Chapter 1: The Middle-Age Dilemma
His kind neighbor invites him and his wife for a conversation over tea and some pakodas. He wonders how grown up he must appear now to be receiving such invites — like he had only seen his dad receive so far. Mentally, he believes, he and his wife are both still kids – at least when they are in the comfort space of being with just each other.
He is 34 years old but still gets carded on a good day at bars — something that always makes him smile. Especially when his younger friends or colleagues are not carded. But secretly he also worries that it is probably obvious to the bartender that he is the senior most in the group and the one who is going to settle the check. He is unable to discount the possibility that it is a trick of the trade to butter him up for a generous tip.
As he tells his wife for the seventy thridiculous time that she looks good, he hypothesizes that this feeling of being “still young”, probably stems from not having kids of their own. Nothing makes you more grown up than having a life to care for which is completely dependent on you for survival. But they didn’t want kids — each for a different reason, but he was glad that this was not a department they had to discuss, deliberate and arrive at a consensus about.
He ties his hair into a short pony and wears his slippers, ‘Are you going to go like this?’ his wife asks.
‘Why? What’s wrong with this?’ He stares down at his black t-shirt and blue denim shorts.
‘Nothing,’ she says. ‘Just that you are not 25 anymore.’
‘Sad, but true,’ he says as he picks up his house keys. ‘Let’s go.’
But his mind is now taking a plunge, receding into the questions that were already forming in there and were crystalized by his wife’s comment: why does he want to be young? Why does he not want to feel his rightful age?
Media, he hypothesizes, as they walk to their neighbour’s house. And the society at large. They value youth way more than middle age. But he doesn’t understand why. As a youth, not very many years ago, he was stupid. He had no sense of what he wanted and no money to buy the things he was being sold by the media (PS3, an iPad, a car). Why then? Is middle age not a better segment to target? Certainly they have more purchasing power and disposable income — he remembers the terms from his economics classes not very many years ago.
But he cannot imagine media celebrating a middle age man with a pot belly who can actually buy those ridiculous pointy shoes and over priced t-shirts. It’s not sexy enough for media. And it’s nonsense for the middle age man to buy things that are made in India or eastward still, but carry the mark of a brand from the west.
His wife stands behind him and asks him to ring the bell. He is used to this charade now. He shuffles and moves to stand behind her. She smacks him on the shoulder, mutters how he always makes her do uncomfortable things, and rings the bell.
Maybe the youth is also valued exactly because they don’t have as much sense, he thinks. Catch them young, while they are still stupid. Impress them when they are impressionable and hope they carry the nonsense ideas lodged in their unformed brains to their graves. He shakes his head, sympathizing for the youth. He then thinks that seniors don’t even get space apart from a footnote, perhaps, in the media. He sympathizes with them too.
Feeling the power of his middle-aged awesomeness, he shakes his neighbors’ hand confidently. ‘Good evening,’ he manages without stuttering or feeling the fatigue of interaction with an unfamiliar human being.
The woman brings the tea cups in a tray and the man brings the pakodas. ‘I made them,’ he declares. The kids, around 14 and 9 years old, join the adults.
It is mighty awkward to be the middle of the pack, he thinks. The neighbors were more middle aged than him and his wife, and they were more middle aged than the kids.
The adults in the room talk about how they have tea and pakodas, just the rain is missing. And also laugh at this.
He realizes he feels more comfortable talking to the kids, perhaps because they seem familiarly lost and confused. He was like that not very many years ago. He is able to relate. As opposed to the self assured, calmer, more middle-aged-than-him folks in the room.
He tries to pick up a conversation with the elder of the two kids. The only conversation that he can think of is the one that he had as a kid with adults, not very many years ago. ‘What’s your plan after school?’ he asks, feeling a sense of deja vu, but from a whole another perspective.
Accustomed to the question from middle aged folks, the 14 year old responds casually, ‘Judge.’
He is intrigued by the response, since he was expecting engineer or doctor — the options he chose between at random when responding to the question, flipping a coin in his mind, not very many years ago. Over the years, he has heard that lawyer is also fast becoming normal choice for children. So he decides to ask the kid, ‘Why?’
‘Mom says I am very judgmental,’ the kid says, looking at his worn out flip flops, ‘I thought I should put it to some use.’
His first thought is to explain to the kid that being a judge means the exact opposite of that. He wonders how, without sounding sarcastic, should he tell the kid that he’s being stupid. Maybe he can tell him that he’s a stupid the world needs with there being only a limited number of judges and all. And for good measure, he can also throw some wisdom around how the quality of the reason why you pick anything in life has no bearing on how good or bad you eventually are at it. He finds himself wishing someone had told him that when he was growing up. But then he worries that he shouldn’t project.
His second thought is that it’s not really the kid’s fault to misunderstand that being judgmental is not a judge’s job description. Language is stupid. How can judgmental be the opposite of what is required of a judge? He wonders whether they actually ran out of words in English language or were they being lazy when they were thinking of a negative adjective for passing quick and overtly critical judgment. It’s neither, actually, he realizes as he thinks of alternate options that do exist for judgmental like prejudiced. He then wonders why is it that these options are not cool enough to be as popular as judgmental. He finds himself thinking of cooler options that could stick. A wacky new word, like zingy, maybe? He thinks this could really catch-on. Don’t be so zingy when your mother talks about Big Boss Season seventy thridiculous. But zingy has the potential to become the kind of bad-ass that people sometimes want to be. Like how the heroes of Bollywood glorified being a tapori in the 90s. Like how the anti-hero is sometimes more alluring than a straight-as-an-arrow hero.
His third thought is that he is the one who is stupid. In all probability, this kid knows all that already and in one short sentence he took a dig at his mom, the worn out flip-flop and the cliched question. He is glad that at least he has realized that he needs to be careful to not let people find out about his own stupidity. Breathing a sigh of relief, that earns him a confused stare from his wife, he thinks about all the pressure that he has to be under to hide his stupidity. He can physically feel his confidence of a few minutes ago leave him and be replaced by the same old anxiety. He smiles. The reassurance of an old foe is sometimes better than the novelty of a new friend.
He wonders how the kid is really smart and inches a little towards understanding why the media celebrates the youth. He blows in his tea cup to push the layer of milk skin away so that he can take a sip. It’s sweet — the way he used to like it not very many years ago. Now he calls it death in a cup. His cooler, more anglicized friends, call it chai-halwa. But that’s for another chapter.
To read the next chapter, go here.