23 December 2022

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

About thirty years ago one of the Sinhala newspapers, probably the Divaina, published a letter to the editor titled, if I remember right, ‘vayasata noyana tharunayo (young people who never grow old).’ The writer didn’t mention his age; he just related a story.

Apparently, he had observed some young boys teasing an old man, calling him ‘Chaminda,’ the derogatory term in currency at that time. The title says it all and therefore I need not elaborate.

Chinthana Dharmadasa offered an interesting comment about this kind of ageism recently. It’s worth quoting in full:

‘One of the trends generated by the Aragalaya is the notion that old people are incompetent. It became trendy and normal to use the word “mynah” to refer to old people as it was to subject to discrimination the elderly. And yet the strategies employed by those over 70 tripped the youth at every turn. They had no idea about what could happen until Ranil, who is over 70 and was spending his time watching Netflix, became the President. Whereas the younger parliamentarians ought to have wrested power, in the end it was the designs of old men that prevailed. The youth didn’t seem to have an iota of the brains that the old people had. All they knew was to carry placards, participate in marches and flee when tear gas was fired on them. In short they didn’t even know on whose behalf they were holding up these placards. Isn’t it proof of their naïveté that even though all this is clearly evident they still continue to vilify old people?’

It’s harsh. The ‘old men’ aren’t exactly saints even though in this instance they bested the youth. Old people in their youth may have similarly ridiculed those who at that time were very much older. The youth will learn no doubt that ageism is as objectionable as any other form of discrimination. In the rush of enthusiasm and powered by idealism that glossed over objective realities (which of course stood in the way, as they would inevitably find out), they targeted individuals but hit a generation which included their own parents and grandparents. Revolution by the youth, with the youth and for the youth can never deliver a better society for by definition, those too young or too old to be called ‘youth’ would be ‘second-classed’ or worse.  

That’s boring politics, let’s say. At what point in life does an individual realise that old age is imminent or, horror-of-horrors, it is a country walked into inadvertently and which one can never leave? Some claim that you know you are middle-aged when you look in the mirror and see your father or mother looking back at you. Sometimes it’s a number: ‘OMG, I’m 50, I’m old!’ Sometimes it’s when someone calls you ‘uncle’ or you hear a crude reference such as ‘mynah.’ And sometimes realisation dawns when you notice that you look back more than you look forward, when you encounter nostalgic tears and are sobered by what might have been, the roads not taken etc.

It doesn’t matter. One day you will know.

And at some point you realise that the ‘Mihira’ newspaper which delighted you back in the day has delighted an entire generation born after that time, long ago, when you eagerly awaited Monday. And then you could, if Enid Blyton thrilled you at some point, ask yourself, ‘how old is Frederick Algernon Trotteville?’  

You may be sobered up or happily smile when you note that Philip, Jack, Dinah, Lucy-Ann and the parrot Kiki she gave life to way back in 1944 have not aged and that they probably still take children on wonderful adventures.  Fatty Trotteville, along with Daddy, Pip, Daisy, Bets and the dog Buster are still the ‘Five Find-Outers’ almost eighty years since they solved their first mystery. They’ve not aged. Neither have the Famous Five (Julian, Dick, Anne, George and the dog Timmy), the Secret Seven (Peter, Janet, Pam, Barbara, Jack, Colin and George), the kids who always found themselves in the middle of one mystery or another (Barney, Roger, Diana, Snubby and he monkey Miranda).

Fifty years from now or maybe not so far away from now, children would be reading books yet unwritten, as or more popular than, say, the Harry Potter series. Maybe they won’t look like books by then. There will be stories, let’s say, so popular that a sizable number of children would reach adulthood without reading the books that are now considered favourites among those written in English.

One thing is certain. They’ll age. The stories and the characters will not age, however. They may be forgotten as often happens to stories, but will be remembered, the characters will not grow old.

How old is Frederick Algernon Trotteville? How old is Harry Potter now? Is Andare really dead? Gajaman Nona and Elapatha Mudali are still writing poetry, aren’t they? Saliya and Asokamala are watching those who talk about them and wonder what their love affair was like from a secret point in the Ranmasu Uyana invisible to everyone, did you know?

People grow old. It’s good if the process is without bitterness but 'companioned' with compassion.   It’s good to be able to smile when those who will become mynahs call you or anyone else a ‘naaki mynah.’ It’s better still to remember things that do not age and be thrilled by the fact that they keep delighting those who came later and those yet unborn.  

Happy mynah-hood, one and all!



['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series.]

Other articles in this series:

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart 

The allegory of the slow road