Toni Morrison, the great American novelist and essayist, published her first novel when she was 39 years old. Our very own Boman Irani didn’t start acting in films until he was 44. And Edward Hopper, the master of American realism whose artworks had become the face of urban ennui last year when nearly the whole world was living under lockdown, didn’t sell a painting until he was in his thirties. The bottom line — it is never too late to start a new life, or even recognise the impulse for a new way of living for yourself in the foreseeable future.
When people say age is just a number, what do they really mean? After all, numbers matter; when things don’t add up in life, we tend to falter. If not for numbers, I wouldn’t be typing this essay on a computer which only understands the binary language. Without numbers all our scientific, social, and even cultural [that’s right, even cultural: try to picture a world in which Madhuri didn’t dance to Ek, Do, Teen… Chaar, Paanch, Chhe, you know the drill] developments would come to a standstill.
But we often tend to overestimate numbers. A woman who’s crossed the age of 30 is too late for marriage, a lawyer who has greyed his hair in the business certainly is more knowledgeable than their younger colleague, the fecundity of a student is solely dependent on his annual mark sheet. That last one, however questionable, isn’t entirely insignificant though, a higher score in your boards certainly helps you get you a seat at the table more easily.
Conventionally, twenties are supposed to be full of possibilities. By the time most of us cross the threshold of thirty, we are told (often by our own parents) that it’s time to settle down. Settling, again, is a very Indian idea of unearthing the source of all happiness. However, there’s no scientific evidence that proves this theory. In my twenties, I failed pitiably at several jobs, before finding some sort of professional and personal equilibrium in Indian publishing. But in my mid-thirties (nearly), that hasn’t stopped me from yearning for the life of a novelist —while keeping the publishing job, of course. I still need to eat and pay rent.
Although, won’t lie, the back does start hurting a little; and if anybody tells you that you’re too old for weekday drinking, try and believe them. However, if an exciting new opportunity comes my way, for instance managing a bookstore in Wigtown — a seaside town on the southwest coast of Scotland, where apparently there’s one bookshop for every hundred citizens — I wouldn’t think twice before taking it up. In all likelihood, my parents may receive a few calls from devastated, distant relatives when they hear about it – they somehow always hear about such things. But I have trained my parents well, and turned them into people who now handle disappointments comfortably.
One imagines that in a post-Covid world, people will start looking at other people’s lives with reduced moral judgement and more empathy. But even if that isn’t the case, I know numerous 30-somethings for whom it won’t matter. If there’s a promised land – not of milk and honey, but more economic and personal freedom – those in their thirties (and even older) are far more adept at reaching for them today than they were even a decade ago.
One possible reason for this could be that the world itself has gotten smaller. More people are coming forward and sharing their stories on the internet, and no matter how much we doubt their authenticity, they are still encouraging several other people to take a chance on their ambitions.
A lot of it also stems from the fact that there’s a natural proclivity towards self-care among people now. Conversations around mental health have reached the living rooms of the middle class, and even though we still have miles to go in that regard, we are learning to normalise it with every passing day. I know people who picked up their guitar again while staying home and raising their newborn, someone who quit their well-paying job because they had always wanted to teach, and has since, spent their time with underprivileged kids. And I spent more on books than food in 2020, simply because each time I returned home with a bag of books, it had a calming effect on me. So we may not be getting any younger and we may not match up to the energy we once had in our veins, but one thing people are beginning to understand better now is that there’s zero shame in self-preservation.
There’s no doubt that all of us right now are witnessing something of apocalyptic proportions. We have watched the world brought to its knees by the coronavirus, we have witnessed the state and many of our elected public representatives fail us. The hope is we get through this soon, because the frantic pleas and requests one gets to read on social media is proof that our collective grit is depleting rather quickly. And once this has passed, I hope we — the young, the ageing, and the old — find the strength to live and to love again.
Because age may be just a number, but all of us here, in this moment, are more than just a statistic.
Bio: Sayantan Ghosh works as an editor for a publishing house, and has written for various publications. He tweets at @sayantansunnyg