Our attempts to make sense of life invariably come to an impasse when we are confronted with the passage of time. The idea of infinite, eternal time is meaningless for the most part to our severely restricted — shall we say mammalian? — imagination. If it weren't for certain arbitrary external markers, like the course of the sun, change of seasons and the hands of a watch, time is something we would never even notice.
Well, actually we would. But time, shorn of all its points of reference, would then become for us an intensely personal presence: only felt within our ageing bodies, and perceived by others through what Yeats once so beautifully called "the sorrows of your changing face".
Ageing does indeed change everything. An average cell that forms a human body, the scientific community has declared, is no more than seven to 10 years old. This implies that every decade or so, we physically metamorphose into someone entirely different, and equally significant is our intellectual refashioning. If the concept holds true, I myself have undergone this process of renewal — which paradoxically has made me older — thrice over as I approach the fourth decade of my life this year.
It feels dramatic, this moment of transition. And as I slowly move towards it, one day at a time, I am beginning to perceive the outlines of the portal that will transport me into my 30s; and the signboard above reads, in boldface, "The End of Youth".
Turning 20 doesn't have the same emotional edge to it as at that age one is still considered a "young adult", no different from a 19-year-old. 40 is slightly trickier, but then you would have already spent the last 10 years facing the sickening prospect of middle-age; and having come to terms with it, you'd have made the shock more than bearable. It's turning 30 that takes you by surprise with its suddenness; when the rug of youth, with all its attendant privileges, is pulled from right under your feet. So this is when you begin to really contend with the growing strands of grey in your hair, your failing eyesight and your changing face.
I only recently realised, after reading an eloquent article on the subject in n+1 magazine, that I belong to a generational group known as the millennials. This bracket, also identified as "Generation Y", is supposed to include everyone born between 1982 and 2004, and has been the centre of attraction for advertisers and purveyors of popular culture for years. The baby boomers are now hated as much as the millenials are exalted. "But millenials," write the n+1 editors, "grew up not self-making but defined and redefined by people several decades older." The definers and re-definers are, of course, marketing executives aiming to hard sell junk to those who fall between the ages of 18 and 29. And once you cross this last figure, you turn into a demographic non-entity for them — a sinning soul cast inside an existential limbo.
From a more subjective standpoint, 29 is a funny age that has the potential of either making your life or, if only temporarily, breaking it. It can drive you to what the psychiatrists now call a "quarter-life crisis". The internet teems with advice on how to cope with this daunting landmark. An article, titled "What People Should Stop Doing When They Turn 30", warns against "thinking about your past failures" and exhorts us to "stop posting silly things on Facebook". Another one called "29 Reasons Why 29 is the Weirdest Age Ever" claims that this is the point where we realise, with a pang of horror, that we are "turning into our parents".
From a more subjective standpoint, 29 is a funny age that has the potential of either making your life or, if only temporarily, breaking it. It can drive you to what the psychiatrists now call a “quarter-life crisis”.
Some more refined examples of such crises, where self-inflicted suffering engenders high accomplishment, can also be found in history. The Buddha was 29 when he became a wandering sramana, abandoning his wife, kid and a life full of riches in his bid to seek enlightenment. Flaubert began writing Madame Bovary when he was 29, and Kafka The Metamorphosis.
But one writer most preoccupied with the subject of lost youth was the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, whose novel in verse Eugene Onegin is perhaps the greatest work of art to sum up the experience of ageing. I didn't know this when I picked up the book a few months ago, and began reading it over the course of five days in almost complete seclusion. I shut myself in my room and, sitting cross-legged on my bed, read the verses out loud, as though reciting some sacred text.
"The years of youth give way to caution, / slowing the soul's impetuous pace." These words by Pushkin (translated by Stanley Mitchell) seemed to me to be profoundly, acutely true. They resonated with my immediate experience then, as they do now. How well they capture the two essential qualities of youth — recklessness and impetuosity. And by extrapolation, we realise, as Pushkin did, that becoming old is less about wisdom than it is about caution, although wisdom can be striven for, and caution can prove a worthy ally during our middle years.
I for one do not feel a crisis building up within me, even if I am keenly aware of having lived through a substantial stretch of time. As one of the online articles on turning 30 puts it: "You realise you will have been alive for three full decades: Three. Full. Decades." That hits you with some force. But I get reassured finding the present ever-so-slightly better than the past, and the past itself not as bad as it then seemed. The thing with wisdom is that it's often retrospective. That's why I am more lenient towards, and understanding of, my teenage years now: now that I spend less time before a mirror than with a book, and post a negligible number of silly things on Facebook. So, I assume, turning 30 will have its advantages, but perhaps I need another decade or so — I need to turn 40 — before I am able to fully appreciate having lived through my 30s.