What does a man do when his career is over – he is not even forty, and his life extends in front of him like an ocean vista? Buy an ocean front property, play the share market and stare at the vista. Or, if you’re a Haryanvi wrestler, you join the police.

Virat Kohli has spoken about a sportsman’s career being very short. It’s one of the reasons that keeps him motivated— the dangling sword. It’s been said that nothing focuses a man’s head more than the news that he will be hanged in a week’s time. It’s a problem that afflicts musicians and sportsmen more than others. (Even actors find roles when they are older, though not as many as when they were younger, and if you are a woman even less so, but they do).

The rest of humanity finds its feet careerwise from their mid-thirties onwards, the age when sportsmen are usually considered too old to play. Novelists and poets, on the other hand, can start early and go on till the very end.

Poet Dom Moraes won the Hawthornden Prize at the age of twenty. Jean Rhys started writing in her twenties and published three slim novels. Then, silence. It would be 27 long years before she would publish Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966. She died 13 years later. Wide Sargasso Sea still sells thousands of copies and is widely prescribed in American schools.

Similarly Henry Roth took an extended leave of absence after the success of Call It Sleep, first published in 1934. It would be 60 long years before he published his monumental work Mercy of a Rude Stream, in four volumes. Nirvana was playing on the radio. Nirvana is unlikely to have had this second wind, even if Kurt hadn’t shot himself at 27.

Musicians fare slightly better than sportsmen when it comes to their limited careers. George Michael sang wistfully about the fickle audience on his album Patience. Some, like Pulp’s Russell Senior, retired at forty, at the peak of the band’s success. He felt silly standing on the stage and singing to teenaged fans. He now happily runs an antiques store in Sheffield.

Billy Joel retired too, while those who continue, like his old friend Elton John, have complained to the Daily Mail: ‘People like Billy Joel, who is a great songwriter and one of America’s finest, say there is no point because people don’t want to hear them. And I kind of get that as well, but it is very frustrating that you play new songs that people don’t want to hear but I can’t not try and have a go. Usually when you play a new song people hurtle towards the toilets quickly.’

Previously, rappers had the shortest shelf-life but it’s changing with the current generation. Jay Z is 48, Eminem is 45, Kanye is 40 and Pusha T is 41. Rappers lasting this long is a new welcome phenomenon in pop culture. The last three all dropped new albums this year. Pusha T’s 21-minute Daytona was hailed as instant classic. Em went No. 1 on the U.K. charts with Kamikaze.

The sports folk fare the worst. But we don’t feel too bad for them because they have already earned a ‘pension’ that would see several generations through. Maradona pulled mountains of quality white powder in the immediate aftermath of retirement. Indian cricketers rarely go down this road because the arranged marriage system makes sure that they are ‘well settled’ with kids, way before retirement beckons.

Maradona cleaned up his act and returned as the excitable football coach, pacing the stadium’s sidelines. Coaching, commentating and playing golf are a former sportsman’s handful of options. Most say ‘I look forward to spending time with the family’ but how much time can one spend with one’s family? Why not develop the reading habit.

Then there are also those who just don’t stop. Former cricketers go on commentating series after series and ageing actors go on selling soap and hair oil in TVCs and on hoardings.

We should learn from Australian scientist David Goodall, who at the age of 104, voluntarily wheeled himself into a euthanasia clinic in Switzerland and—forget about a career—said goodbye to life with a smile.

 

(The writer is the editor of House Spirit: Drinking in India, published by Speaking Tiger)

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