Flaunting my Silvers: Exploring the Landscape of Aging
In Through The Children’s Gate, Adam Gopnik’s vivid essays about his time in New York, as a parent, he notes that it is impossible to map a city like New York. After all, the place is constantly morphing. Mapmakers can hardly keep pace, because even as they capture the streets and buildings and empty lots on any particular day, something has shifted in the meanwhile. Maps of such dense, constantly changing cities are projects that are forever in the making, compelling mapmakers to revisit their drawings again and again.
What is true of New York and other fluid cities, might well be true of our identities and selves. Though the changes are slower and less visible, both our physical and mental selves are constantly acquiring new contours, even as we continue to shed earlier dimensions. To declaim “who you are” or “what you do”, as we are often asked to, in certain situations, is to falsely solidify an entity that is not even liquid, but vaporous (or more intriguingly, non-existent, as some philosophers and mystics proclaim).
The prospect of introducing ourselves to an imagined stranger at some imagined party is possibly not occupying us these days. As I write this, the pandemic rages across our nation, reinforcing the fragility of our lives and the precarious circumstances that mask our smiles and lock us into the confines of particular neighborhoods. Still, such ongoing solitariness compels me to return to an image that I encounter more frequently than I would wish to: my ever-whitening hair.
Even as the patch of moonshine glitter fans out like an ink blot, occasionally jolting me with the “granny” that grins inside my mirrors, I have, like a clumsy tourist in a new country, started exploring this new self. Delving into the physiological, sociocultural and psychological offshoots of aging has only exposed my own oblivion to a terrain that has, for many years, been closer to me than I might have cared to acknowledge.
After all, like many million middle-aged (and aged) women, I too was masking my real hair colours till about a year ago. While I have always shunned chemical options and used rather messy herbal concoctions, I was aware, as well, that there was nothing “natural” about leafy dyes. On the one hand, using an absurd merry-go-round logic, I tried to convince myself that I was doing this for myself. “I want to feel young,” I said, without bothering to question what the opposite, feeling old, ought to feel like.
As writers, we jump hoops and flex feelings to inhabit the “other” – to occupy bodies and minds that are distinctly unlike our own. In particular, those of us who still harbor a social conscience of sorts, try to imagine ourselves into the circumstances of people whose lives slip into the crevices. Into the gaps and sometimes startling abysses created by the faultlines of race/caste/class/gender and other socioeconomic axes of unequal power. While I occasionally visited the cramped dwellings in the “village” outside the gated complex I currently dwell in, I hardly heeded the silvers flashing above my forehead.
Moreover, in conversations and in my own thinking, I might have heedlessly perpetuated other false, socially-constructed notions. For instance, the idea that men with salt-and-pepper strands don’t look any worse than their younger versions, but women, who are all grey, are just not as appealing anymore. Seriously? Those of us who buy into this belief, should also ponder whether darker-skinned women ought to bleach their natural skin tones, because you know what, there are more ads for “fair brides” than for “sultry ones.” Or why more teenage girls, across cultures, suffer from body image issues compared with their male counterparts. (And I’m not downplaying the pressures faced by boys, when they subscribe to rigidified ideas of masculinity).
In Perfect Me, the philosopher Heather Widdows sets out how the beauty ideal – an evolving, never-ending project – is no longer merely treated like a social standard, but more like a moral imperative. For instance, women are made to feel more ashamed about gaining weight or letting themselves go, than men in similar positions. And the irony is that as women have climbed the rungs of power, as Naomi Wolf noted in The Beauty Myth, the pressures to keep looking “good” have only increased.
In her collection of essays, Trick Mirror, the fiercely intelligent Jia Tolentino emphasizes how Wolf’s book remains as relevant as when it was first published in 1990. Tolentino also shines a light on how all women, including the more reflective among us, tend to internalize these standards. As she puts it, “I like trying to look good, but it’s hard to say how much you can genuinely, independently like what amounts to a mandate.”
Should we even be surprised that in South Korea, aspirations to “succeed” in narrow, material terms are pushing parents to consider plastic surgery for daughters before they turn 16? Or as an author from the UK, lamented on a recent podcast, that “10” is the new “14” for girls; and that some of these 10-year-olds are so revolted by their belly fat, they are drawn to the idea of slicing off those rolls with a knife?
For a few years, I didn’t mind the switched-off “me-time” that coloring entailed. The two-step process, to be honest, was rather painstaking. The routine involved slathering the hair with henna on the first day, and then with a pasty indigo on the second. The hues imparted by henna – a muddied red when mixed with tea leaves – and indigo – a purplish blue, might make for enticing tie-and-dye projects.
On one’s own hair, and especially when brushed on with a certain laxity mingled with apprehension, the results were often comical. There were times when the henna overtook the indigo, or others, when the second layer was patchy, leading to cheetah-like spots or tigerish stripes. I tried to ward off the family’s growing objections, voiced more and more lustily as the years progressed with: “These are red highlights.” Or by drawing attention to the subjectivity and free-play inherent in all postmodern aesthetics: “Listen, anything goes these days.”
And then I started reading Gandhi: The Years That Changed The World, the second, and rather dauntingly thick volume on the leader’s life from 1914 to 1948, by Ramachandra Guha, the nation’s distinguished historian. On page 41, I was compelled by the plight of indigo cultivators at Champaran. As much as this sounds like a bizarre connection to make with a tome of that kind, I couldn’t help but think of the plastic vat of indigo, that I used on my own hair every few weeks. As a user of this tint, should I have also been tainted by shame or guilt, given the complicated intertwining of that dye with the nation’s history?
For readers unfamiliar with the episode at Champaran, it might be worthwhile to dip briefly into Guha’s account. Raj Kumar Shukla, a peasant from Champaran, pleaded with members of the Congress held at Lucknow in 1916, to heed their exploitation by “indigo planters.” Most leaders did not seem inclined to be distracted from their overarching mission. Gandhi, himself, wasn’t a prominent leader yet. On being shunned or ignored by the others, Shukla grabbed Gandhi’s legs and pleaded with an anguish that feels heart-rending even to those of reading this more than a century later: “Please come to Champaran and save us peasants from the exactions of the indigo planters.”
Gandhi did not accede at once. But Shukla was persistent. He followed Gandhi, when he headed out to Kanpur from Lucknow. Later, when the leader returned to the Sabarmati Ashram, the relentless Shukla awaited him again. Perhaps to thwart him, politely, Gandhi agreed to visit Champaran at a future date. Fortunately, for himself and our country, he did.
Meeting with Champaran’s ryots, under the watchful and wary British gaze, Gandhi was moved by their plight. Though Indigo had always been cultivated in India, the British, alighting on the commercial potential of the striking blue dye, had aggressively expanded the acreage apportioned to the cash crop. When some of the peasants resisted this imposition and chose to grow other crops, they were forced to pay a “sharabeshi” or rent.
Recording the testimonies of nearly 7000 peasants, Gandhi presented a case for the redressal of their grievances to the lieutenant governor of Bihar. As it turned out, the Champaran Enquiry Commission, constituted after Gandhi’s report ruled in favor of the peasants. This was the first instance of Gandhi’s satyagraha succeeding in India.
I reached this point in the book, and then made, what might be construed as an illogical and rather wacky decision. I was going to stop using Indigo on my hair and turn recklessly red. As a writer, I would like to position this as a vague affinity with Champaran’s one-time peasants. Of course, the reasons were more convoluted. I had always suspected that the use of Indigo on my hair occasionally triggered migraines. And when my head throbbed, my capacity for empathy, for people both alive and long-dead, was at an all-time low. I didn’t feel like a writer at all at those times. I felt like a crabby, menopausal, middle-aged woman, and of course, that was as authentic a part of my identity as anything else. So who cared, really, if I now belonged to a rare tribe of red-heads? After all, I was doing this for me.
Leaping from red to silver has been an easy next step, a diagonal hop on a chalky paandi (the Tamil word for “hopscotch) court. Since then, wandering inside the culture of aging bodies is one of my more enthralling lockdown pastimes.
As a site of stigma or as a type of prejudice, age/ageism is more intriguing than other forms of discrimination. I do understand that people who are currently “ageist” may not necessarily be young. After all, women can often be patriarchal, just as any other marginalized or oppressed group can absorb the standards of prevailing social hierarchies. Still, let’s assume that most people who are “ageist” are youthful, even if that is a descriptor that evokes other attributes: people who are physically fit, cognitively alive and with productive capacities that can be harnessed by the modern economy.
Ageism is fascinating because it is the only bias that is almost certain to boomerang. Today’s youth will suffer, if they survive long enough, from structures and thought processes that currently elevate their demographic cachet. It reminds me of a story that we had learned in our primary school years, about a husband having to take over the household chores from an overburdened but uncomplaining wife; and how the sheer act of “being her” for a day imparted the kind of hard-hitting moral instruction that no lecture or book could have matched. And so it is, that the young, will one day face the inevitable physical and mental shifts that all human bodies are subject to, as well as the sociocultural framing of their changed selves.
Of course, the treatment of “age” and “aging” has not been uniform across history or even across cultures. To begin with, humans weren’t living as long as we are expected to in contemporary times. After all, the Twentieth Century has added a whole 30 years to the average human lifespan.
But even as life expectancy has started to climb, thanks to medical innovations and a somewhat more universal access to healthcare systems, our approach to growing older has become paradoxically more apologetic and more fraught with distress. The very institutions that keep us functioning for longer also shut us out in other ways. We are alive, but no longer employable, because the pyramidical structures do not allow for too many “senior” people. Besides, as the capitalist logic goes, why pay more for a declining mind when a more productive one can be snagged for cheaper?
Besides economic fallouts, the aging population is as susceptible as any other social group, to implicit biases about themselves. For instance, let’s say you are in your 60s, and you happen to mislay your housekeys. You might immediately jump to the conclusion that your age is fostering your forgetfulness, though your teenage son often loses his bike keys but never attributes this to his age. Repeated studies have shown that when students are asked to check the race they belong to, African American students tend to perform at levels below their own potential on subsequent exams compared with white students. Similar studies with Dalit students reveal the pernicious internalization of caste stereotypes.
Fortunately, the field of Cultural Gerontology shatters many of the stereotypes associated with aging, even as many people are also growing older in healthful ways. More than anything else, most studies of the aging population reveal the sheer diversity of individuals in those cohorts.
Some of the (mis)understanding of older people reminds me of a lecture, that I watched on YouTube, delivered by the author Min Jin Lee, at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard. In that talk, Lee describes an encounter with a European journalist, who posed a question to her, that was roughly phrased as follows: “What are Koreans like?” Lee pauses when she recounts this and the audience laughs. As a writer, Lee was quick to grasp the subtext of what the journalist was asking. What he really meant to ask her, she says, was: “Are Koreans human?”
Since I now flash my silvers, I can imagine some young person asking me a similar question: “What are old people like?” I would like to borrow (and modify) Lee’s response and say: “Old people like to dance.” And like Lee, I don’t mean this literally, though some of us old folks can break, lock and pop like the best hip-hop artists, or step, twirl and twist like the salsa pros. We can do anything or everything that the twenty-year-olds can. We can be sassy or timid, conservative or liberal, ambitious or shiftless. We can found companies, acquire new degrees, learn new skills, form new relationships, change jobs and careers, or retire into contented nooks. Like our young adults or teens, we are masters at snarky comebacks, and the “whatever” eye-rolls or glazed looks, accompanied by deeply-exasperated “Chill Ma”s.
Showing our greys does not imply that we’ve relinquished the world or any other aspect of ourselves. A long-ago jewelry ad that had suggested the “man” (in the picture) should buy the woman platinum because she deserves it. Without wading into the cultural assumptions that surrounded the ad, I’d like to nudge, those of my fellow middle-aged women, who might be currently ambivalent about colouring, to show off their platinums: not because they ought to let go or merely because they can, but because they deserve to.
Gopnik, Adam, Through The Children’s Gate: A Home In New York, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2006
Tolentino, Jia, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, 4th Estate (Harper Collins), London, 2019
Guha, Ramachandra, Gandhi: The Years That Changed The World (1914-1948), Penguin Random House India, 2018