As a general rule, people who enter their late sixties or early seventies begin to entertain intimations of mortality. This does not necessarily presage a mindset devoted to gloom, doom and despondency. Unless, of course, one is an unfortunate victim of some crippling affliction. Such is not my saturnine state of mind. I am, by nature, a sunny optimist who believes in taking things as they come. Rather, I am speaking of people who start preparing a bucket list of things one must accomplish before one’s legs start wobbling, or one is unable to climb a single flight of stairs without puffing and panting. We all know that life expectancy the world over has increased manifold, and oftentimes, it is hard to tell a sixty-year-old from a seventy-year-old. Even those well into their eighties and nineties can generally be seen bouncing around in sprightly fashion. As some smart aleck said, ‘age is only a number.’ There’s even a strong rumour doing the rounds that medical research is on the cusp of finding an answer to achieving immortality – cross my heart and hope to die! Or, in the small-talk argot of my school days, ‘Put it in the Ripley’s Believe it or Not.’ Whether that is good news or bad news I am in no position to hazard an opinion. Not unlike the Cumaean Sibyl of Greek legend, who wished for eternal life without specifying eternal youth. Apparently, she lived and aged miserably for a thousand years!
The standard view amongst the elderly, for whom the bell tolls at some foreseeable future, as regards ‘things they must do before they meet their maker,’ could range from visits to global tourist spots like Venice, Florence or Paris, Wimbledon or Lord’s, the Grand Canyon (gorgeous, as one visitor punned) and other well-advertised wonders of the world. Many of us in India have not even seen half of our own country, if that. In that context there are those who pine for a visit to Varanasi, Kashi Vishwanath, Madurai Meenakshi temple and, of course, the Taj Mahal (if the Uttar Pradesh administration hasn’t derecognized it) and many other such alluring spots right here in Bharat Mata. Religious shrines are an obvious choice for salvation seekers. Still others detail their bucket list, not in terms of places to see but things to do. ‘I’ve always wanted to write a book but never got round to it,’ ‘I’ve always wanted to keep a Golden Retriever, high time I did it,’ ‘I’ve always wanted to sing all the compositions of The Beatles at home, even if my voice and I are about to croak.’ Etcetera. Dear reader, you can add your own list of items, be they places of interest to visit or creative things you always wanted to do but were too indolent to attempt.
That said, those are not the kind of dreamy, cliché-ridden objectives that I am talking about. My better half and I have had the good fortune to have travelled to most of the ‘places to see’ around the globe and in India, so I shan’t give up the ghost with regrets on that score. Having just entered my seventies, there are some pretty mundane things that I have been dying to do but have not been able to. Mark you, I am not saying I was not, for whatever reason, able to get round to doing these things. It’s more to do with the fact that I have not been actually, physically able to do them owing to some inherent lack on my part. This has been highly frustrating. Here is my strange list of things I would dearly like to do before I get the call. I also have grave doubts, grave being the operative word, if I will be able to get round to them. Nonetheless, here are ten things I would like to accomplish before the Pearly Gates open wide and invite me in as a life member.
Whistle with fingers in my mouth. You see these boisterous types at sports venues and rock concerts. When they get really excited about something, a brilliant passing shot or a helicopter swish for six or a diving goalmouth save, or for that matter, a mind-blowing guitar or drum solo, several raucous members in the audience can be seen inserting their thumbs and forefingers into the undersides of their tongues and letting fly with piercing, ear-splitting whistles. Others employ two forefingers with both their hands to achieve the same result. How on earth do they do this? It’s enviable. I have tried it more than a hundred times with nothing to show for it, but a pathetic wind exhalation. No sound and no fury, signifying nothing. Mind you, I can do the normal whistling with my lips O-shaped. Like Deborah Kerr in The King and I, I can ‘whistle a happy tune.’ Meanwhile I seek in vain to achieve the finger-and-tongue version of the rowdy whistle while my lungs are still in shipshape.
Raising just one eyebrow. ‘Holmes raised his left eyebrow, deeply suspicious, turned to his trusted aide and said, “There’s more to this than meets the eye, Watson.”’ Just to clarify, that quote is my own as I could not readily find a Sherlock Holmes novel with a reference to eyebrow-raising, but that is precisely the sort of thing Holmes would have done, as I have observed in many of the film adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels on the sleuth extraordinaire. That said, I have stood in front of a mirror innumerable times in a vain attempt to raise either my left or right eyebrow. Only for the mirror to mock from side to side with a ‘No way, José.’ The eyebrow raisers hide their secrets well. Every time I attempt this seemingly simple procedure, both my eyebrows shoot up at the same time, rendering the whole exercise null and void. It cramps my style, this disability, particularly when I elect to essay a cynical sneer and rubbish some idiot’s tall claim about his cricketing or some other prowess. It counts for nothing if those eyebrows remain a flatline. This is one instance where practice does not make perfect. Not by a long chalk. You are either a single eyebrow-raiser, or you are not. That’s all there is to it.
Touching your toes. With advancing age, stiff limbs and sudden muscle cramps go hand in hand, if not leg in leg if you get my drift. Your friendly physio prescribes a number of calisthenics, most of which I manage with a high degree of difficulty consistent with my age. However, the one exercise I simply have not been able to get a grip on, and this has nothing to do with age, is to touch my toes without flexing my knees. I could not manage it when I was a 7-year-old and I can’t at 70. The hands kind of go as far as the knee roll, and there they lodge a loud protest and refuse to travel any further. If you have watched Mr. Bean on screen, you will know what I mean. My physio urges me on. ‘Don’t worry,’ he says, full of encouragement. ‘Keep stretching bit by bit and before you know it, you will touch your big toe.’ I have tried this for 63 years and success continues to elude me. Guess I will just look on the bright side. My sunset years could produce a minor triumph. As the poet had it, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.’ So long as I am mindful of vertigo and a possible slipped disc.
Moving your neck from side to side. In case some of you are going, ‘What’s so difficult about that?’ let me hasten to add I am not referring to merely shaking your head sideways in order to indicate a refusal or a negative response. Here, I exclude the many Indians who have this strange habit of moving their heads sideways even when they think they are nodding in the affirmative. I am talking about what Indian classical dancers, Bharatanatyam exponents in particular, do so effortlessly. The head and the neck move from side to side independent of the rest of the body, which remains stock-still. The dancers pull off this complex physical manoeuvre quite effortlessly, like those hand-painted dancing dolls. Whenever I have attempted this in the privacy of my room, I end up looking like a man nursing a stiff neck and trying in vain to address the problem. This is due to the fact that I actually do develop a stiff neck thanks to my ill-advised misadventure. Another item on my bucket list that goes up the spout.
Climbing a rope. During my school days, compulsory visits to the gym involved, among other things, climbing a thick, long rope all the way up to the high ceiling. Many of my classmates did this effortlessly. My feeble attempts were the subject of much derision. Our Physical Training master, ‘Vincy’ Vincent, was scathing in his tongue-lashing. ‘What’s this you pipsqueak, my grandmother can climb that rope faster than you can fall off it. This is what comes of eating grass and not red meat. Go run round the field ten times.’ His crude reference to my vegetarianism was uncharitable, but I ran round the field. Three times, after which I needed attention. Why running round the field ten times would make me a better rope climber, I was unable to comprehend. This inability to climb a rope would have instantly disqualified me from joining the Army. Not that I ever applied, but I still have wistful regrets about not being able to climb that gym rope.
Catch a lizard and throw it out of the window. My wife and I suffer from a lizard phobia. Which is not a helpful thing to have in a tropical country. When we do come across one during the summer months, we perforce need to resort to third degree methods involving a repellant spray and a broomstick. Most unpleasant – for the lizard and for us. I mean, a cockroach you can just stamp on and that’s that – end of. Lizards are devious and possessed of an amazing survival instinct. When they sense danger, they actually detach their tail from the parent body – to trick us! What I have always wished for is to be able to just pick the little reptile up with my thumb and forefinger and throw it out of the nearest window. Clean, no fuss, the lizard will land safely on its remarkably adhesive feet, to infest somebody else’s home, and my conscience is clear. However, this will remain an unfulfilled wish. We are now, under expert mumbo-jumbo advice, placing empty eggshells in different corners of the house. Apparently, for unfathomable reasons, the lizzies can’t stand the sight or smell of eggshells. All I can say is, ‘watch this space.’
Read War and Peace from cover to cover. War and Peace is not the longest novel ever written, but clocking in at close to 1300 pages, it is long enough for me. I am a slow reader. My ambition to read this book in toto has invariably come a cropper. After about 250 pages, Tolstoy has lost me completely. All that stuff about Napoleon trudging through snow and ice during his ill-advised Russian campaign runs to hundreds of pages, when I decide to throw in the towel (like Napoleon) less than half way through. One of these days I’ll grit my teeth and get right down to it. If someone finds me in a moribund state with War and Peace lying half opened on my chest, kindly note down the page number for posterity and a clever epitaph. A quick afterthought. Experts say Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past is thelongest novel on record, boasting over 4200 pages. Even if it was serialized, it would take me three lifetimes to complete, and I am unlikely to ‘remembrance’ anything ‘of things past.’ I am giving it a miss.
Run the 100 metres inside 40 seconds. Forget about Usain Bolt, who breasted the tape at 9.58 seconds, creating a world record for the short sprint that still stands. ‘What’s the big hurry, Usain?’ that’s what I’d like to know. I mean, did he have a plane to catch? Were his creditors chasing him? Was he worried that he would miss the opening sequence of The Godfather Part 4? By the way, what’s with the triumphant bow and arrow pose, Usain? (even small-time Indian cricket heroes like Hardik Pandya are copying you). It’s this unseemly haste to do things in the proverbial blink of an eye that I am at a loss to fathom. Bolt by name – he certainly bolted, ahead of everyone else. Me, I am practicing hard to complete the 100 metres sprint at a leisurely clip of around 40 seconds, give or take, at the next veterans’ athletic meet in our neighborhood. And my warning shot to all my septuagenarian rivals is, ‘Just marvel at my clean pair of heels.’
Pressing my own shirt. The dhobi outside my gates does it, my driver does it, and my wife does it better than both of them. Why does ironing a shirt present so many problems for me? The buttons get in the way, the collar never quite sits the way I want it, the pocket acquires more creases than I had intended, and in the end, my shirt looks like something the cat reluctantly brought in. And don’t even get me started on folding the ironed shirt. At which point the good lady wife snatches it away from me to undo the damage. Provided I haven’t already burned a nice, round hole at the back. Should I persist or give it up as a lost cause? That is the question.
Remembering that third point. I don’t know about you, but whenever I have been called upon to make an impromptu speech at some informal gathering, I usually start off by saying, ‘I have three points to make.’ I have no earthly idea why I say this. I think it is some kind of reflex action. I’ve seen many practiced speakers do the exact same thing. The problem is, I can never remember the third point, if indeed there was a third point. Somehow just two points seem weak, so I get stuck with having to make three points, which involves making something up on the spur of the moment, which is dashed difficult. I have therefore resolved to commit to memory, irrespective of the subject on which I may be called upon to hold forth, some inconsequential third point, a catch-all joke perhaps, which will save me the blushes. Not exactly an earth-shattering item for a bucket list, but the problem was I had headlined this piece, ‘Ten things to do before I snuff it,’ and I couldn’t, for the life of me, remember the tenth thing. So there!
I have also entertained fleeting thoughts of winning a Grand Slam title, not fussy about which one but Wimbledon would have been nice. However, since The Big Three show no signs of letting up, I have had second thoughts and dunked the idea – discretion being the better part of valour.
Echoing Hamlet’s sentiments, these are consummations devoutly to be wished. As a parting shot, if you haven’t already, watch Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman in The Bucket List. If it’s the last thing you do!