By Anthony Deyal
The government of Trinidad and Tobago has given me an election for my 75 birthday. I would be extremely happy if I were chairman Mao of China who, in 1972, was accused by American president Richard Nixon of not having a democratic government. “When was your last election?” Nixon demanded.
The 79-year-old chairman answered cockily, “Rast night.” Unfortunately, even though comedian Groucho Marx insisted that a man is as old as the woman he feels, old age for a man is that time in his life when he has been out with a woman all night and the only thing that comes is daylight. As I make clear, at this age I am like a dog chasing a car- even if I catch it, I can’t drive it.
I know, and have been told by the occasional prude, that jokes like these do not become a person of my age. I watch the Antiques Roadshow on television because I know that if I go to an Antiques Auction people will bid on me. Right now, the candles already cost more than my birthday cake and I would need to have the Fire Brigade standing by.
A few days ago, I met one of my old friends who had seen me through the early days when I spent most of my salary on wine, women and song and the rest foolishly. Glad to see me, and remembering our days together, he invited me to a drink of single-malt Scotch and lunch with him at a place which, he boasted, sold the best roast pork and grilled beefsteaks in Trinidad. “You will love it,” he boasted. I refused with the explanation that in my mid-years I had given up drinking, smoking and sins of the flesh (beef, pork and other delights). I also said proudly that I would soon be celebrating my 75 birthday. He looked carefully at me and asked one question, “How?”
I thought of responding with the second stanza of a birthday poem by the British-Canadian poet, Robert William Service.
My daughter thinks. because I’m old
(I’m not a crock, when all is said),
I mustn’t let my feet get cold,
And should wear woollen socks in bed;
A worsted night-cap too, forsooth!
To humour her I won’t contrive:
A man is in his second youth
When he is Seventy-and-five.
However, I had some concerns including the omnipresent one that I had not done or achieved enough in my life compared with other people. At 74, Albert Einstein announced his unified field theory; Ethel Andrus founded the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP); John D. Rockefeller donated US$100 million to his foundation; architect Cass Gilbert designed the US Supreme Court Building; Claude Monet started painting his masterpiece of 250 water lilies; and, another great artist, the Italian Renaissance painter known as Titian, completed his famous “Rape of Europa”. It depicts the mythological story of the abduction of Europa, who became the first Queen of Crete, by Zeus. Now, even reading about what Zeus did leaves me tired.
Here I am, ending my 74 year, and my wife does the painting (and even the plumbing and drilling) while I watch cricket or bowl in the nets to my son Zubin and his friends. I know that anytime I look in the mirror I see someone fifteen years younger but that only makes things worse instead of better. But then I read or remember the last words of the famous Blackfoot Warrior, chief Crowfoot, and I feel better: “What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.” I reassure myself with a truth that I share and hammer into the heads of my children: You cannot change the past. You can learn from it. You can ignore it. But you cannot change it.
So, what are my goals after an election which, already, has opened even wider and deeper the chasm of racism that is at the heart of Trinidad and Tobago’s politics?
At 75, the great Hollywood director, Cecil B. DeMille, did a fabulous remake of The Ten Commandments. I remember going to see it in the cinema in my village, but my girlfriend took so long to dress that we reached late and only saw six. Mary Harris “Mother” Jones founded the Industrial Workers of the World. One of the world’s greatest pianists, Claudio Arrau, gave 110 concerts.
My only consolation is that while I cannot play the piano, I can read and write so that I am able to take heart from what the author, J.B. Priestly, wrote, “There can be a rewarding relationship between the sevens and the seventy-fives. They are both closer to the world of mythology and magic than all the busier people between these ages.” But what about the fears that increase with age? I keep being told that my straight talk and constant criticism of the politics and politicians in the region leave me exposed to attacks from both sides.
This is why, even though I am on the cusp of great adventure, I go back to one of my favourite books, Frank Herbert’s Dune which will soon be the basis of a film that finally does credit to his greatness. As I face another year, I need to remember his mantra, “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over and through me. And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
At the same time, I luxuriate in the final verse of Service’s poem:
At four-score years old age begins,
And not till then, I warn my wife;
At eighty I’ll recant my sins,
And live a staid and sober life.
But meantime let me whoop it up,
And tell the world that I’m alive:
Fill to the brim the bubbly cup –
Here’s health to
*Tony Deyal was last seen repeating a quip by Spanish filmmaker, Luis Bunuel, “Age is something that doesn’t matter, unless you are a cheese.”