Shobhaa De, voted by Reader’s Digest as one of ‘India’s Most Trusted People’ and one of the ’50 Most Powerful Women in India’ by Daily News and Analysis, is one of India’s highest-selling authors and a popular social commentator. Her new book, Seventy and to Hell with it!, looks back on the terrain of her life. Especially at relationships-hers and those she has observed over the years-and at ever-present fears and grief.
Here’s an excerpt from this fun, entertaining and unputdownable book.
Nails. Would you believe it? Everything comes down to nails. Toenails. I am writing this soon after celebrating my sixty-seventh birthday with the family. As always, they had made it extraordinarily special for me. I felt a little guilty. Poor children and considerate husband—how much longer will they have to keep coming up with birthday surprises for me? Thoughtful, hand-picked gifts, sweet notes, an unexplored venue, candles and flowers. Year after year, my family has taken enormous trouble to make my birthday amazing— to make me feel amazing. This year, perhaps for the first time, I asked myself—do I deserve their love? The question depressed me. I came home in an uncharacteristically pensive mood. The mellow white wine we had consumed contributed to the introspection. Don’t get soppy and sentimental, I told myself. Don’t feel martyred. Feel happy, not guilty. Rejoice. Sixty-seven today, sixty-eight next year, sixty-nine the year after, seventy after that, life goes on.
The next morning, for the first time in my life, as I bent over to clip my toenails, I recoiled in shock. Those couldn’t possibly belong to me. These were the toenails of a really old person! I reached for my reading glasses and looked closely. My toenails had aged. Which meant the rest of me had aged too. But this drastically? Toenails never lie. Look at your own. Check what they are saying. Toenails tell you the sort of bald truths your face doesn’t. Perhaps it has something to do with being taken for granted. I had never thought about my toenails till that defining moment, the morning after my birthday. It was as if I was looking at them for the very first time in my life. And at that precise moment, I felt like I was staring at my mother’s feet. Those were her toenails when she was in her seventies.
It’s not about pedicures or caring enough for your feet. Nails cannot be fooled or pampered. Those damn toenails remind you to take a clear-eyed look at yourself—other body parts that are giving up, slowly but surely. Like the ropelike veins on the back of your hands, the loose skin under your chin and so many other telltale signs of physical deterioration. Since that day, I have started to examine my toenails every morning after my bath. I have scrupulously applied foot cream for years, but mechanically, without paying the slightest attention to the nails. Now that the toenails have become my main focus, I examine them somewhat obsessively. My toenails have started talking to me!
Old people’s nails thicken and are exceedingly hard to clip. They also get discoloured and ridged on the surface. By this point, chances of the toes getting misshapen are pretty high. Feet tend to flatten and broaden with advancing years. When that happens, toenails become brittle and crack vertically, which is very painful. The surrounding skin gets sore, leading to ingrown nails. Jagged edges appear, and get caught in bedclothes. You wake up in the middle of the night wincing in pain. It’s dark. You can’t find your spectacles. You grope on the bedside table, knock over a water jug. Switch on the light. Forget where you’ve stored the nail clipper. Wake up the husband and ask for help. The toenail-fixing operation gets under way. With eyes full of sleep, you nick yourself. There’s blood on the bed sheets. You need ice. You stagger to the kitchen. Wake up the dog. Wake up others. Slip on something squishy. Keel over. Fall. But not badly. Your old training as a sportsperson helps you break the fall. But there will be a bruise tomorrow morning. Ice cubes in hand, you make it back to the bedroom in one piece. Dawn is breaking. And your toenail still hasn’t been fixed. You finally feel old. Yes, old!
It took my toenails to remind me of my biological age. In my head and heart, I am stuck at thirty-four—possibly the best year of my life. That was a long time ago. But so what? What a year it was, tumultuous and life-altering. I decide there and then that no matter what my toenails are telling me, I will treat them as toenails, not as time bombs ticking away, warning me to be cautious, slow down, retire, find my inner calm, change. Sixty-seven is not all that terrible an age to be. If I continue to feel thirty-four, it doesn’t really matter.
That unexpected encounter with the toenails brought me face-to-face with the sixty-seven-year-old me. And forced me to shift my gaze upwards and look more closely into the mirror. All of a sudden, I took note of the deepening lines around the mouth, the additional crow’s feet at the corners of my eyes. The extra strands of grey framing my face, the slackening of the skin on the neck, the slight discoloration of the lips. My reflection was a revelation. How had I not noticed these changes earlier? Had I not looked hard enough? That’s not possible. I am as vain as the next person. I had looked but I hadn’t seen. Such a big difference between looking and seeing. Just as I was fretting over a deep furrow between the brows, I happened to catch a glimpse of my ears. Here’s a confession: I like my ears. And to my great satisfaction and utter relief, the ears looked just the same. The ears could have belonged to a thirty-four-year-old. And that was my big thrill. Why focus on the negatives (discoloured toenails) when there are positives (pretty ears) to cheer you up?
It’s important to be realistic and self-critical in life. But it’s equally important to remain upbeat and positive about the inevitable. Age is one of them. From now on, it’s going to be ears over toenails.
I am not going to put on a fake jaunty attitude and declare: Seventy is the new fifty! Because seventy is seventy. And no matter how ‘young’ you feel, you can neither look it nor hack it as anyone but a (hopefully) well-preserved septuagenarian. Life definitely does not begin at seventy—but neither does it have to end. I don’t believe in milestones. Hitting seventy is not an achievement. And it is certainly not a milestone. It is merely a biological fact of life. I have survived my seventh decade. That’s about all it says to me.