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Never too old to say goodbye

Old people complain that their children don't look after them, conveniently forgetting what they did for their parents, writes Khushwant Singh.

india Updated: Dec 09, 2006 02:24 IST

This piece is addressed to men and women of my generation aged between 70-100 who are described as senior citizens. They are forever grumbling over their fate. They can’t see or hear very well. They are unsteady on their feet and scared of falling and breaking one of their brittle bones which can no longer be rejoined.

They spend long hours in bed, watching TV (if they can see and hear clearly), wasting time on unproductive pursuits like prayers and endlessly complaining that their sons and daughters don’t look after them properly. They conveniently forget how much or how little they did for their parents in their old age.

This is about a widow of 95 living in a suburb of New York. Anne Porter lost her husband over 20 years ago. Her vision is impaired and she has to wear thick-lensed glasses to see where she is going: She had to give up driving a long time ago. She is unsteady on her feet and has to use a walker to prevent her from stumbling. She took to writing. She was 83 when her first collection of poems An Altogether Different Language was published. It won her literary acclaim. Her poems have now been included in an anthology of the best American poetry which includes works of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost and TS Eliot.

When asked how she did it, Mrs Porter replied: “You can’t sing any more, you can’t dance anymore, you can’t drive any more, but you can still write.” She keeps doctors at a distance. “You stay away from doctors,” she wrote. “They’ll send you to the hospital, where pieces are cut off you and you die.” A short verse was born out of her son reminding her to keep her ticket handy whenever she had to travel.

She wrote: I keep it carefully/Because I am old/which means/I’ll soon be leaving for another country/where possibly/Some blinding bright/Enormous angel/Will stop me/at the border/and ask/To see my ticket.

Not great poetry — very little American poetry is great — but it is short, neat, easy to comprehend and drives the point home. Our role model should be someone like Zohra Sehgal. She is 95 but as active as anyone in their fifties, acting on the stage and in film studios, giving public recitations of Urdu poetry she knows by heart, has a mischievous twinkle in her eyes and is gorgeous company.

Gora Garhwali

The last manuscript Ravi Dayal accepted for publication before he died on June 3 this year was Frederick Wilson: ‘Wulson Sahib’ of Garhwal by DC Kala. It bears the stamp of uniqueness of Ravi Dayal’s publications. While all other publishers only accept manuscripts they are sure would cover their costs and yield them some profit, Ravi Dayal’s sole concern was their merit, importance and readability.

As general manager of the Oxford University Press for 25 years, he turned the world’s leading academic publishing house from being a retail outlet for works of British scholars to one that sponsored Indian poets, playwrights and academicians: Many of our leading men of letters of today owe their standing in the literary world to him. He never bothered to calculate what he would get out of publishing a book. This is borne out by his last venture. I can take any bet that not more than one out of 100 educated Indians would have heard of Frederick Wilson.

He came from a lower-middle class family of Yorkshire and joined the East India Company as a common soldier. The Indian food and climate did not suit him. He went back to England and was discharged as unfit for military service. He returned to India and settled down in village Harsil in Tehri Garhwal on the pilgrim route to Gangotri where the Ganga take its birth. He started off as a shikari and a taxidermist.

He shot bears, wild goats, deer of different varieties notably musk for its musk pod, pheasants, partridges — everything he could eat or reproduce in stuffed form to sell as mementos. He made enough to live a spartan life. But he also studied the habits of birds and animals he killed, wrote about them and kept up correspondence with AO Hume, ICS, founder of the Indian National Congress and a noted ornithologist. Besides these preoccupations he had a roving eye for Garhwali girls. He paid off a man to let him have his wife, treated her as his own, and sired three sons off her: Two took after him and were goras; one Nathaniel took after his mother, was dark-skinned and got lucrative contracts to supply timber, much in demand for laying railway tracks in the plains. He decimated whole forests of Deodar and Sal, floated them down the Ganga to Hardwar and beyond. He became a rich man and built himself a palatial house and other properties in Mussorie and Dehradun. He continued to have Garhwali concubines and mistresses and sire children through them. His progeny can still be found in Uttaranchal. Wilson alias Wulson Sahib died on July 5, 1883. He sleeps in peace with one of his lady companions in a Christian cemetery in Mussoorie.

DC Kala who had earlier published a book on Jim Corbett (also published by Ravi Dayal) has done his homework. Though at times repetitive and with tedious details, he has produced a book which is a must for every library in India and in homes of people interested in the flora and fauna of the Himalayas and sahib log of those times.

Juvenile jottings (Answers written in schools exams):

1) A vibration is a motion that cannot make up its mind which way it wants to go.
2) When you breathe, you inspire. When you do not breathe, you expire.
3) Cyanide is so poisonous that one drop of it on a dog’s tongue will kill the strongest man.
4) The body consists of three parts — the brainium, the borax and the abominable cavity. The brainium contains the brain, the borax contains the heart and lungs and the abominable cavity contains the bowels of which there are five — a, e, i, o & u.

(Contributed by Vipin Bucksey, New Delhi)

First Published: Dec 09, 2006 01:30 IST