What is it about Indians that we are never ready or willing to retire?
Over the last few decades, politics has become a young man’s game in the West. Tony Blair was 43 when he became Prime Minister of Britain. Bill Clinton was marginally older at 46 when he was inaugurated as President of the United States of America. Barack Obama, the next Democratic President of the US was 47 when he was sworn in. David Cameron was 43 when he took over as Prime Minister of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in the UK.
Small wonder then, that some doubts have been expressed about whether Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner at the next Presidential poll, is past the age of being a player. She will be 69 in 2016, and if she wins two terms, she will be 77 by the time she is ready to retire. And that, say political observers, is simply too old.
Contrast this with Indian politics. Our two-time Prime Minister Manmohan Singh turns 81 this September, so you could be forgiven for thinking that retirement would be on his mind. Not a bit of it. As he recently declared in one of his all-too-rare interactions with the press, he is not ready to call it a day quite yet. If the UPA won the next General Election, he would be happy to serve under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi.
But why blame Manmohan Singh alone? At a venerable 86 this November, L.K. Advani is still not ready to walk into the sunset. Having suffered from the ‘always the bridesmaid, never the bride’ syndrome through his last few decades in politics, Advani wants one last chance to walk down the aisle as the main attraction. And even though the BJP has announced Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate, Advani persists in hanging around the fringes just in case opportunity for that final fling at power presents itself.
Yes, I know that attitudes to age – and the respect accorded to it – are very different in India than they are in the West. There, they equate youth with vigour and value it accordingly. Here, we see an equivalence between age and wisdom and venerate both. But even so, nursing political ambitions at the grand old age of 80+ is beginning to seem a little absurd to most of us.
But the more I think about it, it seems to me that this is not just about politics in particular but about our character in general. There seems to be something about the Indian psyche that just cannot contemplate the thought of retirement.
Take our cricket stars, for instance. None of them wants to go out in a blaze of glory. Instead, they stick around as the magic fizzles out bit by bit and there’s nothing left but sheer weariness as we see them hovering at the edges, mere shadows of the stars they once were. Yes, I know, you’re thinking of Sourav Ganguly, who took years to retire: first from one-day cricket, then Test cricket, then first class cricket and finally the IPL (I am a bit hazy on the details; it all took so, so long). But even the great Sachin Tendulkar is playing to much the same strategy, rolling out his retirement plan in slow motion, as everyone speculates as to whether his 200th Test will actually be his last.
If Sachin or even Sourav had been Australian, they would have retired at the peak of their game, not when their fans were getting piqued by their lack of performance. Adam Gilchrist retired from Test cricket when he was still on top form. Ricky Ponting said goodbye to his Test career the moment his performance started flagging. But not so our Indian stars. They hold on for dear mercy, squeezing in one more series, one more tournament, one more endorsement deal…
Movie stars are no different, really. I am not suggesting that they need to retire from acting as they age, but surely it is not too much to ask that they recuse themselves from playing the young, romantic lead – especially when the girls they are harassing into submission could pass off as their daughters? But no, the audience is expected to suspend its disbelief as 40-something actors try and pass themselves off as college kids.
So, what accounts for this peculiarly Indian disinclination to move on? Why do our politicians, our movie stars, our cricketing superheroes, all cling on for dear life, having to be dragged away from centre-stage kicking and screaming?
I have to confess that I am baffled. This is the country that gave us the concept of four stages of human life. Brahmacharya: when a man leaves home to be educated and leads a celibate life. Grihasta: when he marries, starts a family and assumes his worldly responsibilities in the world of Maya (illusion). Vanaspratha: when he renounces the world to live like a hermit. And finally Sanyasa: when he concentrates on spiritual matters in an attempt to attain Moksha (freedom from the cycle of rebirth).
Alas, in the India of today, nobody is willing to let go. And Maya trumps Moksha every time.