Wednesday, 6 April 2011

The belly dancers in the twilight


Mizan Rahman

  I was reading about an interview with a gentleman on the eve of his hundredth birthday. The interviewer asked him: “When the time comes for you to pass on what do you think the good Lord will say to you when you arrive at his door?”
  “What took you so long”, the man replied with no hesitation at all.
  At the time of his birth Albert Einstein was just a college freshman, Sigmund Freud had reached middle age, the Turkish Sultans were still in power, Queen Victoria was the reigning monarch of a British Empire where the sun never set, Adolf Hitler was but a 10-yr old boy, and my own long-deceased grandfather was still an unmarried young man. If it is not much of a surprise that this gentleman is still alive, the fact that he shows no obvious signs of dementia, can speak clearly and coherently, and above all, has retained a healthy sense of humor---that, to me, is the astonishing part of it. I don’t know if any of his children is alive today. It would be a safe bet that his childhood friends are no longer among the living, so it’s not unlikely that when he finally does close his eyes he will find the other world a bit too crowded.
 Question is: whom do you call an old man? That depends on which society you are talking about. Not just the society but the time as well. Fifty years ago you might get away calling a person ‘old’, but you would no longer be able to do that. Many of them now go to the gyms, run mile-a-day on the tracks, travel around the world with their swimsuits and sunglasses packed in their bags, some even joyfully take young wives, and father children. Even in our countries! In the West the ‘old age’ officially starts at 65 (since that’s the time the old age checks start getting mailed). In the third world it varies from one country to other. It is fifty seven in Bangladesh, as far as I know. At this age some Canadians and Americans just begin to warm up for starting a family. In these countries people will take offence if you call  someone “old”. As soon as one hits 80 he/she is not only not old, but is an 80-yr young person. In the East people rarely live beyond 80, and if anyone does, we stop calling him anything---young or old. He will hardly know the difference, anyway. An 80-yr old man is called, somewhat derisively, a great-grandpa. Even if he doesn’t lose his memory people around him often do---at least as far as his age is concerned.
   Funny thing is: as soon as the first symptoms of advancing age start creeping on you, out come hordes of wise people with their gems of wisdom: Oh don’t worry, it doesn’t matter how old a person is in the body, age is all in the mind. Interesting that these flashes of wisdom do not seem to dawn on them when they themselves reach that age. What I say is this: the age is neither in the body nor in the mind but in one’s medicine cabinet. As long as that cabinet of yours is relatively empty you are as good as a young person, whatever your chronological age may be. When that box gets full it doesn’t matter whether you are 30 or 70----it’s all the same. If your body cannot bounce around neither can your mind. In other words the crux of the matter is: health. The real secret is health. Yet this is the thing that we regularly sneer at when we are young. There is a one-to-one relation between your age and the pill box in your pocket---it is an easy equation. I happen to be a living example of that simple formula. My sense of security today doesn’t originate from my bank balance but from my medicine bottles. I never travel without them anywhere----they are always in my carry-on baggage. In other words, according to my own definition I am an old man. If I depart from this world today nobody will think of it as a premature death. My boys will accept it as an inevitable act of nature. My detractors (and there more than a few of them, I’m afraid) will heave a sigh of relief----the old imp has finally left the scene, thank God!
   Old age is not a matter of fun, at the same time it is. A test of “ oldness” is, in my opinion, when a person can no longer make fun of himself----then he is really old. My 11-yr old granddaughter has a healthy sense of humor. She presented a book to me called “ How aging affects belt-height” by Dan Reynolds. What Mr. Reynolds tried to show through a series of comic pictures is that a man’s story of life can, more or less, be figured out by measuring the position of his belt around the waist. At an early age when, as a boy, he runs around in shorts his belt is usually below his belly-button (although some young boys these days can be seen walking casually in the streets with their pants almost down to their knees). Then, as the person gets older his belt also keeps pace by rising higher and higher. If you happen to be born in an affluent family or/and have a weakness for greasy food and comfortable couches then this rate of rise can get greatly accelerated. Fatty food and lazy lifestyle can do a great job on your belly. In the end when you hit 60 or 70 your belt has almost touched your Adam’s apple. You will hardly need to put on a shirt or vest. I admit I am not too far from that stage. Even though my tummy is yet to take the shape of a balloon it does look like an oversized shopping bag that is hanging so far down that I can no longer see the lower part of my body. I need a mirror if and when I want to do that.
  According to scriptures life and death are in the hands of God. I say, it’s not just life and death, it’s everything. Truth and falsehood, good and bad, piety and sin----they too are in God’s hands, aren’t they? Talking about “God’s hands”, that reminds me a funny story I heard on the television once, but let’s not talk about that. I don’t think our good Lord has a strong sense of humor----He may not like making jokes on Him or His Hands. What I’m trying to say is that I have seen more or less everything there is to see. My life started at around the end of the silent movie. Now it’s the age of digitals, IMaxes, 3D’s and virtual realities. My wife was very fond of high quality household items made in UK, Germany, Sweden, Portugal, etc. English bone china, German teacups, Portuguese coffee table, anything I could or could not afford. She is no longer with us, but her valuable collection is all there in the house which I’m having great difficulty getting disposed of----nobody wants them. We have a Clairtone HiFi that hasn’t worked in the last thirty years, a Singer sewing machine that doesn’t sew, a Typewriter with no one to use it. These are all collector’s items now. Hopefully some crazy collector will knock on my door one day with some interest on some of these items. But there is one antic in my house that I know no one will have any interest collecting---myself! From that point of view an inanimate object is more precious than an animate one. What’s the difference between animate and inanimate, anyway? They are both matter, aren’t they? Only their forms are different. Recently I read somewhere that ancient Indian philosophers believed that Time and Creation are not one-dimensional straight lines, but circles. I don’t have any problem visualizing the circularity of Creation, but I have serious difficulty with the idea that Time, too, is circular. According to basic science, as far as I know, Time is unidirectional----it is a one-way street----from the past to future. It’s an endless road. But the Hindu and Buddhist philosophers maintain that time is indeed unidirectional, but not straight----it curves in a circle, in a slow continuous fashion. It comes back to its starting point----sort of “back to the past”. It is on this circularity of time that the edifice of their idea of rebirth rests. I don’t think I understand much of this part about “coming back to the beginning”. At least not in the literal sense of coming back from the dead to the living. I can accept, metaphorically, that at an advanced age a person can return to his/her childhood. Dementia, loss of cognitive powers, can play all sorts of cruel tricks on the elderly. They can, and often do, lose all senses of finer things of life, like music, art, love, beauty, desire----all seem to freeze into hard rocks. The worst humiliation occurs when some seniors have to wear a contrivance like a protective underwear. Infants wear them because they are not old enough to control themselves, seniors wear them because they are too old to control. In the western commercial terminology one is called a diaper, the other “depends”---both having the same function. If this is the fate one is to face at his/her old age I’d never wish anyone to live to a hundred. As I see it they are not ‘living old’, they are rather like dead people walking. My topic today is not these unfortunate species of ‘dead living’, but the ones who are still alive and well despite their advanced age. My topic today is the human spirit that can defy the inevitable corrosion of time and remain defiant till their last breath.
  I will not deny that I wasn’t exactly an angel in my adolescence and childhood. I used to make cruel fun of the old and infirm people on the streets. Little did I know then that I myself would become an old man someday, and possibly a butt of the same cruel jokes. Fortunately, however, some of those bad habits of mine haven’t left me yet. Fortunate, because despite my age I haven’t quite lost the sense of humor that I had in my youth. I can still laugh when I see a funny thing, like an old man humped over his cane, with no teeth in his gums, and his eyes sunk in a Himalayan cave. Most importantly, I can have a good hearty laugh at myself. I laugh at my bungling ineptness with everything I do, at my painfully slow pace of walking, at my pathetic decrepitude, at the way I look and talk and move.
    There is one thing we oldies are mortally afraid of----‘novelty’. Anything that is new and unfamiliar to us simply frightens us out of our wits. When we see a new machine or a new gadget we look for a place to hide. When we meet a person we do not know we shrink and shrivel. We look for a familiar road whenever we are on one that we don’t know. Most of my contemporaries are extremely uncomfortable and self-conscious in front of a computer----most use just one finger on the keyboard, especially the ones from the subcontinent. We are the generation of one-finger typists! We do not buy anything with plastic card---always cash. Most of us avoid driving on super highways----we are much more comfortable in rural roads and small lonely alleys. No one I have seen or heard of who speaks kindly of the modern young generation. For us the only golden age is the one that we lived in when we were young----that was the only perfect world. In our time there was no crime, no rape, no sexual promiscuity, no gay marriages, no drugs or alcohol or gambling. My contemporaries spend half of their time exalting the times they left behind, and the other half denigrating the new. We denounce the modern youths as lustily as we laud our own youthful past. The only system of values that we are willing to attach any value to is our own, the rest is pure junk. The root cause of the perennial chasm and conflict between the young and old, at every era, and every generation, is right here. People of my generation find signs of decadence in whatever they see today, and this is what keeps corroding their mind every day. There is almost nothing they see in modern life they find pleasing or uplifting. Beginning with the way the kids dress today to the way they eat, speak, move----nothing they find they can approve. Thirty or forty years ago the dictionary meaning of the word ‘gay’ was jolly, merry. When I was at school I used to use that word with no hesitation at all. Today, oh lord, no, you can’t. It has an entirely different meaning today. It means something ‘shameful’, ‘hateful’ or worse. Fifty years ago they used to hide inside the closets. Yet, today, they are the ones who appear in street parades every year, often headed by the town mayor or some other dignitary. They have their “Gay Days”, celebrated in gala gatherings attended by gay members of the legislative bodies, parliament and judiciary. Some of the western countries have legalized gay marriages. You can imagine how we the older people cringe in utter horror and disgust whenever these things are flashed across the news media. How can you keep your sanity these days?  So much filth all around you. This is the way our generation is used to reacting to the modern times.
  And yet, if one would take a minute to think coolly and objectively, keeping one’s eyes and minds open to change, open to progress of science and technology, then it might, just might, occur to one that what used to be considered perversion and degradation of character, is in fact, an open expression of a deep-rooted natural phenomenon. If we cared to keep our minds uncluttered by religious and/or tribal dogmas then we wouldn’t have much difficulty accepting that the propensity of homosexual behavior in the animal kingdom, for instance, is not as uncommon as one would like to think. The fact that the humans too have had this tendency since time immemorial, is borne out by none other than the holy books themselves. Otherwise why would they all go out of their way to condemn “this lewd behavior”? In the days of religion not much was known about the ways of nature----science was in its infancy. Which explains why it was easy to brand homosexuality as a punishable offence. In the modern, scientifically advanced age, all those “embarrassing” facts are becoming parts of everyday reality. This explains why it is easier for the young generation to accept this as natural as any animal behavior, than it is for us----they know better, and their minds more open.
   I have a dear friend who is terribly concerned about yet another “perversion” of the modern age----grammar, both English and Bengali, our mother tongue. His pressure shoots up to the sky as soon as he reads something written by a youngster. Much of his ire is directed to the distorted way they tend to spell the common English words these days: ‘I’ has become  i, you is invariably ‘u’, are is ,of course, ‘r’, for can be nothing but ‘4’, and wait has got to be just an ‘8’. It is only slightly better in Bengali, perhaps because of the keyboard limitations of Bangla alphabets. But, according to this perennially irate friend of mine, the plague of misspelling is now a worldwide phenomenon, thanks perhaps to that great agent of corruption called globalization. In his opinion Bengali spelling is the only area in our culture where people feel totally free to do things as they like----that is, speak any way they like, spell any way they want---here, and only here, Bangladesh is truly a free country. Pretty brutal generalization, undoubtedly, but that’s the way my elderly friend reacts to the unorthodox ways of the new generation. Perhaps I’m not as sensitive as he is to the vagaries of linguistic world, although I think I take sufficient care not to stoop to the level of distortion ushered, in my opinion, by the relentless march of modern technology into the lives of the younger generation. I do not, however, subscribe to the ultraconservative code of rigid opposition of anything that doesn’t conform to my accustomed sense of right and wrong. I’m a strong believer in the old adage that change is the only thing that never changes. Language is a vehicle of expression. It’s one of the most direct and obvious ways we humans can and do communicate. So, as we change with time, so will the way we express our thoughts and feelings, and so will the language. Change shouldn’t frighten us, even though it always seems to do exactly that. One only has to consider that we do not write the English language the way Shakespeare wrote in his time. Nor do we write Bengali as the nineteenth century writers like Iswaorchandra Vidyasagar did. So it makes more sense to try to keep pace with change as much as possible than to resist it. Yes, vulgarization of language, culture, custom, will happen, as it always did in every era, but I think there is enough resilience in human spirit to be able to sort the good from the bad, and retain as much of the good as necessary for the time. I have seen a lot of examples of this in my 48 years of living in the West, where change, in contrast to a somewhat change-resistant Orient, is a way of life. The madness of the 60’s cooled down considerably in the 70’s. The excesses of the 90’s have settled for a calmer moderation in the new century. I will accept that not all changes are necessarily good for us the humankind. Having said that a legitimate question would always be: who is to decide what is good for a generation, and what is not, and more importantly, what does ‘good’ and ‘bad’ mean, anyway? These are all rather subjective notions. What seems to be a universal fact is that changes are almost always welcome by the young, and resisted by the old. Fortunately, however, not all older people. Some are always progressive, as some others are always conservative. I say, only half jokingly, that some of us are born old!
  Whether or not I personally belong to one group or other is really not up to me to judge. Many of my contemporaries were sort of progressive dissidents in their youth, but have eventually morphed into diehard conservatives in the 60’s and 70’s. There were a handful of fiery revolutionaries who were quick with their torches to burn the buses and government buildings in support of their leftist causes. Some even served time in penitentiaries. But now they are among the most virulent holier-than-thou ultra-conservatives sporting long beards and Arabian apparel. Curiously, my own travel path has been somewhat in the opposite direction. I was much more conservative in my youth than I am now. In those days I was just a typical home-bound, timid Bengali kid toeing the line of his ancestors as faithfully as he could. But, later on, with my travels around the world, in many lands and cultures, my internal transformation occurred in a dramatic fashion. I was able to cast aside all or most of my old baggage of dogmas and beliefs and prejudices. It is possible, even probable, that this did not make me a better human being, but I’d like to believe it at least helped open my mind a bit.
  I had an interesting experience in California this time when I went there for a month-long visit with my older son, Babu. By a stroke of luck, the younger one, Raja, was also able come over to join us. Even that was an unaccustomed experience. But the real experience was something else. My daughter-in-law, Sophia, without letting us know about it, booked a table for us in a local Iranian restaurant, just the 3 of us---- father-and two sons---purely out of the goodness of her heart. It was a lovely idea, I thought---felt like a date with my previous life. Twenty five, thirty years before, we three did indeed spend a lot of time together----in movies, sports arenas, fishing trips, skating rinks, festivals of all kinds. It has been a long time since those golden years. When she told me about the reservation I thought it would be a rare treat for me to be dining with my grown boys at the same table in an exotic restaurant in California. What a beautiful idea! Little did we know that Sophia had another, somewhat mischievous, idea in her mind. What she knew and we, or at least I, didn’t know was that on Friday and Saturday evenings the guests at that restaurant, appropriately called “Baijan”, were entertained by a belly dancer duly accompanied by exotic music from the Orient. And it so happened that our dinner date was on a Friday evening, of course. Try to imagine the scene. I, an elderly grandfather, born in a conservative Muslim family who should be carrying prayer beads and the holy book in his hand, am instead confronted by the sight of a dazzling young belly dancer swinging her bare flesh wildly, all the while being flanked by two adult sons. My ancestors must be shuddering in their graves just by the thought of it. According to the scriptures my eyes are supposed to burn in hell till eternity. And they probably will, not just because of the belly-dancers, but many other indiscretions of my life. At the moment, however, I was not concerned with hell or eternity. All I cared about was the moment itself---a moment of utmost joy and pure pleasure. Not the flesh, of course, but the idea. A thing of beauty in eternal motion in front of me that I had the privilege of watching from outside the cage of my physical sensuality----something I couldn’t possibly have done in my youth. She seemed to be in a particularly jovial mood that night, having great fun doing her act, going around the tables, and turning and twisting her lower body at every male face she met. She seemed to have taken a particular fancy at me----obviously amused and tickled by the sight of a hairless head sitting on my neck, and the innumerable wrinkles swarming around my skin like tiny beasts from the outer world. What is this venerable grandpa doing here with his naughty eyes trained on her bare flesh? No, they were not ‘naughty’, if that is what she thought, they were just amused, perhaps more amused than she could ever comprehend. She wouldn’t have any idea that she had unknowingly transported me back in time to a similar night fifty five years ago, in a dimly lit nightclub in Port Said. I was on a Liverpool bound Anchor Line boat called Caledonia, which had stopped there for a night of rest and refueling. I was a complete novice at that time about the ways of life in the seductively saline air of an Arabian port of call. My new-found Pakistani friends, also bound for higher education in prestigious colleges in the U.K. as Govt. scholars, as I was, were much more street-wise than I was. When they invited me for a stint at a nightclub, I readily agreed, more out of curiosity than in anticipation of any nocturnal adventure. I am not particularly embarrassed to admit that that was the first as well as the very last nightclub I ever visited in my life. Little would I know at that time that the next time I’d be facing a live belly-dancer would be in an unsuspecting suburban restaurant accompanied by my grown sons, and cleverly arranged by my own daughter-in-law. Little would the belly-dancer know how she helped unearth some of the earthy memories from my earlier age. The dancers in Port Said wouldn’t know, or knew only too well, how much the wild swings of their gyrating bodies helped set my body on fire. Today the fire is all gone. What is left is just a handful of burnt out ashes from the ruins of those youthful years. Today I am carrying half-a-century of memories from one port to another, looking not for a sojourn to a gala evening of gyrating bodies, but for a lonely walk to a place where I can have a peaceful repose. My sons took pictures in their digital cameras, with the dancing girl by my side. She posed with a gracious smile, I with a grateful one. Once it would be a moment of heavy breathing in a heat-bath; now it was like looking at a comic show seen from the back of the audience. Today, all the noise and longings of life have melted down to a detached observer looking at himself from a distance. My relationship with my age is one of great amusement ----as if we are two unrelated spectators enjoying a game of poker. Sometimes my age mocks at me, and I mock back. We are at once the antagonists and protagonists of each other. We represent the duality of our existence. In ’56 I couldn’t see through the skin of that young lady in Port Said, just as this young girl in California cannot possibly see through my wrinkled skin today. I could never understand why the Creator didn’t give us the ability to see inside before the time has run out to see anything outside.
   Many of my friends compliment me on my presumed ability to tame my age, superficially at least. Would you want to know the real truth?  It’s nothing to do with ‘taming’, everything is just a matter of good fortune. Pure luck! I know I never believed in luck, so why now, you might say. Yes, I still don’t believe in luck---I think it is all connected with mathematical probability. What I mean is that my apparent success in keeping my age under wraps is just a matter of probability.
  Having said that, however, I’ll insist on one thing: you don’t think old just because you have reached a certain age----approaching the ‘old age’ and ‘becoming old’ are not the same thing. From that point of view age is indeed just a matter of the mind. A truly old man, in my mind, is one who after the first snowfall of winter, fails to respond to the sight of the fresh, soft coat of snow on the ground, and to be filled with an immeasurable urge to run out of the doors, and throw snowballs at someone in the neighborhood. An old man is one who doesn’t peek out the window to watch the raindrops stroke the grass like a passionate lover. Old is the one who, while on a trip to the seashore, doesn’t take his shoes off to walk barefoot on the soft wet sand, or who doesn’t scour the whole beach like a little boy looking for a piece of jewel under the shell of a snail. A man is truly old who wants to keep his eyes closed for fear of hell in his afterlife, and fails to enjoy the beauty of a belly dancer.

(Translated by the author from his 2006 Bengali article called “Shnajher Belar Nortokira”)

Ottawa, April 6, ‘11


Mizan Rahman, মীজান রহমান

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