Friday, 28 October 2016

Birthday Thoughts

Today, on my birthday, I’m thinking of my ancestors.

I am, actually, not particularly interested in genealogy, and I only know my family about five generations back. Beyond that, there are only family legends, and I place no faith in legends.

Still, I am thinking of my ancestors. Not any particular ancestor, just a line of shadowy figures stretching into the distant past.

What might they have thought of me?

I can say that to them I would seem to be a strange creature. I am now 46 years old. By my own standards I am middle aged, and I am probably the physically fittest I have been in my life. But to them I would be very old; until very recently, living to the age of sixty was considered to be such a feat to most Indians that “may you live sixty years” was a blessing. I am also the only child of my parents, something so astonishing that even when I was in college in the 1990s I was asked by my classmates why my parents hadn’t bred other kids – what if something happened to me?

On top of that, I am not only childless by choice, I am equally by choice the last of the direct line. Why I have done this I’ve explained elsewhere, in response to this article:

I am not a "millennial", whatever the hell that is, but I, as with many of the people quoted in this article:

1. Have zero parental instincts. None whatsoever. 2. Don't like children. That's right, I totally do not like children. 3. Have better things to do with my limited time than breed. 4. Have better things to do with my limited finances than breed. 5. Don't give a tenth of a damn what "society" -that meaningless word - thinks I should do with my genes.  6. Think anyone who brings a child into today's polluted, overpopulated, dying world is a monster of depravity.

And also:

7. I'm not interested in creating a genetically obtained lifetime slave to "take care of me in my old age", the standard argument of Indians.

Besides which:

I have a rich genetic heritage of:

1. Diabetes mellitus, which as yet I do not have.  2. Hypertension, which as yet I do not have.  3. Myopia, which I have. 4. Incurable, progressive bilateral sensory neuron deafness, which I have.  5. Obesity, which I had and which I have to work out an hour every day and stay off anything remotely tasty so as not to ever have again. 

And I also have

6. Bipolar disorder, owing to which I'm a suicide survivor and have to live on literally one day at a time.

And I'm supposed to be "selfish" for not inflicting all that baggage for a lifetime on some innocent kid just to satisfy some kind of "social expectation"?

Screw that. 

This would have all gone light years over the heads of those worthies who had passed on their genes, one to another, all of which had culminated in me. Not one of them would have failed to blink in confusion if asked the simple question, “Why do you want a child?” It was simply beyond their mental processes to examine the idea of why. They bred because of the same reasons as they got married, the same reasons as they took to whatever line of employment they did...because they were expected to, because that was preordained from the moment they were born. They never paused to wonder if they perhaps had a choice in the matter.

One of the stories from my father’s youth, I only got to know when I was in my late teens. My father was an electrical engineer, but he was never happy in the job, at which he was a consistent failure. He’d always wanted to be a doctor, and even in his old age would sometimes sigh with regret that he’d never got to study medicine. I finally was told by my grandmother that my father had actually applied for admission to both medical and engineering colleges, and had been waiting for information on whether he’d been selected. This was back in the 1950s, long before the era of competitive examinations. Anyway, it was his grandmother – my grandma’s mum-in-law – who decreed that whichever college accepted him first, he’d join that course of study. As it happened, the engineering college sent in its acceptance letter. The very day my father left home for the engineering college – in fact, within minutes of him leaving, while he was still near home – the letter of acceptance from the medical college arrived.

So what did my father’s family do? Though they knew quite well that he wanted to study medicine, did they call him back? Did they at least even discuss what to do? Of course not. They shrugged, threw the acceptance letter in the trash, and so totally ignored its existence that my father himself only found out many years later how close he’d come to becoming a doctor. And none of them cared about it, because the matriarch had decreed what was to happen, so it was up to them all to obey.

I wonder what these people, with their mindset, would have thought of me now.

I think they’d probably have taken me for an alien. In many ways, my generation of my family, which grew up in the 1970s and 80s, are aliens. Though we might live in the same places, even in the same houses, we’re psychologically and emotionally of a different species. I doubt my ancestors would have recognised us now.

Most of us in my generation are childless. Most of us are unmarried. Most of us have no intention of passing on our genes. Most of us are fine with that too.

It’s, of course, not just we who have changed. Let me give you an example.

My grandmother – the same father’s mother I’d mentioned – was married at the age of 12 to a man who was over twice her age...and was mocked by her sisters-in-law for being an “old woman” for being married so late. She was also exceptional for actually having some education, being not only able to read and write but actually having completed six years of formal education. She even taught herself the English alphabet. How she did this was a story in itself. She used to sit outside the room in which her brothers were being taught their ABCs and would eavesdrop, and with a piece of coal scrawl out the alphabet on the back of an old shovel. One day her brother – whom I later got to meet several times – caught her at this. That very day he went out and bought her a notebook, and taught her how to do it properly.

That was my grandmother – mostly self-educated, married at twelve, mother to as many as eleven children – and, though by instincts a total liberal in the best sense of the word, a complete product of her age. As far as social rebellion went, she never had an impulse towards that in her life. She told me that it was expected for women of her time to be barefoot in the presence of the older men of the family. If a woman happened to see, for example, her husband’s elder brother while she was wearing shoes, she’d have to take them off and carry them until she was past him. She would also have to pull the hem of her sari low over her face to hide her features in the presence of men, a form of burqa, and a much more inefficient one than the straightforward Muslim version. And, of course, it would be inconceivable for her to get a job of her own or do any kind of remunerative work whatsoever.

All of this – marriage as a child, subservience to the men of the family, breeding like a machine – disappeared in the course of just two generations, and it had nothing whatsoever to do with legislation. The legislation passed by successive governments has been, actually, spectacularly ineffective and even counterproductive. What worked was social change over the years, which led the granddaughters of semiliterate child brides to be independent career women openly living with their boyfriends and who would only consider having children if they really wanted to.  

I have this mental image of one of my distant progenitors, say three hundred years ago. Let’s call him Shanand Ram (this was actually the name of one of my putative ancestors). He would probably have been an old man by the age of forty, and a grandfather by then several times over. What might he have thought of me, today, on my 46th birthday?

I don’t know, but I think he would have been bemused more than anything. I don’t think he could have begun to understand just how vast a space there is now between him and me, in mindset and experience, and how different life is for us. If I could meet him, I wonder what we might have talked about, and what he would have to say.

Well, at least there won’t be anyone in a few hundred years wondering the same thing about me.

That’s a happy thought for today.