or doing yoga. The tennis club I go to has people in their seventies who limp to the ball and happily swing away at it.
But old habits die hard.
Once people fall ill, quite a few of them generally let themselves go and join the oldies club. What makes this particularly sad is that some of them are still in their forties.
I always used to wonder about what made them do this until a couple of weeks ago, when I found out why, the hard way.
Some years ago, I had badly injured my left leg in a bike accident. The doctors weren’t sure they could save my leg. However, I eventually made a full recovery. But I do need to do a set of yoga exercises every morning before I can get going. These loosen up my limbs and act as a preventive for injuries. That sorts out things, and no one at my tennis club is even aware of my issue though I have been a member for a few years now.
Which was why what happened was totally unexpected. We had got a new car a couple of weeks ago whose seat is lower than my previous car. I didn’t realise it was causing my left leg to cramp. And one week after I started driving the car, I suddenly ended up with a sprained left groin (that’s what I think it was). It sorted itself out in a couple of days with a bit of rest. But the forced rest was not good for my delicately balanced body, and before I knew it, I had a full-blown backache. After ten days of hot water bottles and pain relieving ointments, the backache subsided partially.
Unfortunately, though I was mobile my flexibility was down by 50%. Literally. Let me explain with the help of an illustration.
Two weeks ago, I could do up to Step 3 effortlessly. Probably because I had regularly been doing it since I was a teenager, and had refused to buy into the concept that growing older would make me lose that flexibility.
However, I now could no longer go beyond Step 2 as my lower back has tightened up. Pushing my hips up into the air, and dropping my feet down to touch the floor over my head seems painfully impossible. In fact, I couldn’t even squat on my heels anymore, which is something any Indian can do (most toilets in India used to be designed for the squat pose).
I was being forced to face the fact that maybe I would have to reconcile myself to a life of lesser flexibility and stiffer joints of an older man.
Of course, professional athletes routinely overcome acute levels of pain to recover from injury and get back to their original level of fitness. But doing this when you are older is different, and a much harder challenge. Which is why most athletes retire by the time they touch forty.
The thing is it’s not impossible. And I think that was the difference between my Dad and the old gentleman. My Dad had diabetes, and a bit of a heart issue. But I’m sure the other gentleman must have had his aches and pains too, and endured a lot of pain to stay as fit as he was in his eighties.
I may not have the pain tolerance of a professional athlete, but I owed it to myself to at least try. So I lay down on the floor and lifted my legs till my feet were pointing skyward. I then tried to drop my feet down to touch the floor but they just wouldn’t come down.
I cautiously enlisted the help of my daughter to push my feet down, and then yelled in anguish when she started to push. Panting with the pain, I exclaimed, “That’s a long way for my feet to go. How am I going to do it?”
My kid replied, “ Dadda, you are the guy who the doctors said might never walk again. Don’t worry, you’ll make it.”
As she left the room, it struck me that she had a point. If I had done it once, I could surely do it again. Yes, it was going to be a long drawn out and extremely painful process, but it was possible. I got up, held on to a chair, and slowly, let the weight of my body force my body into a squat, ignoring my protesting back.
Repeat ten times.
I then let go of the chair, and did a set of mini frog jumps (or jumping squats), and came up gasping with pain. As I rotated my hips, I could feel movements in my hip joints that I hadn’t felt in a long time. The journey back to where I used to be was going to take forever. But I had taken the first step.
I had crossed the line of pain.
Nope, I won’t be joining the League of Young Old Men.