It first struck me while interviewing the new human resource development minister, Pallam Raju, the other day. I was interacting with the soft-spoken minister for the first time, a day after he took oath as a cabinet minister, and it being a snappy interview, I didn’t want to waste any time. “You’re being touted as the face of a younger cabinet, but you are almost 50. So, in government terms, how old do you have to be to be young?” I don’t know if it was my overactive, imaginative brain functioning. It’s just that, before Mr Raju started answering, with the usual political spin about commitment-being-more-important-than-age, just for a second, I noticed this hurt cross his eyes. It was as if he had been in a youthful bubble till now and I, a rude reporter, had pricked it cruelly by questioning his claim to youth.
As a journalist, one doesn’t usually mind asking cruel questions to a politician as traditionally our roles have been adversarial, but the reason I felt bad in this case was because I seemed to have mocked him on a point delicate for all of us. And I recently learnt it was especially delicate for me. While conversing with an official who has known me for a few years, I referred to a third person who was angling for a plum post. I knew that this person was my age, and was quite surprised that he was moving up the government ladder so quickly. “But he’s so young?” I said, assuming that 35 would be considered the toddler stage in government terms. And that’s when my otherwise kind, official friend told me: “He’s not young — he’s your age.”
It was as if he had taken the stack of all the pending files, and hit me in the stomach with them. What my now visible grey hair or the increasing number of candles on my birthday cake or the mature status as a mommy hadn’t done to me, my friend did with just a swipe of his tongue. He signalled to me the end of my youth and the arrival of the dreaded phase of middle age. It struck me — like those Youth Congress leaders who everyone laughs at because it is so obvious they are way past 35 — I too was overstaying my welcome in the youth phase and ignoring important signs. Signs like how your kid’s teachers no longer look scary because they are likely to be younger; how the kids in your colony call you ‘aunty’; and how there are so many politicians and ministers who are younger to you — Deepender Hooda, Agatha Sangma, Hamdullah Sayeed and Sachin Pilot. And finally, I hadn’t noticed how when someone asked me my age, I sometimes inadvertently lied about it, reducing it by a couple of years. It was always just a couple and it wasn’t subterfuge, it was because I felt stuck at that age and hadn’t moved on.
I guess, I wasn’t the only one battling these issues. My 42-year-old sister-in-law giggled because while she still felt 22, she wanted to be graceful about aging — “When do you think we’ll stop referring to people as ‘Bhaiyya’ and call them ‘Beta’?” We giggled even more because we realised that we probably never would. My husband came home from gym (another age-giveaway) in a foul mood recently, spending the entire day snapping everyone’s head off. It turned out that the parking attendant had called him ‘uncle’. A colleague told me of the bubble she and her friend had built with their kids. The children were all trained to refer to other parents by their first names, thus avoiding ‘uncle’ or ‘aunty’ but the idea flopped when they met people from outside their circle.
Yes, desperate times call for desperate measures or facing up to reality. While most of us, however reluctantly, make peace with our gradual progress towards geriatrics, it’s only the politicians who refuse to give in. That’s why there’s no facial twitch when they call themselves a young cabinet with an average age of 60-something, that’s why Rahul Gandhi has the starring role of The Apprentice at 42 going on 43 and that’s why LK Advani caused such a gasp of disbelief when he announced he may finally be giving up on his prime ministerial ambitions on turning 85. Must admit though, seeing how good Mr Advani looks, I’d like to order whatever he’s been having.
Sunetra Choudhury is an anchor/reporter for NDTV and is the author of the election travelogue Braking News On Twitter: @sunetrac
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org