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  • When the elderly are, in fact, the young ones

    Posted On April 3, 2000

    By Karan Thapar

    There is a quality the elderly often posses which youth and middle-age only rarely, if ever, lay claim to. The odd thing is that it ought to be the other way around. Yet perhaps because of their age the elderly sometimes have a zest for life, a spiritedness and a sense of fun and enjoyment that makes those who are younger feel old in comparison.

    This week two octogenarians have made me realise how young they are and, in comparison, how much of a ‘grouch’ I am.

    The first is Ravi Shankar. Yesterday was his eightieth birthday and if you want an insight into the incredible life he has lived, the amazing people he has met and the things he has done – and boy he’s done them all – then watch him on BBC on Wednesday night at 10.00 p.m. If you miss it, don’t panic, there is a repeat on saturday!

    I first met Raviji in 1977. He was 57 and I was barely twenty. He was a world renowned sitarist, I the President of the Cambridge Union. I wanted a special event for my term in office. He was it. At my request he agreed to perform in King’s College Chapel. More generously he agreed to do so for free. The proceeds – such as they were – were to go to a village of his choice in Bangladesh.

    When I met him a quarter century later I asked if he remembered the occasion. Now Raviji must have performed tens of thousands of times in as many locations and it was unlikely that this little event would stand out in his memory. Still, I had asked the question and hoped for an answer that would not disappoint.

    “Do I remember?” he teased, his eyes lighting up with a hint of naughtiness. “How could I forget? There was no heating and you made me sit in a cold stone chapel on a january night with the temperature way below freezing.”

    “And do you remember the dinner afterwards?”

    It had been a disaster. Quite overlooking the fact that it was winter or that Allah Rakha, who accompanied Raviji, was a muslim the Union served cold cuts and everything was covered with greasy sausages. Allah Rakha was furious. He also starved.

    “Some things are best left unremembered!” Raviji replied. Once again his big eyes were smiling. He looked like a child. “My life is full of things others remember but I’m quite happy to forget. Let’s just say this is one more!”

    The other octogenarian whose zest for life left me dumbstruck was my own mother. Mummy’s 83 but she has the spirit of a thirty eight year old. Last week she had a cataract removed. I was against the idea. I thought at her age it would be wiser to let it be.

    “Because you think I’m too old, eh?” she questioned. “Well, let me tell you this, you might be too old. In fact, you behave as if you are. But I’m not. I’m young at heart.”

    The operation over, instead of lying in bed she started discarding the hospital robes and changing back into her sari.

    “What are you doing?” I asked. The doctor had recommended a couple of hours rest. The operation had barely finished twenty minutes ago.

    “I won’t be seen in this costume” Mummy replied. You should have heard her spit out the word costume. “The back flaps open and I’m in no mood to show my bottom to the orderlies. And, anyway, I have a very pretty sari so why shouldn’t I wear it?”

    She did. She also popped on her socks and a good-luck silk scarf given by her favourite Tibetan shawl-wallah.

    “There” she said. “Now you dash off to office or wherever you want and let me sleep. I’ll see you in the evening.”

    I’m not sure what l’ll be like at their age. Even at 44 the first hint of pain, the first sneeze or cough, has me rushing to the medicine cabinet. I pop pills like

    children take sweets. At 80 – if I make it – I’ll be a wreck. Not just in the physical or mental sense but in terms of what is called spirit. Their’s, however, is made of sterner stuff.

    What is an April fool’s joke?

    What is the essence of an April fool’s joke? Or, to put it differently, when is a joke not a joke? I’m not an expert in these matters – who is? – but Ajay Jadeja’s joke announcement that he was giving up cricket for acting set me thinking.

    An April fool’s joke is when you make someone believe the essentially unbelievable. In other words you have fooled them into accepting as true something that is quite patently ridiculous. The joke lies in the fact that you have stretched their credulity without snapping it. Two things follow : an April fool’s joke has to be presented in a thoroughly believable manner and yet, when you think about it, its content has to be extremely difficult to swallow.

    So, if Mr. Vajpayee was to announce his resignation or if Sonia Gandhi were to declare she was departing for Italy and it later transpired that neither was true the audience that believed the news would not really have had an April fool’s joke played on it. And certainly not if the news was broken by a credible news programme. Why? Because neither event is beyond the believable. In fact many people are secretly hoping for just this.

    Much the same applies to the Jadeja announcement – only more so. It’s not impossible to accept that Jadeja would be tempted into acting and at that along side Aishwarya Rai. After all he’s young, good looking and his career in cricket is hampered by his consistent failure to secure a confirmed position in the test side. In these circumstances Bollywood might well tempt him. So when the audience believe that it has they are not accepting the unbelievable as true. In fact, in this instance, they are taking at face value an announcement made by the man himself. And why shouldn’t they? Jadeja does not have a reputation for telling lies that ought to put people on their guard.

    No doubt they were ‘fooled’ but it wasn’t an April fool’s joke. The man ‘lied’ and they accepted it as true until he told them it wasn’t.

    When the press or television plays an April fool’s joke the trick is to make believable what is obviously incredible. The media takes the credit for making it seem true and the audience is fooled because they are gullible enough to accept it. The Jadeja joke fell short on both counts.

    Of course, there were a few good April fool jokes this year but, as far as I can tell, they were perpetrated by the British press. For instance, The Sun carried a story claiming scientists had developed fat-dissolving socks. All you have to do is wear them and sweat it out. Your fat drips into your Fatsox.

    The best ever was in the 1980s when The Guardian published a four page supplement, complete with maps and photographs, of a non-existent island republic. On the cover was a photograph of the military dictator taking the salute at the independence-day parade. There were long articles on the island’s suppressed politics, its new vibrant economy, its burgeoning tourism and its multi-ethnic culture. Millions accepted the supplement as real. It was only the next morning when The Guardian told them they had been fooled that they realised how badly. They had overlooked a string of clues that should have rung alarm bells. The one I remember -–but didn’t notice in time – was the name of the island’s dictator : General Makebeleeve.

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