Where does a story come from? Or a poem, a novel, or a play? No writer can answer this question. In fact, it remains a mystery to the writer herself and there are times when she asks herself: Did I write this?
There is however one story of mine of which I can trace, if not very clearly, a trail that could, perhaps, lead to its source. A story written at a very bleak time in my life. When grief had made me numb and writing had deserted me. A time when my age seemed a burden impossible for me to bear. I had thought, if and when I thought of it at all, that I would live up to seventy. Seventy-five, perhaps. But there I was, eighty and still living.
I wrote this story in fits and starts, happy that I could write it at all. It was, unusually for me, a story set in a dystopian future. A time when the world was overcrowded, not because more babies were born, but because the old would not die. This problem had reached a critical stage, with so little space that people could not live without jostling one another, and resources were stretched to the utmost.
A new government, practical and ruthless, decided that the only solution to the problem was to eliminate the old. This was done in such secrecy that scarcely anyone knew what was happening. And there was an unexpected bonus: Younger people who had had to look after the old were now released to do more productive work.
My protagonist, a man living alone, his wife and son long dead, receives a message that he is now eligible for “departure”. He knows what this means. The man had always thought he would welcome death. After all, what did he have to live for? No family, living in a tiny room in an impersonal institution meant for the old, a place where they were not encouraged to mingle, not even to talk to one another.
But the moment he is told he is chosen to “depart”, he realises he does not want to die. He wants to live. But how will he escape? Where will he go? I was stuck at this point, mainly because I had no idea what he would do. When your characters let you down, you admit defeat. I left the story there. I don’t think it will ever be completed.
Sixty is sixty, seventy is seventy and eighty is eighty
Now, in a sinister coincidence, life itself has offered me a solution. The coronavirus has come visiting the world. Something so new that even the doctors are still, to some extent, groping in the dark. Learning a little every day. They know that it travels very swiftly, moving from human to human, that it damages the lungs and that it has a deadly attraction for the old. That, once it has an old person in its grasp, it does not let go until the victim stops breathing.
We began to hear, to read, terrible stories of the old dying in shoals in nursing homes, in retirement homes. Of their being left to die. We hear of the dilemma of doctors, who have to make a choice between patients, ventilators being scarce. Whom do they save? Whom do they sacrifice? Playing god is never easy.
There is a kind of irony, perhaps, in the fact that at this time there are more old people in the world than ever before. And that, in fact, the old have never had it so good. Knee and hip joints are replaced, eyes miraculously restored by surgery or otherwise, teeth kept in order, deafness tackled by hearing aids, old hearts patched up, kidneys transplanted and so on. The old are also, compared to what they were in the past, enormously active.
We hear stories of grandmothers running business enterprises from home, grandfathers running marathons. We constantly hear people say, “Age is only a number”. They also tell you that you are as old (or as young, they swiftly correct themselves), as you feel. Really? Age only a number? But a number is itself, only itself, it is an absolute. It is not fluid or malleable like a word. Nothing can mitigate the fact of a number.
Sixty is sixty, seventy is seventy and eighty is eighty. As for how you feel, the less said the better. Besides, the coronavirus is smart. It goes beyond the masquerade of youth; it sees the sagging flesh, atrophied muscles, shrinking brain, brittle bones. Oh yes, it recognises its victims with ease.
‘Anyone there?’ I want to ask, knocking at the doors of a temple
We are, all of us, burdened with the idea of our own mortality. What is the greatest wonder in this world, the Yaksha asked Yudhishtira, the wise Pandava king. That we see people dying every day and yet we think we will live forever, he replied. Yes, we push the thought of not-existing away from us. But how do you ignore death when it is all around? When the enemy is so powerful that it has conquered the world?
My son from Boston spoke of the sudden silence in the city. “There’s not a car on the road,” he said. “It’s eerie.” Soon the silence came to us as well. And with it the fears. Not that the old are new to fears. There is always the fear of falling, of fractures, of being immobile, of becoming dependent, of losing memory, there’s fear of senility. And even worse fears come in the dark hours of the night – of being alone, of living alone.
Now there are fresh fears. A sneeze, a tickle in the throat, a flushed face – and panic sets in. I draw back when I see crowds, even on TV. When I see unmasked people in crowds, I wonder: Are they stupid? Or brave? Or is it that they just don’t care? If it’s desperation, I can understand. We’ve never seen anything like this terrible virus in all our years on this earth; there’s nowhere to go, nobody to help. “Anyone there?” I want to ask, knocking at the doors of a temple.
New words are entering our vocabulary with the virus. Co-morbidity – never heard of it before. And herd immunity? A fearful phrase, which means doing nothing to stop the virus, letting people get infected and so acquire immunity. But those who propounded this theory seemed to have forgotten about the old. For herd immunity to become a reality, the old have to die.
I have a strange feeling of living the story I could not write and, like my protagonist, craving for survival. I think of Margaret Plantagenet, who, many considered, had a better right to the throne than Henry VIII. Knowing his paranoia, his viciousness, she lived in the shadows, a modest insignificant life. But it did not stop him from throwing her into the Tower. And finally, after giving her just two hours notice, executing her.
She put her head obediently on the block. Then something happened. She did not want to die. She moved away from the executioner’s axe, she began to crawl, while the horrified executioner followed her, hacking at her. She died, of course. But what made her want to live? One of her sons executed, another exiled, a grandson in the Tower with her, her daughter, though married to one of England’s greatest Dukes, reduced to penury by Henry’s vengefulness. What did she have that made her desire to live? And she was sixty-eight, a great old age for that time.
The truth is that survival is everything, survival is a basic instinct. Which is why I have become a good obedient pupil in this new school of keeping the virus at bay. I wash my hands so often the skin is not only roughened, it seems to be peeling off. I never venture, not even just outside the door, without a mask. I keep a safe distance between me and the world, I rub surfaces with a disinfectant in a kind of desperation. Never has a summer passed me by so swiftly and painlessly.
I, who every year complained and moaned about the heat, scarcely felt it this year. Survival requires total concentration, it calls for a fierce focus. They say that Galileo, at the end of his trial, after having confessed to heresy and having accepted all the punishment for that crime, then said in a whisper, “Eppur si muove”. (But still it moves.) There are versions that contradict this and I believe them. Why would he put himself at risk, after having accepted punishment and humiliation? He did it to survive, to live and go on working. Why would he suddenly give up?
It’s interesting how the old, who were almost invisible until now, have, like the migrants, suddenly become visible. A friend living alone got out of her home to breathe fresh air during the lockdown. Tempted, she went on to the road. Go home, auntie, she was urged. Go home. Friends, people with whom I have not been in touch for years, ring up to ask how we are. Take care, they say, investing the clichéd phrase with its true meaning.
Children call more regularly, they speak for longer times. Don’t go out, they say, their voices loaded with anxiety. Even the government shows its concern. They ask for our details, once, twice and then once again. Perhaps they have misplaced the data, they have forgotten where it is, we tell ourselves. We don’t want to misjudge their intentions. But we have to admit that they are rather crass. “Senior citizens not allowed” says a notice outside the park. We know it is for our good, nevertheless it seems like a door being slammed in our faces. There is a suggestion that all old people should be quarantined, kept away from the world for their own safety. Are they serious?
This story calls for a Sophocles or a Shakespeare
You must write about this, they say to me, those who know me as a writer. Write about what is happening to the world? I can’t. This story calls for a Sophocles or a Shakespeare; only they can deal with the grand tragic theme of Hubris. Of Nemesis. These are the words which come to mind.
We thought we had done it all, that we had become Lords of the Universe. We had charted every inch of the earth, we had gone into space, we had learnt almost everything about our own bodies. Doctors and scientists are the wise men of our times, men and women who work marvels, conquer diseases that had seemed invincible.
We have machines and gadgets that have made the lives even of ordinary people more comfortable than the lives of kings and queens of the past. With our latest toy, AI, we hope to work some more magic, forgetting that we may also make ourselves dispensable. And now here we are, brought to our knees by something so small that it is beyond our imaginations; only a scientist can grasp the tininess of it.
The virus is democratic; it makes no distinction between people, between countries. We let our children go far, make their homes in distant lands, comforted by the thought that they would have a better life than us. But now they are in the same predicament that we are in. We are shaken, we feel cheated. We had been sure that our children would be safe.
“Will I see my son again?” a friend asks with a deceptive calmness. I know what she means. We rarely speak openly of our chances of survival, we talk of everything, but never the questions, Will I survive? Will I see my children again? Will I see the gulmohar bloom next year? These questions hang in the air, suspended between us, like lacy cobwebs.
Sometimes I wonder what it will be like, a world without the old. But it can never happen, for immediately the generation behind will slip into the vacant spaces. And there is memory. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is about a time when firemen don’t put out fires, but burn books. Burn knowledge.
Montag, a fireman, sickened by the burning, opts out and meets a group of rebels, fighting against the burning of books. The leader introduces the group to Montag, saying, “This is Jonathan Swift, this is Charles Darwin, this is Mahatma Gandhi, this is Mr Lincoln,” and so on. Each one has memorised a book to ensure its survival. We are all bits and pieces of history and literature, the leader tells Montag. This is survival through memory.
But I doubt that we will need such a drastic remedy. Disasters and catastrophes have hit the world again and again. Wars and diseases, fires and floods, earthquakes and famines – each time many people fell by the wayside. But those who survived got up and began to walk again. There’s no doubt, we are pretty good at survival. After all, we have been working at it for a long time, in fact, ever since our story began. The desire to survive is embedded in each cell of our body. Why will it fail us now? And, actually, what we want is very simple – neither a messiah, nor a revelation. Only a vaccine. With all our knowledge, all our understanding, surely it will soon be with us?