Saturday, December 24, 2005

Lament of the aged
Khushwant Singh

Khushwant SinghSome old people in their eighties wrote to me about the problems of life in its decline. They complain about increasing helplessness, being neglected by their sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren. Their chief complaint is loneliness: they do not know how to pass their time. Being old, they get little sleep and are up well before dawn. They believe in God, say their prayers, go to temples, gurdwaras and churches or offer namaaz five times a day; and yet time hangs heavy on them. What are they to do?

I am older than most of them. I have old-age problems like rotting teeth having to be replaced by false ones, glasses changed periodically because my vision is getting poorer by the day, having to use hearing aids, carrying a walking stick to prevent falling, taking dozens of pills against fluctuating blood pressure, enlarged prostrate, irregular heartbeat etc. But I manage to get at least six hours of sleep at night despite having to get up twice or thrice to empty my bladder and another hour in the afternoon. I too get up before dawn.

Since I do not believe in God or prayers, my mind turns to more earthly problems. Will my bowels move properly this morning? Should I take more orange-carrot juice and glasses of water to help me clear my stomach? When I get a good clearing, I am relieved and happy. When I do not, it weighs on my mind. I am edgy and ill-tempered. It affects my work. I do not grumble about being neglected by children and grandchild. They do their best to look after my needs — see I eat what I want, take me to doctors, dentists and opticians. They know I prefer to be left alone, so they leave me alone. Time does not hang heavy on me because I always have something to occupy my mind. My days pass as swiftly as a weaver’s shuttle.

What advice do I give them? First, reduce your dependency on others to the very minimum and do your best to be as self-sufficient as you can. Fill your time by doing things occupy your mind and time. Don’t waste time on muttering prayers you don’t understand but meditate by stilling your mind from wondering. A minute or two will be good enough. If you can’t read or watch TV because they strain your eyes, listen to good music on your radio with complete attention. Sit in a park and watch birds, butterflies and insects — not just look at them but watch them closely, try to identify them, read about them and add to your knowledge of nature. Cultivate hobbies like collecting stamps, preserving leaves and flowers, origami — whatever you fancy. Even learn how to knit your own sweaters and socks. Free yourself of the hunger for human company. Befriend dogs, cats, birds — they will respond to your affection more than human beings. Equally important is to cut down on your food intake. Get up from your dining table with hunger unfulfilled: you will then look forward to enjoying your next meal and keep thinking about it. What you eat and drink will taste better. When fully occupied mentally, time will never hang heavy on you. You wake up and before realise the day is over and it is time to retire to bed for the night. You will enjoy sound sleep.

Writing on sex

A literary organisation in England has instituted an annual award for bad sex writing. No one knows what these prizes are worth but the winners get lost of free publicity. What is more puzzling is they have not defined what is meant by bad sex writing. Is it bad prose or raw description of the sex act? This year, among the shortlisted were Tarun Tejpal (The Alchemy of Desire), and Salman Rushdie (Shalimar the Clown). Neither of them made it to the top. Three years ago, my The Company of Women was also in the shortlist. I got no further. I had assumed that being named as a contender for the prize was a black mark for a writer. Apparently, it is not so; on the contrary, it is a matter of pride.

There have been many eminent authors who wrote explicitly on sex: D. H. Lawrence (Lady Chatterley’s Lover), Nabokov (Lolita) Arthur Miller (Tropic of Cancer) and many others. The only prizes they got were having their books banned and hence bumper royalties from sales. About the worst book on sex I have read is Vatsayana’s Kama Sutra. It has remained a steady seller ever since it was first published in English over a century ago. Since then, the dividing line between erotica and pornography has almost disappeared. You can get away with English four-letter words and the foulest of incestuous abuse in Indian languages. They add not spicy flavour to dialogue: without them it would sound totally flat.

Personally, I prefer gentle erotic writing to torrid descriptions of copulation — more foreplay than performance. We have quite a few craftsmen in the art: Richard Crasta (Modern Kama Sutra), Shashi Tharoor (The Great Indian Novel), Upamanyu Chatterjee (English August), Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things).

The subject is still taboo in Hindi and regional languages. For one, they do not have the necessary vocabulary. I do not think anyone of them have the equivalent of clitoris nor an orgasm. Even our pioneer in this field Vatsayana does not mention them in his Kama Sutra). Instead, he goes into prolix detail of different kinds of males and females, draws long lists of tortuous positions they can adopt while at it as well as the number of ways a couple can kiss, scratch and bite each other. Perhaps, the Sahitya Akademi could make a beginning by instituting an annual award for good writing on sex.

Flight of fancy

Jamaluddin of Hyderabad phoned Begumpet Airport wanting to know approximately how long a flight to New Delhi would take. "Just a minute", said the receptionist, who was very busy. "Oh, I am very greatful to you, thanks very much," said Jamaluddin, and then hung up.

(Contributed by Judson Cornelius, Hyderabad)