When you listen to Rambhai speak about his life in his over half-a-century-old bookstore in Lucknow’s Hazratganj, Ram Advani Booksellers, you’d be forgiven for coveting a sliver of his energy and clarity of mind. He stands up to greet you. The tehzeeb, the warm smile, it’s all firmly in place, to go with the mop of silver hair. With the same measured gait you see on the golf course, he travels decades, offering you vignettes wrapped in old brown paperbacks. At 92, the dandy ‘sahab’ of Lucknow is his stately self at work too. He still maintains a six-hour shift, “roughing it out six days a week”. “If you desire success, you’ve to take the hard route,” he says with a shrug. Rambhai, as everyone calls him, is still the first to check in at the store at 9 am, skimming the shelves for new entries, updating his roster and keeping track of the daily sales. The large all-wood lair is a goldmine, stocked with volumes on history, politics, current affairs, Awadhi culture. “I got this shop in 1951 and it’s always been a one-man show. The personal touch is important,” he says, recalling how his bookstore has drawn bibliophiles as diverse as Pandit Nehru, Bertrand Russell and Salim Ali, among others. A powerhouse of knowledge himself, Rambhai still mops up the dailies every morning before breakfast. Sit down for a cuppa with him, and the conversation wows you, flitting as it does between publishing world stories to the quibbles of history.
The ‘sahab’ sticks to a low-fat, high fibre diet, the only constraint being “a few tablets a day for minor health issues”. So what’s the secret to staying young? “Why, golf, music, family, friends and two small whiskeys every day,” he says with a smile. To friends, Rambhai is like a walking omnibus on the city’s history and architecture. He still hops into rickshaws for short commutes and maintains a teenager’s infectious enthusiasm as he takes you around Lucknow’s galis and Tunde cradles. At the famed Lucknow Golf Club, its oldest member quickly gets kitted out. “I’m another guy when I play golf. I can judge a person’s character in straight two hours of playing,” he says, swinging his No. 2 wood. It’s here that Rambhai opens up about his recent infatuations—Oprah and, yes, IPL. Ask him about his wife of 60 years, Darshi, and you get packetsful of the same transparent joy. Their annual getaways to England, Europe and Ranikhet is what he looks forward to most. “She holds the key to my heart. I feel like I’m 19, not more. If you want to live, you’ve got to make every moment count,” he says as he tees off some 150 yards to the green in a trademark pale blue shirt, beige trousers and large summer straw hat. This is the life of Ram Advani, bookseller from the City of the Nawabs.
Back in the bylanes of Old Delhi, Narain Prasad aka Omi, a true-blue Gandhian if there ever was one, greets us with stories about his family heirloom, the Indraprastha Putri Pathshala, a pioneering girls’ school set up in 1904 (alumni include Kamala Nehru, Kapila Vatsyayana and Sharan ‘Sarod’ Rani). His sprawling Chandni Chowk haveli—unchanged since the days of the school’s founder, his grandfather Lala Jugal Kishore—is a treasure trove of rare photographs, certificates and calligraphy work, lined meticulously in his cubbyhole. Prasad, spry at 90, is a man of many parts. One of the oldest members of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India, he still stays up till 3 am, diligently sorting out audit and taxation reports, chalking out client lists, or planning his next trip to Punjab and UP to finalise an audit.
But that’s just the regular trawl. “Give me money, and I’ll shoot down chartered accountancy for education,” says Prasad, mulling over the itinerary for the school’s founder’s day celebrations. He’s still the principal. In fact, the philanthropist-educationist (he also chairs the governing body of Indraprastha College, set up in 1924, in two rooms) prides himself for revitalising several of Delhi’s schools. “Ethics for me is doing what’s beneficial to most of us. There’s a lot of cleansing left to be done in the education system.” He egged on his wife, who was just a matric pass when they got married, to study more and eventually she went on to do a PhD. But it isn’t just all work and no play. On breezier days, he steps out to watch the latest movies or treats assorted visitors at his residence to an enviable collection of Hindustani classical music. Tongue in cheek, he quotes the classic cliche, “I have miles to go before I sleep.”
For people like Prasad and Rambhai and the growing tribe of India’s nonagenarians, 90 is no age to surrender to “being old”. They are creative, active and making a difference in their sunset years. But it’s still taken a combination of factors to get them there. Says Dr Mala Kapur Shankardass, gerontologist and health and development social scientist, “These silver lions have dealt with the odds and probably had better access to social and economic security too. So once they’ve crossed the 75-80 threshold, there are fewer worries. Peace, confidence and the satisfaction of having led a full life help them cope with disabilities, or even thoughts of death.” It’s a light mantra: ‘I will control what’s in my hand.’ As consultant psychiatrist Dr Sanjay Kumavat points out, “The 90-plus are extremely disciplined when it comes to diet, exercise, sleep, hygiene or social activities. It’s the energy from always having an agenda.”
At 92, Capt Krishnan Nair, chairman emeritus of the Leela Group of hotels, still packs quite a punch in his big frame. A fitness buff, his morning regimen includes cycling, working out, brisk walks and basketball. This is of course followed by a zesty all-English breakfast or the intermittent South Indian fare. The discipline sets the momentum for heavy workdays lined with meetings and interviews. “It’s the daily grind that gives me a high. I’m quite undeterred by challenges. In fact, I’m aiming to set up eight more hotels...” he says. Outside work, the captain, who’s crazy about cars, makes it a point to take wife Leela on long drives, serenading her with Malayalam film music. “I’ve always wanted my life to be this Alice in Wonderland experience,” he says.
If work is really the key to contentment, then M.V. Kamath, honorary director of the Manipal Institute of Communications, has a lot going for him. Three articles a week for nine journals top the heap, besides seven hours in office and college lectures leave him with just a couple of hours free. “My life is too colourful. I don’t even have time to call my girlfriends,” he laughs. A regular at film talks and classical music concerts, Padma Bhushan Kamath’s motto is simple: never take life too seriously and never ask anybody for anything. Just go do it yourself. Kalindi Randeri, an educationist who’s known him for 30 years, is still perplexed by what she sees. His inability to slow down is almost a shortcoming, says Kalindi, half in awe. “It’s amazing how many hours he puts in and how his mind works,” she says.
But is this just a tale of extraordinary people who have led extraordinary long lives? Ageing, of course, cannot be free of the sweat of social, physical and psychological problems. Gerontologist Dr Nidhi Mishra says “those who adapt well to old age start preparing for physical/financial exigencies early, say from age 30. Without security, self-esteem and recreation, ageing can become a burden and anticipating death can plague you.” Equally important—the freedom to lead an autonomous life where “you can take your own decisions”.
But even here, there are exceptions to the norm. Mrinalini Sarabhai, danseuse and director of Darpana Academy of Performing Arts in Ahmedabad, never really had the 20-30- year period to reconcile to the ageing process as she was always hyperactive. “Nowadays, short-term memory, poor vision and the death of her best friend have got her a little depressed,” says daughter Mallika. Even so, Mrinalini insists on walking to work every day to teach her students. “I get tired more easily. Otherwise, life is the same,” she says. So, what’s next on the agenda? “A small padam (lyrical number in Bharatanatyam) for my next film on my mother, where she’s also given many interviews,” says Mallika.
Genetic, biological and social factors naturally contribute to longevity, but the desire for an ‘independent existence’ matters as much. “It’s important for seniors to give vent to their ideas and feel appreciated. So a second career plan is always a good idea and keeps you free of negative thoughts,” says Nidhi Mishra. And just as dance remains the core of Mrinalini’s soul, there are others who’ve evolved in their long political and creative careers.
Irreverence, wry humour and a willingness to argue out any subject with people one-fourth his age are some characteristics that make Ma Go Vaidya, or Baburao as he’s popularly called, the classic RSS ideologue. Vaidya recently turned 90 and stopped writing his weekly column ‘Bhashya’ in Tarun Bharat, only to write at leisure—that is, four articles in four weeks for different publications. “I don’t see any special significance in turning 90. It’s just like any other milestone. I always felt I could live till 100,” he says. His routine, much like his speeches, is not for the faint-hearted. “I have one rule. The sun should not see me in bed, so I get up before sunrise.” He walks to the nearby shakha at 6.30 am and practices pranayama with others “who are usually much younger”. For someone who’s juggled the roles of Sangh pracharak, shakha teacher, professor of Sanskrit and the editor of Tarun Bharat, Baburao has managed to scuttle the limitations that come with age. “I always looked young. Even now people don’t say I’m 90,” he chuckles. And there’s none of that cussed negativism about today’s youth. “There is nothing more right or wrong with today’s kids than with any other earlier generation,” he says. “One has to go by the past, through the present, to the future. That said, by the past does not mean towards the past.” Skill-set development, though, is still a work in progress. Next on the list: learning to SMS.
If Vaidya charms you with his wit, K.R. Gowri Amma, 94, former firebrand CPI(M) minister, surprises you with her unbridled energy. Way back in 1957, as revenue minister in the world’s first elected Communist government, she heralded sweeping changes in Kerala’s feudal system by introducing land reforms. She lived stoically through the Communist split (where her husband T.V. Thomas stayed with the CPI) and became minister in four more successive governments, till she was sacked by the CPI(M) in the ’90s for ‘anti-party’ activities. That’s how volatile her career graph has been. But even now, people seek Gowri Amma’s advice on matters as diverse as politics, marital disputes, even school admissions. She stands ramrod straight and has never been busier. (In fact, she had to reschedule the meeting with Outlook a few times as more important matters always cropped up.)
Now, at 91 and confined to a wheelchair, artist S.H. Raza may not be as agile, but he still refuses to count his age by the years he’s lived. And it’s this vigour that gets transfused onto his masterpieces even today as much as it did 50 years ago. Watch him replicate the idea of swadharma on canvas, and you’ll know that the unwavering hand renders the same magic on acrylic, replete with icons from Indian cosmology and philosophy. “Hardly a day goes by when he does not paint,” says Ashok Vajpeyi, who’s been Raza’s confidant for 30 years. Raza himself says “only painting could save me”.
As waves of the Progressive Artists Group that Raza founded with F.N. Souza and K.H. Ara in Bombay in the 1940s (that, very loosely defined, aimed to foster an avant-garde vision in Indian art practice) started sweeping other parts of the country, a young K.G. Subramanyan was juggling the varied roles of artist, designer and teacher. Now, professor emeritus of Visva Bharati in Shantiniketan and a luminary at the faculty of fine arts in Baroda University, Subramanyan, 90, makes no bones about his obsession with art and how it keeps him going. Mani Da, as he’s fondly called, recently did a mural on ceramic tiles at Nandalal Bose’s studio in Shantiniketan. “All day I’m working in my studio, painting, writing, sketching, illustrating books for children.” It’s also the love for poetry, fiction, philosophy and music that inspires his pupils. “Even today, he’s alert intellectually and has a deep curiosity. In fact, he’s one of the most energetic people in the Indian art scene. Age hasn’t touched him,” says Siva Kumar, one of his students.
So if age is really a marker of experience and maturity, the 90s-plus club have only raised the bar with their dynamism and verve. Subramanyan puts it most eloquently: “I don’t take notice of my body. I’m most often floating in the air.”
When The Curtains Never Come Down
Be it song and dance or yoga mudras, 90-plus veterans who are icons in their fields
|Mrinal Sen 90, Filmmaker, Calcutta Spiking his answers with caustic one-liners, the doyen of Indian parallel cinema, exudes the brashness and pluck of a 20-year-old. A prominent face still at film fests, bookfairs and art shows. Says he might come up with another film.||M. Karunanidhi 90, DMK patriarch, Chennai Muthuvel Karunanidhi is the oldest surviving active political leader in the country. Celebrated his 90th birthday with much fervour last month. The wily old man of Tamil politics still keeps all guessing as to who will succeed him.|
|Pran 93, Actor, Mumbai A face on which you can rest half a century of film history, he received the Dadasaheb Phalke award recently for contributions to cinema. Known for his style and sophistication onscreen, Pran made the villain look almost as important as the hero.||Amala Shankar 93, Dancerm Calcutta “It’s divine fulfilment,” said the danseuse after returning from Cannes in 2012 where her 1948 classic, Kalpana, was screened. It’s her only film, and was directed by her dancer-choreographer husband Uday Shankar. Definitely a “rebirth”.|
|Manna De 94, Singer, Bangalore A playback singing legend, he could caricature the gamakas of Carnatic music in Ek Chatur Naar Badi Hoshiyaar in the film Padosan, as much as he could effortlessly render the thumri-inspired Aayo Kahan Se Ghanshyam in Buddha Mil Gaya.||B.K.S. Iyengar, 94 Yoga teacher, Pune Continues to practise asanas for three hours, pranayamas for an hour daily. Recognised as the world’s foremost exponent of yoga, Guruji sees it as an art, science and philosophy—not secret or exclusive. At 94, he has not in any sense ‘retired’.|
|Arjan Singh 94, Marshal of the Air Force, Delhi The only officer of the Indian Air Force to be promoted to five-star rank, Arjan Singh has flown over 60 types of aircraft, including the pre-World War 1 biplanes. He was conferred the rank of ‘Marshal’ in 2002.||V.R. Krishna Iyer 97, Former Supreme Court judge, Kochi Krishna Iyer’s most recent missive was to President Pranab Mukherjee to expedite the trial in the 2008 Bangalore blasts case. A successful lawyer, judge and rights activist, Iyer has always been the ‘anti-establishment’ man.|
|C.K. Nair 98, Kathakali dancer, Kozhikode The artiste and dancer’s creative journeys have taken him to different stages—from dance to circus to popular youth festivals. Even now, his thoughts are said to be centred on how to stage the unblemished, perfect Kathakali piece.||Khushwant Singh 98, Writer, Delhi If there’s anyone who’s been there and seen it all, it’s got to be him. The prolific writer has enlightened and outraged in equal measure over the years. And at 98, his latest book is just out, Khushwantnama: The Lessons of My life.|
By Priyadarshini Sen in Delhi and Lucknow with Prachi Pinglay-Plumber and Minu Ittyipe.
[This was written and published in print before Pran's death on Friday, July 12, 2013--Web Ed.]