I’m considering writing a self-help pamphlet called ‘How to be Middle-aged’. I know there’s a market for it: all those 40-somethings who haven’t learnt how to acknowledge midlife. Middle age is a stage of life that you have to train for; it’s a learnt condition, not one that you grow into spontaneously. In my teens we’d go as a family to a neighbourhood movie theatre and by an odd coincidence we always bumped into a greying man in a ponytail whose movie-going costume was a pair of black denims and a sleeveless vest. I can remember thinking, with youthful scorn, “Why doesn’t the man act his age?”
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I was more right than I knew. Every age of man is a performance that has to be acted out. My children, for example, act out youth. This is a role based on the principle of negation: not this, not this, not this. It consists of avoiding all the habits and things associated with old people. Like T-shirts with collars and any sort of shirt that’s tucked into the waist of your trousers. The list of non-young things seems arbitrary to my middle-aged eyes, but it is very long, very detailed and very precise.
There are, for example, young fabrics and middle-aged fabrics. Thus, no sensible boy under the age of 16 will wear corduroy trousers. I spent $50 buying my son two pairs of Gap cords in a New York store. I brought them back to Delhi in triumph (I had guessed the waist/length measurements perfectly) and presented them to him; he accepted them politely and never wore them, not even to try them on.
Hero worship: (left) Federer, with his physical grace, is a mascot for the middle-aged; Nadal’s casual style appeals to teenagers. Vincent Kessler / Reuters and Laurent Rebours / AP
In vain did I explain that the label inside the trousers clearly indicated that they had been specifically made for 14-year-olds: At this time in his life, youthful style was defined by the ensemble young, black Americans allegedly wore in prison. So for three years or so, the collar-less, oversized T-shirt down to the knees and belt-less trousers worn so low that their crotches ended up suspended between the knees, made up the uniform of the young teen.
The other day, I heard him announce that he quite liked Rafa Nadal’s new on-court uniform. Nadal had switched from scoop-necked sleeveless vests to more conventional T-shirts with collars. While I welcomed this foray into normalcy, I also felt a pang: My boy was being assimilated into an adult world.
Roger Federer, on the other hand, is the mascot of the middle-aged. You and I think of Federer as the embodiment of physical grace, as an example of non-muscle-bound athleticism. Everyone under 18 thinks Federer is absurd: My children screamed with laughter the first time they saw him strolling on to court in Wimbledon in his Great Gatsby toggery: white blazer and white trousers with golden accents and that little gold crest. For them and their cohorts, he is a narcissistic has-been, desperately trying to hold on to primacy when Time—in the knobbly shape of Rafa Nadal—has passed him by. This was a shock. I had always thought of Nadal as Godzilla, a freak of nature that one could marvel at, but this new take on him as a symbol of generational change—even though Federer was all of 25 at the time—forced me to review my complacent belief that the Swiss champion was universally regarded as a tennis immortal. For the generation that grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, it’s peculiarly hard to accept that opinions age and that we age along with them.
So to make our way through middle life without embarrassing ourselves or our children, it’s useful not to do some things. We shouldn’t talk about working out even if we do. There’s nothing quite as poignant as listening to people of a certain age explain their routines on something called the “elliptical”. Or spell out the things they don’t eat. It’s also crucial not to take stairs two at a time. In the eyes of the world, a lad falling over doing something physically ambitious merely takes a boyish tumble whereas a 50-year-old tripping over a step while making like a gazelle gets what he deserves.
To be sensibly middle-aged is to shun public discussion of our commendable but fundamentally uninteresting attempts to hold back time. To age durably or to look younger than we actually are is nice so long as the effort invested in achieving that effect remains invisible. The moment we begin to talk about being only as old as we feel is the moment we begin to seem even older than we are. We can agree with Wilde that “(t)he tragedy of old age is not that one is old but that one is young”, so long as we don’t say it out aloud, in anyone’s hearing.
Mukul Kesavan, a professor of social history at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, is the author of The Ugliness of the Indian Male and Other Propositions.
Write to Mukul at firstname.lastname@example.org