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Opinionista

The ageing process is at once cause for concern and for critical reflection

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Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

There’s a belief that you become more patient and tolerant with old age. That’s rubbish. The only reason that I have retained my sanity is by avoiding people and things that are annoying, or that stretch the limits of my tolerance.

I am reaching towards another decadal marker, 70. It is still a few years away, but for really bizarre reasons, I have come to accept that I am an old man, an elder. In the language of my distant and diluted forebears, I am a datuk; not the official honorific title, typically conferred by the state, nor the leader of a village, but simply to say that I am an old man who could be someone’s grandfather.

About those bizarre reasons… across the past two decades of drifting in and out of academia, full-time at first, and later (currently) as an external examiner and a visiting professor, I have resisted the titles, “professor” or “doctor”.

At the base of my thinking it has to do with a resistance to class connotations (I’m not sure that is a concept, but it is now) which set me apart from others, albeit deferential — a sign of respect, not necessarily age.

Very recently I have come to accept, or maybe surrendered to being referred to as “Ismail Sir” (in India), and across the Nusantara as Pakcik (uncle) AbangMail (Brother Ismail), or PakMail (Uncle Ismail, or Sir Ismail). There are nephews and nieces who use my first name, and the abbreviated Issy, or Izzie; others, including grandnephews and grandnieces, call me “uncle”. I have given up resisting all of that.

I do, however, miss hearing my late mother’s name for me, “Maya”.

None of it really matters in the ageing process. I hear tell that hangovers become more difficult to get over as you age. I still get a rise, that “nocturnal penile tumescence” surprisingly, but no longer bother. It is more of a discomfort.

I reach for acid reflux suppressant more frequently and have the last meal of the day at least three hours before I go to bed. Actually, I started doing that many years ago — for health reasons.

I have been a morose, grumpy, angry, sometimes dismissive grouch for most of my life, but I think I’ve become worse. I have become a snob, even, but in a good way. I think. I don’t like hearing the life story of people who are sat beside me on a plane, and don’t smile at strangers lest they think I want to have a conversation.

These are the reasons why god made dark glasses and earphones… I prefer being alone to listening to stories that I unlearned, or forgot, decades earlier.

I can’t stand people who dress badly (it has nothing to do with price, I hold onto 10 or 12 black cotton t-shirts I bought for $10 for a three-pack, when the rand was 7:1), and wear clothes until they fall from my body. In fact, about a decade ago, I consolidated the clothing I had accumulated during extended stays in the US, the UK and Europe and because I hoard, I still have enough clothes for a profitable yard sale without having to miss an item.

This ageing process is more real than any of the above. It is, at once cause for concern and cause for reflection. It is the reason, or an explanation why I have lost my nerve. As explained elsewhere, after being a middling photojournalist/press photographer, I framed a picture, sometime in 2010, and could not press the shutter release button.

This was how I recorded it in a book two years ago:

“Sitting in the car outside La Penitence market [in Georgetown, Guyana] that July 2010, I stared at a small smoking mound of garbage on a street corner. In a haze of blue smoke and the smell of Hades I saw a horse, a cow, a dog, a long-legged bird and a man foraging for food side by side. I raised the camera, focussed and framed the perfect picture of a horse, a cow, a dog, a long-legged bird and a man foraging for food on the same mound of smouldering garbage.

“The man turned and looked at me over his shoulder. The whites of his eyes were bright – like the light from a star that had died millions and millions of years earlier. I filled the frame and focused on his eyes. The horror and revulsion came suddenly. I was disturbed by the sudden feeling that I was preying on the vulnerability of the man whose eyes shone like the light of a star that took billions of years to reach Earth. I was projecting my own sensibilities onto him. I saw him as poor, miserable, filthy, disturbed, and fearsome. He was also hungry, with nowhere else to go for food. Thoughts flashed through my mind. My making the picture would make no difference to his life. Nor, for that matter, would it make a difference in the life of anyone else who lived on a garbage dump anywhere in the world.”

Senseless sensibilities

Sensibilities change as you grow old. A couple of years ago, I returned to the site of the last BASE jump I did, and could not believe that I had made six jumps over 10 years. The thought of it was horrifying.

There’s a belief that you become more patient and tolerant with old age. That’s rubbish. The only reason that I have retained my sanity is by avoiding people and things that are annoying, or that stretch the limits of my tolerance.

One of the great treasures of having your own home and living alone is that you don’t have to interact with anyone. Sure, I tell myself that I am not lonely (because I am in good company), but sometimes it is good to wake up next to someone, or share a bowl of pasta or even a food fight (I made up that last bit). I avoid relationships, especially those that can cause harm or permanent damage (yes); it’s always easier to walk away before entanglement, than it is to disentangle.

Here I am, then. My past is, or has been determined and my future is shorter than that past. I am not sure what the present is; is there really such a thing as the present?

One thing that has kept me alive, so to speak, is the fact that I am still around, that I wake up every morning and get another chance. I have been close to the doors of death several times since the age of three months, but somehow I am still here. I am shocked, thus, that I reached 50, or 60, given my chronic ill health. My parents and grandparents reached the 90s and one speculation is that my maternal grandfather died at 105; it was more like 97.

My parents reached the nineties (I’m not exactly sure), and both smoked for at least 65 years, they never played sports, and lived sedentary lives. While we were a meat and potatoes working-class family, the meat was a luxury; it was more like stewed cabbage, pumpkin, pap and gravy, blikkies vis kerrie, dhal and rice, pens en potjies, stamp mielies en boontjies, thick slices of white bread with kaijings (Google explains it as “pork crackling”, but we never ate pork) and the occasional roasts.

We never had vegetables as a matter of principle — other than potatoes and gem squash. I could never get the point of gem squash. Yet, my parents lived for what seemed like an eternity. I eat vegetables regularly (preferably raw), and have been drinking green tea for almost 40 years. I eat dhal and rice, other lentils and pulses, green leaf salad, I don’t smoke, and I have no time for drugs or alcohol… Yet, I never imagined that I would be approaching 70.

To conclude, I have always thought more about death, and the complete nothingness that it means, than I have about growing old, or even about dying. Death has greater meaning, mainly because it has nothing, than does old age or dying. Sure, we can argue, fuss and fight over that, but surely there are infinitely better discussions to be had about death than there are about growing old or dying. DM

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  • Graeme de Villiers says:

    Beautifully authentic, vulnerable and raw, Ismail.
    Thank you for another courageous piece.

  • Denise Smit says:

    Beautifull. Your diet then and now was/is obviously the reason for good health. I grew up on exactly the same thing. Pap is not fashionable among what I call the “bejappies” today (bejaarde jappies), but it is still by favourite food in any way. Blikkies viskerrie is too expensive to eat today. A luxury item

  • Jeff Robinson says:

    Quite frankly, the last paragraph concerning death is confusing. At 70 I continue to lack any fear or concern about being dead, for the simple reason that there is NO-THING to fear. As Mark Twain expressed it: “I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” Thus, there is nothing worth discussing. But that surely is not the case concerning how one dies. Thanks to anachronistic religious beliefs, we, unlike our pets, are not priviledged to be euthanized when in a terminal condition marked by suffering and/or loss of cognitive ability. THAT is a topic that REALLY needs discussion leading ultimately to changes in the law of the land.

    • Ismail Lagardien says:

      I agree that there is nothing to fear, Jeff. I suggested a discussion…. To much emphasis is placed on “what happens when life comes to an end” … as for the discussion; I am of the view that, nothing happens. Nothing. Too much of life is spent on pleasing some supernatural entity to avoid being sent to the wrong place at the end of life. We are expected to behave in certain ways, do certain things, if we want to go to the right place, when (when life runs out) there really is no going anywhere. What remains will be crushed into the earth like a leaf that falls from a tree, or the petals of a flower. So a discussion of death would have to be a discussion about life; life lived in anticipation of something better when we take our last breath. That, at least, is what the abrahamic faiths would have us believe. That nothing in death, is the something about life, and the futility of anticipation. Just some thoughts (apologies of typos etc, I’m on phone)

      • Jeff Robinson says:

        Thanks for taking time with this Ismail. Heaven and Hell are memes that have been effective in keeping devotees in line with the particular memeplex (religion) they are committed to. If you haven’t already, I strongly recommend reading Dan Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell”. Just being alive is miraculous, not a miracle, but like one in just being so impropable, a celebration of the success of every one of our ancestors all the way back to the self-replicating molecule that got it all started.

        • Ismail Lagardien says:

          So very correct in every way. As an avowed pacifist and a complete believer, yes hyper-idealistically – that our lives ought to be dedicated to improving the lives of as many people as possible, I can honestly say that an atheist has never called for things like beheadings, honour killings, killing of apostates, public lashings, denying girls access to education etc etc etc. there, I have just revealed more of my beliefs 😜🤣😜🤣

  • T'Plana Hath says:

    See? Our worlds aren’t that far apart after all. Shout-out to all the readers, and authors, who, Like Rilke, understand the difference between loneliness and solitude.

    “But your solitude will be a support and a home for you, even in the midst of very unfamiliar circumstances, and from it you will find all your paths.”, “The highest form of love is to be the protector of another person’s solitude.”

    If I may offer a slice of personal insight, based on this piece and the reference to a certain nocturnal ‘tumescence’ … At this stage, 𝘯𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳 waste a hard-on … and 𝘯𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳 trust a fart!

  • Jeff Sehume says:

    Sincerely appreciated Sir Ismail for this heart/mindfelt rumination about maturing towards one’s mortality and its associated lessons and shortcomings. I never imagined you are above 60 years but all ways thought you’re in your ’50s. All the same, your ruminations are fertile ground for a full-fledged memoir on the personal and professional self – seriously consider. Thanks again for this refreshing non-political gem that doesn’t venture, as you’re fond of doing, into a treatise that betrays your academic / intellectual / ideological leanings….

    • Ismail Lagardien says:

      You will be surprised if I told you my innermost beliefs… most of the time, in these essays and commentaries I use the ideas of people/thinkers as instruments or tools etc for understanding or explaining things. There are instances when I write about something because it’s worth a discussion, or important… on example is when I write about the coloured people being ignored, it is NOT because I am coloured. If I oppose antisemitism it is NOT because if am Jewish … ditto homosexuality or Christianity. But let’s not go into all of those things, thee is enough to discuss (I think/hope) in today’s column. Thanks though, Jeff.

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