Were our grandparents ever really young? Of course, we have all seen their photographs, those sepia-tinted assertions of their once-youth. But it
seems as if the people in those photographs are other people, with an admittedly striking if faded resemblance to the real articles in front of us. Their youth seems to us like a land far, far away and stories about the times when they were young have a dreamy, fable-like quality. One doesn't quite locate those stories in the same terrain as one on which we lead our lives. Their youth seems like an aberration or at best, a vehicle for getting them to this point and making them what they are today. To use a common benchmark, who would argue with the claim that Ashok Kumar and Nirupa Roy were never young? Their youth is a manufactured back story, one that takes place quickly in the first 10 minutes of a film, so that we can get on to the real story, one in which he wears satin gowns and smokes a cigarette and she makes her haath ka paratha before coughing her last.
Is age simply a passage of time or does it carry with it other transformations that fundamentally change the way the same individual is viewed? Put another way, does age add an additional lens, one that subtly changes the way human beings are seen and responded to? And if one were to push the question to the limits of reason, does one become someone else in one's older avatar or does the world see us as someone else as we grow older?
Of course, a simple explanation is that it seems so because age is relative to the vantage point of the other person. So, we look up upon our grandparents with a certain expectation while their contemporaries see them very differently. But while patently, there is truth in this, it is only part of the answer. Society views older people in a certain way and confers certain expectations on them. We do not expect grandmothers to talk about sex, not just here but even in the West. It is difficult to summon up rage when we come across mass murderers and tyrants in their eighties. General Pinochet seemed like a tired old man and Pol Pot like someone who needed a good nurse.
Cinematic and advertising depictions of the old tend to portray the old not as subjects who act with a sense of agency but as objects whose role is to either support the young or be supported by them. It is as if the old lose a sense of individual identity and must fit into the scheme things as determined fit by the younger generation. So we have doting grandparents, childlike octogenarians revelling in playing street cricket, put upon parents who are victims of their children's callousness and coughing parents who have to be looked after. In most cases, the story is told from the vantage point of others and the role of the old is to react to the expectations of others.
The young fear age and seek to distance themselves from it in a variety of ways. Our grandparents were thus never young for if they were, one day I too will become like them. We also work hard at defanging age by emphasising its toothlessness. The societal expectation from the old is that they become naturally sacrificing and behave as large cuddly toys who make few demands. Of course, age does bring with it a dimming of the light in many ways. It just seems that societally we construct an additional layer that allows us to consume older age in a way that reduces our anxiety about it. Of course, we will all get older. We will become our grandparents and our grandchildren will not really believe what we did just yesterday.