Background image (‘Cocoon’) by René Cheng licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license
T & P, Leos both, are feeling something, many things, in the aftermath of their birthdays. Officially 43, P discusses some “brave” and “bold” choices that women have to make, while T at 33, discourses on the millennial predicament (the subject of many a critically acclaimed web series ;)) and the Olympics
As soon as the Austrian cyclist Anna Kiesenhofer crossed the finish line to win gold at Tokyo 2020, a room full of postdoctoral fellows and academics watching the race from northern California, Torsa among them, nudged one another, ‘we still have a shot at the Olympics.’ Not that Kiesenhofer’s accomplishment looked effortless. But she is a mathematician, a postdoctoral fellow, and thirty years old. It wasn’t long before T’s friends, thirty-something academics, recalled that (cumulatively) they count zonal competitions in swimming, some college soccer, a bit of gully cricket among their sporting achievements. Someone asked, ‘how many citations does Kiesenhofer have?’ As if scholar.google.com could just be the level field. In competitive sports, as elsewhere, to be thirty is to have already missed something, and forever.
Younger millennials and older Gen Zs (i.e., twenty-somethings) dominated the roster of 2020 Olympics. One message the Games brought to the older millennials was, look, every bone, every cell in your body is rotting. At forty-six, gymnast Oksana Chusovitina received standing ovation after competing in her eighth Olympics because an international career that long is extraordinary, especially in her sport. As soon as they exited Tokyo 2020, Indian women Olympians like the tennis-player Sania Mirza and boxer Mary Kom faced questions about their fitness to compete the next time - often just not-so-well-masked attempts at saying they won’t be.
Sania Mirza, only two years older to T, reached her personal best women’s singles ranking around the time T began second year of college. That year, while teaching William Blake’s “The Tyger” as ‘a song of experience,’ a professor pitched a few rhetorical questions at T’s cohort and finding no satisfactory answers from a bunch of students, new to adulting, told them that growing up meant seeing doors closing on you. Probably seeing the contrails of youth fade against a slowly darkening sky, millennials most looked forward to the 2020 Olympics, when just five years ago they thought them ‘boring.’ Nothing like a sporting event that happens every four or so years to give lessons in mortality.
In T’s mother tongue—Bengali--there is a saying: ‘mēẏērā kuṛi tēi buṛi,’ meaning girls are old at the age of twenty. T had given herself a ten-year grace period, and so, birthday songs started to sound like elegies only in 2018. She had arrived at the border of thirty, as she was supposed to, but the whole thing felt like a mistake. An unscheduled crossing. She had once invented thirty as a ripe, old phase on the wrong side of possibilities. Surely, by thirty, paths through everything—career, relationships—had to be chiselled out.
But thirty was a traffic jam on the interstate-80 in California, at once accidental and predictable. T spent most of her thirtieth birthday stuck in her car on the freeway. The celebratory birthday lunch in San Francisco became an early supper. It concluded with someone in the party losing their credit card at the restaurant.
For a brief period afterward, thirty was a call to arms. The number seduced T into thinking she had to do something to halt the rush of time, although, truth be told, time seemed to crawl, not race on ordinary days. The most radical solutions to her problem—exercise, skincare, stress reduction, good sleep, and oh, ketogenic diet—available on that most radical of platforms—the internet—were not revolutionary enough. Health tips, always optimistic, still did not promise immortality.
It fell on T to put fresh paint on the forthcoming years. Her fiction of the thirties had been completely unoriginal. It was unoriginal because it did not take after life. Her fiction simply rehashed others’ fictions. It was free of variables. The controlled tapestry of the future she had spun was terrifying in its neatness.
Today when T tries to imagine what she can grow into out of her thirties, the faces that come to her belong to Picasso’s Old Woman and Amrita Sher-Gil’s Madam Tachlitzky. The faces of her future—the lines, the colors—are borrowed. Her mind still feeds on mythologies of age surrounding her.
Picasso’s oil painting, currently in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, shows a ghastly-pale woman, wrinkled and smiling, against a warm yellow and orange backdrop. She is dressed in black and meets the viewer’s eyes. The outlines of her face drawn in black are blurry, as though the face is a reflection in running water, a disturbed impression in the mindstream.
Displayed at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi, Amrita Sher-Gil’s Madam Tachiltzky, is the very portrait of the kind of woman who is told by friends and family, she is aging gracefully. Of course, you’ve got to wonder what ‘aging gracefully’ means—are there women who step into their birthday parties kicking and screaming? In Sher-Gil’s painting, the woman’s shoulder length hair, large—almost protruding eyes, red lips, and the serene blue she wears all bespeak of a quiet acceptance of experience. And yet, it would be remiss of anyone to mistake her acceptance for contentment.
Pooja at 30 feels like a stranger to Pooja at 43. She remembers her thirtieth birthday, of course - riding late night subways in New York, running in newly bought heels to catch the last bus back to New Jersey where she was staying at the time, moaning the metaphor of missing the bus in other ways (Granta’s Best Writers Under 30 list, anyone?). But she inhabits her skin better in her 40s .
A few months after her 40th birthday - that dreaded milestone that brought a death and a tattoo (not entirely unconnected) - P found herself caught in an odd but memorable conversation at a media conference in Thailand. A mighty force of nature heading a huge-ass investment firm got hold of her, and declared, “I LOVE your hair. I wish I could let my greys show too. But I could never pull it off like you! It needs a lot of confidence.” Even as P swung from oh-ing and ah-ing and you’re kidding?, the woman went on and on about the pressures of being a working woman, a wife, which apparently translates into hiding her greys from the world. A secret everyone’s in on, pretend play sanctioned by one and all, something to do with our desirability as women, our first order of being. Years down the line, the woman felt like she had reached the point of no return, “It’s useless now. My hair is ruined anyway, the quality is simply not what it used to be. And because of decades of hair color, the original color is gone. I think it was auburn-ish.” They talked shop for a bit until the woman circled back to the topic and said in a pleading tone that also sounded like an order to P, “Don’t you ever think about coloring it! It might seem like a good idea maybe 5, 10 years from now, but please don’t! Please stay brave!”
Brave. It’s a word that has, you could say, haunted P. It keeps popping its suspect head up several times - it could be something she does or says or writes; often it is something she rejects i.e. says No to, at work, or in her personal life, so it’s also often what she does not say or do or write. A well-wisher once told her after a particularly difficult work meeting that she didn’t have to say ‘no’ outright even if she meant to; that she should consider navigating around the word, undermining her own discomfort, appeasing other sides of the argument, for the sake of humanity, though P reckoned the well-wisher meant mankind.
As someone at the stage of life and career in which her male peers are lauded for their salt-and-pepper “sex appeal” (‘ageing like fine wine and such’), their “dad bods,” while similar allowances are not made for women, P does recognize her choices for the anomalies they are. But in the history of the Indian feminist movement that has worked for massive changes in rape laws, Sati practices, in the arenas of sex workers’ rights and manual scavenging, among so much else, hair salon choices seem hardly a victory to celebrate, and definitely nothing that deserves to be described as brave.
But can this hesitation be conditioning, P wonders now?
If the term brave conjures images of wars and martyrdom in your head, Google concurs. Men in uniform fighting wars, men in uniform competing at sports - they are called brave. Dying for the nation, giving your country your all, at international borders or the cricket field. Oh they are so brave. To do something truly, outrageously, memorably brave, you gotta have balls, they say.
When the Indian women's hockey team lost in the semi finals to Argentina at the Tokyo Olympics 2020, and forward Vandana Katariya’s family in Haridwar, U.P. found themselves intimidated by a horde of men slinging casteist slurs, and she declared how irrelevant it is to focus on differences when you play for the country, nobody called her brave.
P detects a pattern. It’s only when women reveal what are considered chinks in the armor that they have a shot at being called brave. It’s like Kate Winslet’s advocacy for the “jiggly middle age belly”, an edit she fought against when the character she plays reveals the aforementioned body part in the hit web series Mare of Easttown. “She’s a fully functioning, flawed woman with a body and a face that moves in a way that is synonymous with her age and her life and where she comes from”, Winslet said, adding with what P imagines is considerable cheek, “I think we’re starved of that a bit.”
Needless to add, Winslet has been called brave, very brave, for this most off the beaten path choice.
The passing away of octogenarian Haryana shooter Chandro Tomar earlier this year brought to P’s mind a curious discourse that unfolded in the aftermath of the trailer release of Saand ki Aankh, the biopic made on the ‘Shooter Dadis’ from Haryana, Chandro & Prakashi Tomar. From all the things that scream ‘brave’ and ‘bold’ (another word that haunts P) about the unconventional lives they’ve led, challenging patriarchal systems and going onto win national championships, what the zeitgeist chose to applaud was that two popular 20-something actresses had greyed themselves out to play the Tomars, i.e. very, very old women. Because why else would young women as pretty as Taapsee Pannu & Bhumi Pednekar choose to look old, aka unattractive, except to be called ‘brave’, right?
But P recalls finding another brave voice in the white noise. It was the actress Neena Gupta - who at 62 is busier than ever, largely due to the success of the film, Badhai Ho. When questioned about the choice of casting two young actresses to play older women in Saand ki Aankh, she pointed to the lack of level playing fields. When it comes to roles for older women, the film industry—especially in India—is notoriously unfair. Winslet would probably concur.
Even the as-cool-as-they-come Neena Gupta does color her hair though! And as a wise friend pointed out, when P was discussing Pretend it’s a City with her, even Fran Lebowitz colours her hair. On a show that is almost entirely about the passing of time, discoursing about art, relics, and adulting (circa when that wasn’t called adulting), the protagonist’s hair remains untouched by it all.
The color of P’s hair today has become something that is being manufactured for people with heads full of black hair to opt for at salons. When P shared this stunning parlour trivia, a friend said to her, “Something that beautiful has to come out of a bottle.” Aka it simply cannot be the natural ageing process, coupled with a brave choice or two taken while adulting.
When P’s own mother gave her “brave” choice a huge LIKE, it meant something, and not only because she’s, well, P’s mother. It’s because she, in her 60s, decided to shun dyes too and sport a head full of silver hair instead. “The small fortune you end up paying in the salon, it’s a lifetime’s commitment that is best not taken,” she said simply. “I wish I hadn’t ever started. My silvers would’ve looked different today.”
Strangely (and serendipitously?) enough, P’s mother has a huge fan in this choice of hers - P’s 11-year-old daughter who insists she has never touched hair as soft as Nani’s whenever they see each other.
It's like that age-old adage - ‘yeh baal dhoop mein safed nahi kiye hain’ - ringing true, coming full circle. It’s also the only time P embraces the adulting lingo whole-heartedly and says to Maa, ‘You do you’.
In Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori, a brutally stunning novel about ageing and mortality, the men are mostly dismissive and/or condescending of their ageing female counterparts, while the women are the ones mostly dealing with the realities of old age, impending death, while also pretending to be the women the men think they are.
P & T