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Seventy And to Hell with it! – An Excerpt

Shobhaa De, voted by Reader’s Digest as one of ‘India’s Most Trusted People’ and one of the ’50 Most Powerful Women in India’ by Daily News and Analysis, is one of India’s highest-selling authors and a popular social commentator. Her new book, Seventy and to Hell with it!, looks back on the terrain of her life. Especially at relationships-hers and those she has observed over the years-and at ever-present fears and grief.
Here’s an excerpt from this fun, entertaining and unputdownable book.

Nails. Would you believe it? Everything comes down to nails. Toenails. I am writing this soon after celebrating my sixty-seventh birthday with the family. As always, they had made it extraordinarily special for me. I felt a little guilty. Poor children and considerate husband—how much longer will they have to keep coming up with birthday surprises for me? Thoughtful, hand-picked gifts, sweet notes, an unexplored venue, candles and flowers. Year after year, my family has taken enormous trouble to make my birthday amazing— to make me feel amazing. This year, perhaps for the first time, I asked myself—do I deserve their love? The question depressed me. I came home in an uncharacteristically pensive mood. The mellow white wine we had consumed contributed to the introspection. Don’t get soppy and sentimental, I told myself. Don’t feel martyred. Feel happy, not guilty. Rejoice. Sixty-seven today, sixty-eight next year, sixty-nine the year after, seventy after that, life goes on.
The next morning, for the first time in my life, as I bent over to clip my toenails, I recoiled in shock. Those couldn’t possibly belong to me. These were the toenails of a really old person! I reached for my reading glasses and looked closely. My toenails had aged. Which meant the rest of me had aged too. But this drastically? Toenails never lie. Look at your own. Check what they are saying. Toenails tell you the sort of bald truths your face doesn’t. Perhaps it has something to do with being taken for granted. I had never thought about my toenails till that defining moment, the morning after my birthday. It was as if I was looking at them for the very first time in my life. And at that precise moment, I felt like I was staring at my mother’s feet. Those were her toenails when she was in her seventies.

It’s not about pedicures or caring enough for your feet. Nails cannot be fooled or pampered. Those damn toenails remind you to take a clear-eyed look at yourself—other body parts that are giving up, slowly but surely. Like the ropelike veins on the back of your hands, the loose skin under your chin and so many other telltale signs of physical deterioration. Since that day, I have started to examine my toenails every morning after my bath. I have scrupulously applied foot cream for years, but mechanically, without paying the slightest attention to the nails. Now that the toenails have become my main focus, I examine them somewhat obsessively. My toenails have started talking to me!
Old people’s nails thicken and are exceedingly hard to clip. They also get discoloured and ridged on the surface. By this point, chances of the toes getting misshapen are pretty high. Feet tend to flatten and broaden with advancing years. When that happens, toenails become brittle and crack vertically, which is very painful. The surrounding skin gets sore, leading to ingrown nails. Jagged edges appear, and get caught in bedclothes. You wake up in the middle of the night wincing in pain. It’s dark. You can’t find your spectacles. You grope on the bedside table, knock over a water jug. Switch on the light. Forget where you’ve stored the nail clipper. Wake up the husband and ask for help. The toenail-fixing operation gets under way. With eyes full of sleep, you nick yourself. There’s blood on the bed sheets. You need ice. You stagger to the kitchen. Wake up the dog. Wake up others. Slip on something squishy. Keel over. Fall. But not badly. Your old training as a sportsperson helps you break the fall. But there will be a bruise tomorrow morning. Ice cubes in hand, you make it back to the bedroom in one piece. Dawn is breaking. And your toenail still hasn’t been fixed. You finally feel old. Yes, old!
It took my toenails to remind me of my biological age. In my head and heart, I am stuck at thirty-four—possibly the best year of my life. That was a long time ago. But so what? What a year it was, tumultuous and life-altering. I decide there and then that no matter what my toenails are telling me, I will treat them as toenails, not as time bombs ticking away, warning me to be cautious, slow down, retire, find my inner calm, change. Sixty-seven is not all that terrible an age to be. If I continue to feel thirty-four, it doesn’t really matter.
That unexpected encounter with the toenails brought me face-to-face with the sixty-seven-year-old me. And forced me to shift my gaze upwards and look more closely into the mirror. All of a sudden, I took note of the deepening lines around the mouth, the additional crow’s feet at the corners of my eyes. The extra strands of grey framing my face, the slackening of the skin on the neck, the slight discoloration of the lips. My reflection was a revelation. How had I not noticed these changes earlier? Had I not looked hard enough? That’s not possible. I am as vain as the next person. I had looked but I hadn’t seen. Such a big difference between looking and seeing. Just as I was fretting over a deep furrow between the brows, I happened to catch a glimpse of my ears. Here’s a confession: I like my ears. And to my great satisfaction and utter relief, the ears looked just the same. The ears could have belonged to a thirty-four-year-old. And that was my big thrill. Why focus on the negatives (discoloured toenails) when there are positives (pretty ears) to cheer you up?
It’s important to be realistic and self-critical in life. But it’s equally important to remain upbeat and positive about the inevitable. Age is one of them. From now on, it’s going to be ears over toenails.
I am not going to put on a fake jaunty attitude and declare: Seventy is the new fifty! Because seventy is seventy. And no matter how ‘young’ you feel, you can neither look it nor hack it as anyone but a (hopefully) well-preserved septuagenarian. Life definitely does not begin at seventy—but neither does it have to end. I don’t believe in milestones. Hitting seventy is not an achievement. And it is certainly not a milestone. It is merely a biological fact of life. I have survived my seventh decade. That’s about all it says to me.

Shobhaa De talks about risks and her pretty exhilarating life, An Excerpt

Shobhaa De’s writing exudes an empathy that has turned several of her books into life manuals for generations of Indians. Her keen wit spears and spares none, least of all herself.  Her book ‘Seventy and to hell with it’, she says is a gift to herself for entering into the seventh decade of life.
Here’s an excerpt from the book where she talks about risks and her experiences with them.
Here I am, looking back on seven decades of a life that has been pretty exhilarating. Yes, of course I have messed up. But even those mess-ups have taught me vital lessons—in survival, coping, collapsing, undoing, rejoicing. Most of these lessons have come from allowing myself to be open to everything life is throwing my way—good stuff, bad stuff, indifferent stuff. This is what I frequently tell my children when they are despairing. If you remain yourself and stay receptive to what’s happening around you, you will pickup signals that will provide most of the answers you seek.
Perhaps not instantly, but the answers will come.
When I was a teenager, I used to take every aspect of my life for granted, without questioning what was going on around me. In a way, this attitude protected me and spurred me on to take crazy chances, often with my life. I thought nothing of jumping in and out of rapidly moving local trains which I took to and from school. Of course, I was showing off my daredevilry, since there was always a crowd at Churchgate station. But those adrenaline-fuelled seconds when I tried to
make it inside the compartment without losing my footing gave me such a rush it made that lunatic risk very attractive. Today, I can ask myself, ‘What on earth were you thinking? Or proving?’ I still don’t have an answer that satisfies me. Perhaps I was testing myself. All I know is, danger and dangerous situations still attract me. I have never opted for ‘safe’ when there was ‘risky’ staring at me. It’s a personality trait, or a character flaw. God knows. Show me two scenarios, one that is controlled and the other that’s insane, and I’ll instinctively opt for the latter. This worries my husband and children, but deep within, even I know half of this is nothing more than posturing. Confronting fear is just a part of it.
I am in the process of identifying my biggest fears as I key this in. What do most human beings fear the most? I’d say it is loss. Loss of a loved one, loss of face, loss of security, loss of health, loss of identity, loss of mental and physical faculties. Loss of one’s own life. From this abbreviated list, I would say, for a wife and mother, there can be no greater loss than the loss of a child and spouse. Nothing prepares you for it. Nothing can. Sages advise us to start gearing ourselves up for such an eventuality from the time marriage vows are taken to that dreaded moment you are forced to come face-to-face with tragedy. Meditate, they tell you. Pray. Ask God to provide succour. Does any of this help you to deal with a wound that can never be healed? I don’t know. I hope I am never tested. But it is this fear of losing a beloved that is at the root of all other fears. As a child, you fear losing your parents. As a grown-up, you fear losing your child. Conquering this fundamental fear is what drives us to face other fears.
When I think of all those reckless stunts I performed in school and college (most of which were unknown to my trusting parents), did I stop to think what the repercussions would have been on so many lives had something terrible happened to me as I hung out of a fast train, tempting fate
every second day? I continued to ride racing bikes down crowded roads, clinging on to the handle of a public transport bus for additional speed. I crashed cars that didn’t belong to me when I was grossly underage, after persuading the children of the owners to steal the car keys. I lied about my adventures in local trains (ticketless travel being the more innocent one) to my mother, who believed I was at a school picnic when I was actually bunking school and loitering on distant beaches. What if any of these silly jaunts had backfired? Point is, they didn’t. I was fortunate.
Risk-taking is something I enjoy immensely. It comes naturally to me. I like stepping into the unknown and seeing where those steps take me. This is true whether it involves love and romance in my youth or professional choices later in life. My decisions were mainly impetuous (‘immature’ is how my father described them) and spontaneous. Where did this behaviour pattern come from? Certainly not from my home environment, which was conservative, conformist and solidly, comfortingly middle class. I appreciated anarchy and chaos far more than control and comfort. This troubled my parents a great deal, and I must have given them countless sleepless nights during those restless years when I couldn’t wait to get out into the big, wicked world, the one beyond my traditional Maharashtrian home, and taste the myriad exotic flavours waiting to consume me, in Turkey, Brazil, Japan, just about anywhere. But where was I stuck? At home!

Penguin Fever Schedule

It’s that time of the year again but this time it’s under the autumn sky. Six days of literature extravaganza is going to start from October 26, with numerous literary icons as panelists.
Here are the dates you should mark on your calendar.
October 26, 7PM: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – Arundhati Roy in conversation with Shohini Ghosh
October 27, 7PM: Zara sa jhoom loo main – Shobhaa De on turning seventy – and having a blast! In conversation with Vidya Balan. Sonia Singh to moderate
October 28, 5PM: Inconvenient Truths: Are we heading for an environmental disaster – Sunita Narain, Prerna Bindra, and Pradip Krishen
October 28, 7PM: The Heart of the Matter – Ravinder Singh, Durjoy Datta, and Sudeep Nagarkar in conversation with RJ Ginnie
October 29, 5PM: The Man from the Hills – Ruskin Bond on life, writing, and his love for lemon cheesecake!
October 29, 7PM: Criminal Minds – Brijesh Singh, Ravi Subramanian, Novoneel Chakraborty. Poonam Saxena will moderate the session
October 30, 7PM: The Line of Beauty – Perumal Murugan, Kannan Sundaram, Bibek Debroy, Rana Safvi, Namita Gokhale as moderator
October 31, 7PM: The Rise of the Elephant – Shashi Tharoor, Gurcharan Das, Sonu Bhasin, Shireen Bhan as moderator
Open Air Library: October 26–31, 11AM onwards
If you haven’t already, register for the Penguin Fever here:
See you there!

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