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THE SHASHI THAROOR COLUMN

The imminence of irrelevance?

Reaching 50 is not exactly what it used to be before, but one knows that one is closer to the finish line than the starting gate.


BY the time this column appears, I will have crossed a personal landmark. On March 9, barring the proverbial stroke of lightning, I will have turned 50.

I have never paid a great deal of attention to birthdays, but this is the kind of milestone one cannot simply ignore. For one thing, your nearest and dearest will not allow you to forget it. Assorted members of my family are flying in from various corners of the globe to commemorate the occasion with me. For another, the tyranny of chronology is inescapable: it stares you in the face every time you fill in a form, conduct a bank transaction, or flash your passport at an immigration officer. No doubt about it: in the normal course of a frenetic modern life, I will have frequent reminders of my seniority.

A curious business

Birthdays are a curious business. First of all, the celebrant really has no reason to celebrate, except perhaps his or her survival. For the hard work on the date in question was all put in by your mother, often enduring great pain: all the baby had to do was to emerge. Yet, I am unaware of any society in which birthdays are celebrated with gifts to the mother — congratulatory reminders of her accomplishment. Instead, the offspring has all the fun. Birthday presents are reminders of how palpably unfair life is: the person who put in the least effort reaps the biggest rewards.

And yet, it's true that each passing birthday marks a milestone on the road of life, something by which to measure the way you have lived. Since that cold London night 50 Shivaratris ago, I have had cause to notice a few of them: becoming a teenager, then the end of adolescence, finally 21, that magic portal — an age at which I took adulthood by the horns, by getting married. At 22 I finished my doctorate and started a career. But psychologically 30 was a bigger transformation: I suddenly stopped feeling young, virtually overnight. I remember sitting down on my 30th birthday and writing a piece to myself (long since lost, I am sorry to say) taking stock of my life thus far and concluding that I needed to do much more to justify my presence on the planet.

Indeed, 30 was far more significant a threshold than 40, which passed by scarcely noticed. When I was a child that would have surprised me, for 40 had used to seem forbiddingly middle-aged, the point at which all potential had been exhausted, the beginning of an inexorable descent into decrepitude. But by the time I got there, 40 seemed to me to be an insignificant age, populated by striplings and rising stars and the leaders of tomorrow, rather than a turning point. Perhaps it is a reflection of the enhanced longevity of our times that the mid-point has been raised: 40 is still young today, and 50 is the new 40.

But what does that mean? No one I know who has reached 50 seems ready to be put to pasture. The days when office-goers contemplated retirement at 55 are gone almost everywhere, even in the hidebound confines of Indian government service, which now expects its bureaucrats to toil until 60. As a manager at the U.N., I have found it deeply frustrating to lose some of my best staff at 60, an age when many of them seem to be in the prime of their professional lives and have never been more assured or more productive. (Some, particularly from developing countries, have attempted to claim their original birth certificates were wrongly filled in at birth, a claim whose plausibility is undermined by the fact that they chose to reveal this only when they turned 59.)

And yet there is something about 50 that seems to suggest the imminence of irrelevance. At 50, no one can plausibly be described any more as "young" (an adjective that has dogged me all my life), or as "up-and-coming" or as an exciting new talent. By 50, you should have pretty much made your mark; for 99 per cent of the human population, you know that in the race of life you are closer to the finish line than the starting gate.

And so 50 tends to be a landmark you notice. Intrepid gerontologists may come up with long lists of people whose major accomplishments occurred after they turned 50, but in most cases, 50 represents the narrowing of possibilities, the closing of avenues, both personal and professional. Choices you haven't made till 50 are no longer available for you to make. Of course, there are professions where this isn't true: Indian or Japanese politics, for instance, where you have to be at least 50 to be taken seriously at all. But even your body reminds you daily of the things you can no longer do without feeling the consequences. Comedians tell you that if you wake up after 50 and don't feel a nagging pain anywhere, you're probably dead.

So much more to learn

But I'm pleased that, if in reaching 50 I have shed a few illusions along the way, I have not acquired the world-weary cynicism that plagues so many of those who believe they have seen it all already. I am conscious of how much there still is to learn, and how much there remains to do. I have reached 50 still convinced that the world can be made a better place, that human beings can improve themselves and others, that life still offers much to look forward to each morning. That, in short, I may have many of the answers but have still not run out of questions. I hope I'll still feel that way at 60.

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