An Experience To Cherish

Growing older gives you perspective and hindsight. You have a long trajectory to look back on and learn life lessons


Artwork by Anupriya
Photo: Artwork by Anupriya

Earlier this year, I turned 72. And so far, I am not doddering, although I expect that will come soon enough. But when I mention my age to people—and at this age there’s none of that reluctance about revealing your age that, as young people, we might have had—they react with surprise. They tell me I don’t look 72. But what does 72 look like? Old? What does old look like? Grey? But grey (hair I mean) is fashionable these days and one often sees silver/grey/white highlights in what is otherwise black or brown hair.

Wrinkles? Even those are not unique to older people. And some don’t have them at all. The other day I was talking to a friend who is two years short of 80. She’s glamorous, spry, and beautiful; not a single wrinkle on her smooth face. Meanwhile, the woman who sweeps the street outside our office, young at 35, has a deeply-lined and creased face, also beautiful in a different way, but one which tells a story not of age, but of hardship and struggle.


So what does “old” have to do with it? I’m not sure. Although there’s no doubt that once you cross the given thresholds of age—which have very likely been put in place for administrative reasons—you become more conscious of your age, and of ageing. Forty feels like excitement; fifty, like maturity and stability; sixty, like a line has been crossed, and at 70?

To me, most times it doesn’t feel very different—in my head I am the same person I always was, older and wiser yes, but that comes with every year and every decade you put on. But all around you there are reminders that tell you something different.


As an ‘‘older’’ feminist I am conscious of the questions that younger feminists raise about our practices, decisions, and yes, our mistakes. This is one of the advantages age gives you: you have a sense of history.

For example, feminists of my generation came into the women’s movement in the early and mid-seventies. We cut out political teeth fighting on the streets against dowry, violence against women, invasive contraception, rape. We campaigned, printed leaflets, marched in the streets, took petitions to parliament, stormed police stations, painted over sexist ads and so much more. And we forged deep, lasting friendships.

But for the new generation of feminists, many of our ideas are passe, many of the things—limited victories admittedly, but for us, important first steps—we thought we had gained, are compromises. And while we sometimes scratch our heads and wonder why they don’t understand, we also know this is as it should be. As things change, as society changes, as the environment changes, the horizons also shift and struggles become different.

As an ‘‘older’’ feminist then I am deeply conscious of the questions that younger feminists raise about our practices, our decisions, and yes, our mistakes. This, I think, is one of the advantages age gives you: you have a sense of history, you have hindsight, you have a long trajectory on which you can look back and see what lessons it has to offer. Whether you learn from those lessons or not is another story.

Sometimes, sadly, the relationship between older and younger feminists—as between the old and the young anywhere—becomes contentious and fraught. There’s little point in denying that, and I often think back to the time when our mothers, women who were part of the nationalist movement, brought a different feminism with them, and how critical we were of it. Now, looking back, we realise how much their feminism was shaped by their time, just as ours is. I’m reminded of a book Zubaan recently published called The Feminisms of Our Mothers. It’s by young feminists in Pakistan, who look back at their mothers’ generation—sometimes with anger, sometimes critically and sometimes with love.


In fact, the young play a major role in keeping the old young, if one can put it like that. For the last several years, I have been teaching courses in feminism at different universities in Delhi and elsewhere. And the interaction with students, the challenges they put before you, those too help to keep you on your toes and keep away the arrogance that may sometimes come with age. Many of the ‘‘old’’ think they know it all, but truth to tell, we don’t.

Of course, neither do the young, but then that is another story.

One of the things that happens with age is that you start asking yourself different questions. Time, temporality: you become very aware of these, and you start asking yourself: do I have the time to do this, or should I be doing this at this stage? For example, I’ve always had a love of languages and I learnt some when I was young. But there are others I want to learn—Urdu, German, Spanish, Japanese—and I have to weigh the time that one or all of those will take in order to decide whether to do it or not.


Most of the time, decisions such as these are negative. When you’re young, putting off a decision to do something, travel somewhere, learn something, means you’re simply putting it off for a limited period and can and may return to it when you’re ready. When you’re old, you know you’re putting it off forever. The chances of returning to it are few because, well, because your time is limited.

Indeed, time comes to acquire a different meaning. When you know that the major part of your life has already been lived, you—assuming you have the luxury to do so—start to look at everything through that prism. As a single woman, living by myself, I look at the possessions I’ve amassed over the years and wonder why I did all that useless spending. People who don’t have money don’t have to think of these things, and that makes you aware of your own privilege. And to ask, whose task will it be to deal with the debris you leave behind?


There’s also a much sharper awareness of mortality. You can no longer pretend this isn’t going to happen, and that then influences much of what you want to do—run headlong into things and do everything that you’ve not done, or take it easy and let things take their pace.

Old age means different things for different people. I said earlier that inside I am still the same person. That is true, but I am older, sometimes my body tells me that and sometimes my mind, and at other times, it’s my students or my colleagues who remind me of that. No point denying it.


But what most people don’t acknowledge or believe until it is upon us is that age is inevitable and it can sometimes be beautiful and you can actually enjoy it. For me, when I look back on my life of 72 years, I cannot believe that I have had the good fortune to be able to do something that I love for so many years, that for me the personal, the political, and the professional, have meshed and overlapped in ways that not many are lucky enough to have. At 30, I wondered if such a life was possible; at 50, I was living it; at 72, I acknowledge the joy of having lived it.


(Views expressed are personal)

Urvashi Butalia is the founder of Zubaan Books

(This appeared in the print as 'An Experience To Cherish')