Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh
The anthology of this essay is about old-age that showcases the author. In this 21st century, more and more people are living in good health and financially secure as a trademark of society’s great achievements. For many old people, their sense of engagement in society has not faded one iota and society’s valuation under the old rating system is considered inaccurate. The contemporary idea of old-age is an important ancillary to Manipur’s history in which old people taught the young how to be.
Ageing is something we all face if we live long enough. Old people need to be socially connected. Since the 90s the elderly have been seeking to engage themselves with young people. The way to look at old people is to remember that they are the pillars without whom the young people would not be here. And they themselves will be old one day. “To make a success of it, you’ve got to start young” (Theodore Roosevelt, American president).
Old age is magnificent. You’ve got to be lucky to be old and to know that old age is not what you are, but how old you feel. The only way to get old is to live a long life. Society and family make you feel old. When you’ve reached the retirement age of 65, you are forced to be old, even before any substantial physical and mental decline. As a result, the elderly people, wittily withdraw themselves behind their old-age. Their alter-egos have to be redesigned before their minds falter and their bodies give out.
As many people now are old and live in good health, they have different expectations from the society that is filled with younger people. The prospect will become larger as more people will live longer. What has been accepted as second-class citizens in previous generations will have to stop.
Old-age is a band of life. It’s not Armageddon at 80. Rupert Murdoch, the billionaire media mogul (87) married ex-model millionaire Jerry Hall (61) in 2016.
Ripe old-age shows a weathered and kind face that has endured the trials and tribulations of life. It’s not always a period of gloom and doom. Old people who stay intellectually active are healthier and can benefit young people from their life experiences. Old-age is just wonderful. “First you are young; then middle-aged; then you are old; then you are wonderful”, Lady Diana Cooper, English socialite.
With creative freedom, I regard old-age as an enduring stage within the parameters of a settled system. Old-age has value despite society’s uncomfortable judgement. It’s like the Manipuri flower chnini champra, or hari champa in Hindi (Artabotrys hexapetalous), which Meiteis, for ages had kept under the pillow in bed. Its fruity pleasant fragrance enhances with time as its initial green colour of six petals turns yellow. Old-age, is by turns, funny and exciting. It’s funny because once you retire and join the old-age spectrum, you have lost all that you have achieved in your life time. Old-age is exciting as it tries to contend with the Marxist-style young people with the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, and their own Freudian ego and Id.
Old-age comes to everybody. Back in the 50s-60s, the good looks of the legendary Bollywood star Dev Anand captivated both girls and boys. At the time he died in 2010, at the age of 88, from heart attack at London’s Mayfair Washington Hotel, his lived-in face showed every mark of ageing. But it still exerted radiance. I knew him personally. It was a bit downbeat for me, as the 4-star hotel at £150/day, cramped his style. (cf. 5-star The Oberoi Grand Hotel in Kolkata, at £150/day, or The Taj Lake Palace Hotel, the most romantic hotel in the world at Udaipur, at £300/day. My experience with these hotels In India is only that, the check-out bills are always a shock, about two-foot long, with all the extra taxes added.
Because everything is now available on the internet, I recently saw the images of old Bollywood heart throbs, Shyama who sang all my old favourite songs, and Nimmi of Raj Kapoor’s Barsat, in their “Guptagoo” (chit-chat). First, I was gobsmacked at how old-age could cause havoc on their faces, like crumbling chrysanthemums that symbolise unrequited love. In a few flitting seconds however, I had only the fascinating glimpses of their young faces that once carried a whiff of incense.
Every morning when I first get out of bed, my old-age begins to lament, with my wobbly knees that are unwilling to stand up straight, as mitochondria (power houses) in the cells of muscles, slowly decline in number and vigour. I’m invariably, reminded of my lost youth, as my get-up-and-go has gone until the night in bed, when my youth returns as I think of the places my getup has been.
I often wonder at the speed of time passing, and at the twist of happenstance that dictates the direction of my mature life. I hardly ever look at my ancient face in the mirror, fearing awkward self-consciousness, except when I brush the few strands of hair which still stay loyal to me.
Age-related hearing-loss is due to a defect of sound waves being turned into electrical signals, mostly due to death of hair-like cells. There are many associated factors though the exact mechanism is unknown. Modern studies show associated reduced volume of the brain. The hardening and narrowing of the blood vessels that supply blood to the cochlea in the inner ear may contribute. It may be hereditary. In our Irengbam family, my father who died at 96 wasn’t deaf.
Hearing-loss, generally bilateral, begins over the age of 55. It’s of two types: (1) loss of intensity of sound that a person can hear, measured in decibels (dB), and (2) pitch (frequency) measured in Hertz (hZ). Normal hearing ranges from 0-20 dB, or 20-20,000 hZ. The quietest sound you hear is of 0 db (like leaves rustling in the distance) and the loudest 120 db (like standing next to the engine of a jet aircraft).
Human ears, like those of about 4,500 different species of living mammals, consist of three sections: outer ear (external ear), middle ear and inner ear. The external ear consists of pinna leading to the ear canal. It’s like the television disc that gathers sound waves and channel them on to the ear drum (tympanic membrane). It’s also responsible for distinguishing between sounds originating in front or behind the head. Some animals have mobile pinna (donkey, cat), which is used to amplify sound coming from a particular direction, at the expense of other sounds.
The middle ear has three tiny bones known as ossicles: malleus, incus, and stapes. They are Latin names for hammer, anvil, and stirrup, according to their shapes. These bones evolved from the jaw bones of reptile ancestors, such as snakes and crocodiles, which in turn, evolved from fish 315 million years ago. These bones mechanically convert the vibrations from the eardrum into waves in the fluid of the cochlea in the inner ear. Fish have ears but can’t hear very well.
The inner ear contains cochlea that’s filled up with a fluid, and rolled up like a snail (cochlea = snail in Greek). It also contains vestibule, lying over the cochlea, responsible for balance. The fluid in the cochlea receives sound waves from the air through the ossicles in the middle ear, as vibrations from the tympanic membrane. These vibrations are transmitted to the ‘basilar membrane’, and then to the tiny hair-like cells in the cochlea, which convert them by action potential into electrical impulses along the auditory nerve to the hearing centre in the brain for interpretation.
The middle ear has muscles that protect our ears form our own loud sounds. Just as we are about to speak, the brain sends signals to these muscles to contract. This also makes it possible to hear other people speak while we are talking. The basilar membrane, by changing its amplitude of vibrations, enables us to differentiate between high and low tones.
The process of hearing has evolved over billions of years. The evolution of human and other mammalian ears is so perfect that we communicate with each other without shouting. The ability of evolution by natural selection, by shifting the function of bones, over hundreds of millions of years, had transformed the human ear as one of the most specialised part of human organs. Humans evolved from the ancient jawless fish, known as Agnathans, whose gill arches evolved into human ears. The modern-day lamprey in the Pacific, is their descendant. It has a circular arrangement of teeth rather than a jaw. This eel-like and most hideous-looking fish is parasitic. They latch on to bigger fish and others, and suck their blood and scales. It’s a French delicacy.
There are still animals today that use different forms of these same three bones for ‘hearing purposes’. The modern crocodile eg. uses small receptors in its jaw bones to detect sound, connected to its brain via nerve fibres. Likewise, snakes don’t hear sounds, but they have vestiges of the apparatus of hearing in their heads that receive low-frequency airborne vibrations through sensors attached to their jawbones. Snakes (cobras) can’t hear snake charmer’s music. They move their heads following the charmer’s instrument.
The writer is based in the UK