Essays | Hot And Old

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Hot And Old
Text by Manjula Padmanabhan
Published: Volume 19, Issue 9, August-September, 2011
The stylish twilight years

When I was 17, I decided I would die at 30. Forty-one years later, here I still am, with just two years to go before turning 60. Sixty! It takes my breath away. So when I think about the next 10 years, my thoughts turn naturally to the Big Question: Is it possible to be cool about dying?

Making a graceful and peaceful exit from life is definitely one of the issues that concerned me when I was planning my early demise. I was particularly disgusted with the way we enter this world. Absolutely the only good thing about birth is that we don’t consciously remember it. All the rest, from the pain caused to our mothers, to the pressure and terrible stress experienced by ourselves as tiny, helpless infants, is utterly disgraceful.

The average life only gets worse in the days, weeks and months that follow. Doctors, architects and engineers all train for a minimum of five years to learn how to repair bodies and erect buildings, bridges and roads. But for the solemn task of creating a whole new human being, what do we get? A pair of attention-deficit amateurs called parents. They whine non-stop about the night-feeds, the crying and the smelly nappies, then leave us in the care of illiterate ayahs or dubious day-care centres at the first chance they get. If, by some miracle, we survive childhood illnesses and tyrannical kindergarten school teachers till we’re 12, our reward is the nightmare of adolescence: pimples and brassières, tampons and anguished late-night telephone calls. If we manage to struggle onward with gritted teeth until we attain blessed majority, what’s the first thing we’re told? That the best years of our lives are behind us!

Given all of this, I think the least we owe ourselves is a comfortable and perhaps even pleasurable death. I believe in the years ahead our willingness to talk about mortality is going to increase. For one thing, there will be more baby-boomers than ever before surfing towards that final hurrah. We may well represent the largest collection of human beings to have enjoyed unparalleled material wealth and health as private citizens, rather than royalty. It seems very likely that those of us who are now entering our 60s, 70s and older, will want to have as much control as possible over the ends of our days.

I would expect a much greater interest in pain-management, for instance. Many thoughtful and intellectually advanced people are concerned less with the actual curtain call than with having to face pain and discomfort. So I would expect to see great strides in creating non-addictive morphines and new forms of medication that would cause the body to re-interpret pain. After all pain is a figment of the mind’s alchemy, a particular arrangement of nervous impulses. If the brain could be rewired to register pleasure with every incoming lightning bolt of agony, the final journey might well be turned into an orgy of delight.

Another huge area of concern for those approaching death is the loss of dignity associated with toilet activities. One solution might be to reconfigure our digestive systems so that our wastes smelt of expensive perfume. Imagine how much that would improve the atmosphere of our old age homes! Visitors would queue up to spend time in Colonel Ahluwalia’s Guerlain-scented suite or to catch a whiff of Mrs Rangoonwalla’s Chanel No 5 bed pan.

I would expect wheel-chairs of the future to be designed by Mercedez-Benz and Rolls Royce, making each one more enviable than the next. Volkswagen, meanwhile, will live upto its name and produce the People’s Chair to suit more modest pension plans. All manner of extraordinary features might become standard, such as voice-operated controls, silent, gliding motion, vertical adjustment and stair-climbing capacity. Elder Mobile Systems might become the subject of the same ferocious competition as the luxury car market is now. Indeed, cars themselves might become accessories to wheel-chairs so that users could slide into their vehicles without the bother of having to get down from one into the other. General mobility might be enhanced to the point where all vehicular traffic would be managed without human intervention. A traveller would slide her wheel-chair into her car, punch in coordinates then lean back and do the morning’s three-dimensional crossword for the next half hour en route to her stationary kung fu class. The car would be powered by clean hydrogen cells and follow embedded magnetic grids. There would never be traffic jams and fatal road accidents would go the way of the dinosaur.

As for love and sex, in our so-called twilight years I expect nothing ahead will be as terrible as the dawn years. All that desperate yearning and caterwauling ends when the hormones have slowed to a feeble trickle but companionship and romance endure long after the glands have ceased to throb. I expect that the pleasure of friendship will only increase with the lengthening of our shadows. I have, for instance, maintained contact with a number of my men friends from the past, regardless of what we did, with what and to whom. We’re able to laugh at ourselves and to feel an indulgent warmth towards our youthful incarnations as well as towards the people we have grown into. I am genuinely interested to see whom they have ultimately partnered themselves with, while feeling deeply grateful that it was not with me. No doubt they feel the same!

Meanwhile, the options for multiple forms of electronic romance are growing ever more sophisticated. Even as hapless American politicians suffer degrading embarrassments when their naughty photographs go wandering across the Twittersphere the rest of us may choose to meet in PhotoShopped virtuality rather than our sagging flesh. What I mean is, while it’s already commonplace to go on regular dates through Skype I’m sure the technology already exists to communicate via youthful-looking avatars animated by our real movements and speaking with our real voices. I suspect that for many older people, it would be perfectly acceptable never to meet in the real world. Nothing at all would be gained from seeing a wrinkly version of ourselves and our handsome, well-muscled virtual lovers.

In the past, the average human life-span was perhaps 55 years (give or take five years in different parts of the world). But today for affluent and health-conscious urbanites the statistics are settling comfortably into the late 80s. As we become accustomed to the idea of extending our lives, the nature of commitments made in youth must surely be reconsidered. In the past, a couple needed to cooperate at least long enough for their children to grow up, marry and become self-reliant. But now that we might expect to live long past the reproductory cycle, perhaps the nature of marital agreements will also become more flexible and less dependent. Women in particular are discovering today that, contrary to traditional expectations, whole new horizons and opportunities open up for them once they are widowed. They’re no longer tied to the home, they are still energetic and they have a lifetime’s worth of confidence and experience behind them.

So I would expect us to plan our lives consciously in two stages (at least): the first in which we grow up and learn to be responsible adults and the second in which we lose all boundaries and go out on wild adventures, scale mountains, explore barrier reefs and discover new moons around Saturn. We will not care a fig about what people think and we will enjoy eating and drinking as if there were no tomorrow because…who knows?…there might not be!

Which brings me to the subject of food. Amongst the most annoying sideshows of later life is the absence from our dinner plates of sugars, spices and the creamy, oozing delicacies that all doctors forbid. Well! I fully expect that in the years ahead an entire industry will arise out of creating luscious meals through the skilful application of aromas in combination with textured proteins. Those who want to, will be able to gorge with abandonment, while neither gaining weight nor slipping into diabetic comas.

And in case you’re wondering who will be on hand to manage these complicated lives with the multiple gadgets and always-absent children, I believe the answer will take the form of the all-purpose Personal Butler. Thoughtful, well-mannered, scrupulously clean and easy-to-maintain mechanical servants will do everything that human domestic helpers do today, but without talking back or taking Sundays off or wanting handouts at Diwali.

In short, the answer to my initial question is: YES! When Death is your best next move, turn the music up and dance your way towards eternity.

MANJULA PADMANABHAN IS AN AUTHOR, PLAYWRIGHT AND CARTOONIST. HER MOST RECENT NOVEL IS ESCAPE, A DARK ADVENTURE NOVEL SET IN A WOMANLESS FUTURE.

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