Beyond the Dominant Concept of Aging by Arpita De

I was occupied with myself in exploring the concept of age or oldness. How do we define age or an aged person? The normative world goes by biological age. Generally there is a defined age to get into an activity/a job and for retirement, too. But what does the word ‘old’ bring in our mind? I have seen people to become sad and unhappy in becoming old. Even I have watched people to react when they receive a birthday wish on their birthday!

‘Oh!  One year more! I am becoming old! It is saddening!’- They often utter.

The word ‘old’ is also being used derogatorily to express inability or incapability. This is not very uncommon in our society. The term sometimes becomes an abused term in the daily discourse to express how incompetent and powerless one is.

I remember one recent incident in the metro. The metro was not much crowded. A young man was standing in front of the senior citizen seat and absorbed in his phone.  Another man entered the train who was visibly aged with white hair. He almost collided with the young man and said ‘could you please shift a little, I want to sit.’ The young man did not shift and not even show that he recognized his request. The train was running. It was really problematic for the old person to keep balance. It was also difficult for him to take a zigzag way to reach the empty seat. After his repeated requests, the old person took the zigzag path and found a seat. He was angry. He started shouting at the boy. The look the young man gave to the elderly gentleman and the body language he showed were mere expressions of abusive power and disrespect. Other people got involved. There were heated exchanges and ultimately when the young man left the train, he uttered an abusive term associated with oldness. It was ‘ghater mara’ (a dead body in queue) which means people having one foot in the grave. We the co-passengers ( 2/3 persons, others were indifferent) were busy trying to resolve the anger and humiliation of the elderly gentleman. Obviously this is not the only story and life is not single storied even.

But it exists in the society. This is how the mainstream deals with the marginalized.

‘Tumi buro! Tomar dara kichhu habe na’ (you are old so you won’t be able to do anything, you are worthless, powerless).

When we attach a gender lens with oldness it takes a different dimension altogether. ‘Girls never talk about their actual age’ goes a popular saying. There are plenty of popular jokes which prevail in the society associated with age and gender. I sometimes feel that they are embedded in the unwritten social norms and in our daily jokes in such a way that we fail to recognize the underlying humiliation and disrespect of these sayings.  People send such posts via WhatsApp and other social media and laugh. I remember stories from my own life. When I started growing white hairs I remembered stinging comments from friends, acquaintances and relatives. I took those comments with playful curiosity. It especially amused me to see the reactions of men with strong judgmental & patriarchal attitudes. Some of them (of my age and having white hair) were really cross. They were questioning me why I would not colour my hair? It sounded to me ‘how dare you to violate the unwritten norm of the society that girls should always try to hide their age?’ It is not again a single story but it is clear that the act of colouring my hair either ‘black’ or ‘green’ or ‘white’ or ‘grey’ is not my personal selection. A dominant surveillance is always there from the society which may include a different patriarchal politics. We need to understand it in different layers.

All these things came in my mind when I got an invitation to design a program to spend an evening in an old age home with the residents. My friend Angana runs an NGO. She works with underprivileged children in Sundarban locality. They were interested to celebrate the evening of the international day of older persons in an old age home. She requested me to design the program.  My mind was wandering in different questions arising out of the allied experiences I gathered in my life. I was trying to understand the dominant meaning of the term ‘aging’. I was relating to this word in the context of my experience and experiences of many others which I have been gathering during my life-journey.

“chaler pathe dine rate dekha habe sabar sathe” (a favourite line of mine from Tagore meaning in the course of the journey I meet so many people ).

Yes, we meet people — so many people — so many dialogues — so many stories –so many narratives.

I started my commencement of learning of narrative practices in the month of July 2017. Jehanjeb and Raviraj ushered me in the world of narratives. That was a magical moment for me to get a direction for my work. It has been redefining my work in the counselling sessions and in my life too. Since then I have been trying to apply it in my practice in the chamber and in everyday life. Things which are highlighted with power and pronounced with pride in the mainstream discourse continuously give rise to some grand narratives. Power and politics play an active role to create these grand narratives. The process of development of this dominant discourse or grand narratives may be very complex, but its manifestation creates people –‘others’ — who do not fall in the dominant group. Hence, the grand narrative gets priority, and the numerous narratives of our lived experience go unnoticed. These countless stories of an individual may hold the real strength of the person. In the chamber of a narrative therapist, those stories sometimes bring magical moments which may lead people to rediscover their strength and agency.

I found it to be important to understand the concept of aging from this dominant societal point of view. My first intention was to deconstruct the reality which identifies aged people as ‘others’ and marginalises them. Secondly, I remembered an exercise of narrative practices focussing on ‘how stories shape us’; this was a wonderful exercise to reflect on a pleasant story of one’s life to explore for new meaning.

In the meantime I met Ujjal (Ujjal Maitra) and Kabirda (Rezaul Kabir) who were from my friend’s NGO. Interestingly, Kabirda has started his work after his retirement from job as a bank official. He visits the school in Sundarban every week, stays there and teaches the children.

We all sat together and decided the program. It was planned in three parts. We would start by performing a drama. It would be a small drama involving natural conversation among four persons (us) exploring and deconstructing the concept of oldness. It would explore some important questions, such as:

─ What is international day of senior persons?

─ What does it mean to celebrate a particular day?

─ Is it important to celebrate a day?

─ There are some provisions for senior citizens. Is it a privilege or it is a right?

─ Is it important to redefine oldness and well-being?

─ Oldness doesn’t mean the end of all attainment. etc.

Finally kabirda (who has started a new life after retirement in Sundarban) would speak about his experience and realization.

In the Second queue we kept the exercise of ‘how stories build us’. We named the exercise in Bengali as ‘Galpo boli galpo shuni’ which means telling stories and listening to stories. Residents would participate in pairs, and they would interview each other following some questions which I translated in Bengali. It would be followed by a discussion and reflection from the participants.

In the last part there would be a celebration. Residents would be free to participate in any manner they pleased. There will be an arrangement of high tea and some gifts (a coffee cup and blanket for the residents) from the NGO too.

We decided one more thing. We designed a small card and planned to visit the residents in person and invite them.

We started working as per our plan. I made the script of the drama keeping in mind the deconstruction of the concepts. I tried to keep it as balanced as possible. I shared the script in the group. Angana made the card.  Ujjal got himself busy in making the other arrangements. I and Angana went to the old age home to visit and invite the residents for the evening. We met them in person and invited them. It was found that many of the residents were in their late seventies.

Finally, the awaited day came. Residents were coming and taking their seats in a hall which was the venue for the program. Some residents were coming with their attendants. Perhaps arthritis was a natural companion of age — I thought. I could feel my excitement inside me, but tried to keep myself as composed as possible. I was a little bit apprehensive about the size of the hall. The hall was small. We expected a number of 25. There was enough space for the drama and the celebration. But I became uneasy about the exercise. Would it be possible to do the exercise comfortably in pairs?

When we started the program, there were at least 40 persons in the hall. Apart from the residents there were participants from the administration too. Surprisingly, most of them were senior citizens. Participants enjoyed the drama. After our conversations in the drama, when Kabirda started talking about his own experience of new work, I found people with curious faces started asking questions. Naturally the session became interactive.

When it was time to start the exercise, we found that it was not possible to make arrangements for pairs to sit face to face. Scarcity of space forced us to pair them sitting side by side. I was slightly disappointed. But I found that the participants started the exercise eagerly. The interviewer and the interviewee became immediately engrossed in the activity. Initially there was a murmuring sound in the hall, but gradually the noise level rose. I was in a position to observe the absorbed faces clearly. The faces were immersed in narrating and listening, and the surrounding noise didn’t bother them. Excitement, happiness, curiosity and joy were dancing in those faces. Their expressions displayed their enjoyment of the exercise. As I witness the spontaneity reflected of each smiling face, my uneasiness and disappointment about the space faded away. This led to some self-reflection of my part regarding my initial views on how this exercise should be conducted. ‘I need to be more flexible’ ─ I thought, as I gained new insights into our concepts of forms/boundaries.

The discussion part was remarkable. They shared their feelings and thoughts and how they liked the activity. They were amazed at the happiness arose from the stories of their shared lived experiences. Some of them also talked about how they could easily relate to their partners’ stories. I remember a story of an elderly lady which came out at the time of discussion.

She was travelling in a country boat with local passengers in Sundarban locality. The passenger who sat next to her had glasses perched on his nose. Somehow a limb of the spectacles became loose which made the villager anxious about his situation. The lady had some band-aids in her bag. She repaired the glass with the ban-aid for immediate use. After this immediate solution of his problem the country man smiled out of relief. She talked about the smile in her story. The smile was so natural and beautiful she felt that she was experiencing God. It was an ‘aha’ moment for the lady, and she realized again in her life that God only resides in human beings.

The celebration was just wonderful. Participants came out spontaneously to sing, to recite and to dance. The administrators of the home had allotted one & half hour for the program. However happiness is not confined to time or space and the event ran over. We too were also drenched with joyfulness and happiness. It was really a motivating experience for all of us.

This experience made me realize how important it was to redefine certain terms such as ‘age’,’ aging’ and even the term ‘boundary. When we impose a boundary of age–  be it for any job, any project, anything–  we need to reflect again and again. In our daily life, in our day-to-day language, we sometimes are constrained by structural dominant ideas about aging and many other things. They are so deeply embedded in our language that we don’t really understand the true significance. We must be very careful and mindful to use such language, such terms. It may be true for anyone who is marginalized on the basis of mental illness, physical disability, gender, race, caste or economic condition.

The experience of that evening reminded me of Shefalidi  (Shefali Maitra) who has been teaching a class on feminism and related issues at the Department of Philosophy, Jadavpur University, after her retirement from the same department. Last year, we, the students celebrated its 10th anniversary. The class doesn’t have any formal recognition. One does not need any money, any degree, any admission test and any fixed affiliation of any subject or profession to take this class.  It is an open class. We call it The Thursday class. We wait eagerly for this class on Thursdays. It is an excellent example of the fact that formal retirement doesn’t speak of any closure.

I remembered the song of Tagore which he wrote when he was eighty.

‘hey nuton

dekha dik aarbar janmero pratham shubhakhan’.

Here he is hailing the new. He wants to see the sacred hour of birth once more.

I feel that the song is talking about continuous renewal. In order to start something one does not have to be confined by boundaries of time and space. Another important thing I realized is that we ignore a very important aspect of life, i.e., lived experience. It holds knowledge, but we ignore it. Older persons have more experience in their knapsack. We often forget to explore it. The program also taught me again that we must be careful about the fact that time is controlling us. Can we try to go beyond the popular concept of ‘time’ too?


About the Author –

arpita de

Born in 1963, Arpita spent early childhood in the Himalayan Terrains of Doors region of West Bengal. She received school level education in different district towns and finally came to Kolkata in 1981 for studies in college and University. As a professional, Arpita has a varied experience which includes teaching economics in a college, imparting IT education and developing software, building maps, charts & teaching aids for schools, and running GIS institute and making GIS maps etc. From the very childhood in her lived experience she has discovered different types of discriminations of which the most widespread is gender. The vast exposure in the professional life helped Arpita to understand the unwritten structural disparities prevailing in the job market as well as in the society too. At the same time, in her journey, she recognizes the fact that the real strength of people goes unnoticed in the mainstream culture. Her fascination for psychology and social psychology drew her close to the world of mental health and since 2009, she pursued relevant studies like MA in psychology from IGNOU, Counselling course from JU, Post PG Diploma in school counseling from CU etc. Currently she is doing her Ph D on Stigma and marginalization in mental health, from psychology department of Calcutta University. She is attached to a Kolkata based private hospital as a counsellor and also works in the SPU unit of Applied Psychology, CU. She has a special interest in feminism and related issues. The idea of Narrative Practices has brought new meaning in her work, and life.

Contact :
Phone : 9830688126
WhatsApp : 9804205018

Arpita De
1 A, Udayan
1918 Garia Place
Kolkata 700084

8 Comments Add yours

  1. Shayon says:

    In mainstream media, you hardly come across a write-up so well thought out. It was a pleasure soaking it up. More to come I believe.

  2. It’s time we break the stereotypes! Thank you Arpita di for bringing up such a pertinent issue… A reality check indeed!

  3. Paramita Saha says:

    Nice piece of writing. Liked the manner in which perception of ageing is analysed. There exists many lived experiences of
    getting added years to life. The dominant one is, to deny growing old ,as reflected in the saying age is only a number. Arpita captures the gender aspect well.

  4. Paramita Saha says:

    Nice piece of writing. Liked the manner in which perception of ageing is analysed. There may however exist many other lived experiences of getting added years to life. The dominant one is, to deny growing old ,as reflected in the saying age is only a number. Arpita captures the gender aspect well. Looking forward to the next piece.

  5. Barnali Sarkar says:

    Beautifully expressed! Learning from the lived experience of our senior citizens is important to preserve their narratives. Our society has always been ageist. It’s time we righted this wrong.

  6. angana says:

    Thanks Arpita De for sharing your thoughts about concepts like age, aging and more importantly for raising important questions regarding them…it is high time to reconstruct and redefine these concepts with a more accommodative and open mindset.

  7. soham dasgupta says:

    darun chordibhai khub bhalo laglo sudhu tagore song last a janmero ta jonmero monehoy thik hobe

  8. Tanurupa says:

    Beautifully written! Very heartfelt.

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