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January 19, 2016

New Beginnings and Second Chances

Text by Madhu Jain. Illustration by Hemant Sapre

As the new year edges out the old, Madhu Jain allows her thoughts to wander on the passing of time, the midlife blues and what she would wish for the future of the world

Spring is not even around the corner. But when the year which has lived its last day heads towards the exit to make way for the year about to be born, thoughts turn to fresh beginnings and second chances. The image of new buds pushing their way up and out, while old ones wither away, comes to mind. The visual equivalent of the new edging out the old is conflated in our imagination: a frail old man, weighed down by his flowing, white beard and in fade-out mood, with a cherubic baby who is all set to occupy centre stage.

It could be a frightening image for those well past midlife. When the clock of time’s ticking gets deafeningly louder and the sand empties out into the bottom half of the hourglass, without any prospect of turning it around so that the top half is full again — speaking metaphorically of life, that is. Sadly, midlife blues now set in much earlier. Men in their late 40s and early 50s would often succumb to a midlife crisis, during much of the last century. These days, it strikes those in their early 30s, or even younger. Burnouts, ennui, stress and thwarted ambitions play their role. Nor are women immune from this malaise of modern times.

For the young, Time, or its perpetual motion, can also be cruel. Even teenagers now fear the turn of the calendar pages and the passing of a year. Youth has become an increasingly slippery and even more intensely desired commodity. I have heard 16-year-olds lament the passage of time. It makes you wonder if the notion of ‘sweet 16’ has become archaic.

Time, the enemy
Youth and beauty have been given far too much importance in this millennium: the dictates of how you should look and feel come from the world of fashion, the citadels of popular culture and the all-important universe of social media. Bulimia, anorexia, depression — these are a few of the contemporary maladies triggered by an obsessive concern with body image, and by the perceived need to conform to the unreal standards set by fashion pundits and Bollywood starlets of both genders.

The future appears to be nibbling into and encroaching on the present, not allowing it to take its time and come to fruition — gobbling time as it were. As it is, childhood is shrinking as the adult world invades it earlier and earlier. Menarche has advanced its arrival and with it, the onset of puberty. Moreover, the digital world is rapidly replacing childhood fantasies and those precious days of wonder. Understandably, children feel vulnerable, and adolescents scrutinise their mirrors for signs of embryonic wrinkles and laugh lines. Time has become, for many, an enemy to be fought with and restrained.

Delhi winters now have its denizens suspended in a kind of miasma. Actually, make that a dense pea soup, with the pollution and resultant smog thickening and dirtying the atmosphere over the city. So, it is next to impossible to peer into the future and see what 2016 holds for us. However, introspection becomes that much easier. You tend to stay home more, opting not to venture out into the smog-covered city: the frenzied wedding season, with thousands of marriages each day, almost brings the city to a grinding halt, due to the massive traffic jams.

For me, at this juncture in life, when spring has long gone and autumn is settling in, the turn of the year can only promise second chances and renewal. Fresh starts might now be beyond the pale — as would the brashness and the risk-taking of youth. Coming of age might lead you down exciting paths seldom trodden. But age and the later stages in life happily provide rich compensations and rewards of, perhaps, a more meaningful kind. We are given the opportunity to redo, renegotiate, and perhaps to start again — without the need to be upstarts. Poetry, as the English writer William Wordsworth wrote, ‘takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity’. Think ‘fireside with a glass of cognac’.

Creative journeys
The French painter Henri Matisse, it is said, renovated rather than innovated. Old age enabled him, as it undoubtedly did many artists and writers, to take an inventory of his life and work. Looking back made it possible to stet what was good and still held meaning for them. They could also reject theories and the practices of the past that held them captive to their dictates. Finally free to find their own compasses to help navigate their creative journeys. Perhaps, the freedom that age offers gave them the courage to ignore the critic’s pen — and follow their own voices and impulses.

For us ordinary mortals, the need to be in sync with the rest of society, one which appears to be in a tearing hurry to reach goals set by others, may not be as imperative. We can offload the baggage of the past that might have been holding us back: past grudges, old enmities (whose origins we have forgotten), thwarted dreams and disappointments. And, most importantly, acquire the courage to face and regret what peer and social pressures had made us do in order to start anew.

So, as we replace the 2015 calendar with the 2016 one, we might also think about the attributes we want to acquire or strengthen in the coming year. For me, grace and empathy would top the list. We seem to have abandoned both, especially in our interactions with others. I also wish we would turn down the volume. We have become a shrieking race: on television, on the road, at home.

And lastly, if only we could be kinder to our planet, not pollute it and work towards restoring the balance.

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