The Indian Express | Rohini Nilekani writes: On Women’s Day, lessons on compassion and resilience from a 99-year-old

Mar 08, 2024


Durgabai Nilekani recently entered the 100th year of her life. My mother-in-law is in good health, physically active, and mentally calm. She has mild cognitive impairment and some age-related decline. But every time you ask her how she is, Amma will say, “Oh, I am fine!” On some days, she will giggle and say she is “Ekdam fine”. This is even when we can hear her wheezing, or when we know she is in pain.

It is a lifelong training on how to live gracefully. Some days, when I may be feeling depressed, I quiz her, “Amma, how are you like this?” “Simple,” she answers. “I don’t worry about death. I think about life. And I am happy.”

Durgabai epitomises the long-gone culture of a simple, content society.

Her father, Dr Annaji Rao Sirur, was a very popular medical practitioner in the university town of Dharwad in Karnataka, where Amma grew up with 14 siblings and many other relatives. While there was enough to go around, there was not much to spare. “Waste not, want not” was the axiom they grew up with, alongside the idea of moderation in all things.

And the phrase “Reduce, recycle, reuse” might well have been modelled on her. In the days when she expertly ran her household in Dharwad, every last scrap had a life extension that would be incredible to today’s use-and-throw consumers.

Simple living and high thinking were not just words but a dharma to live by. Compassion to all was not just written in the scriptures but something to practise on everyone who knocked at the mostly unlocked door.

Amma once gave away almost all her personal wealth to help a nephew who needed expensive medical treatment. “Why do I need money when my sons are looking after me?” she shrugged.

Amma now seems like a rare commodity in a world where suspicion is more common than compassion and where neighbours may themselves be strangers.

Her lifetime has coincided with the most prosperous age in human history, where more people have experienced more abundance than ever before.

She has witnessed so much change in these 100 years — from a World War and the Independence movement to rapid technological advances, and a prospering nation. She has experienced abundance and scarcity, death and loss, including that of Mohanrao Nilekani, her husband, and many siblings too. She has coped remarkably well and is as comfortable with microwaves as she used to be making jowar rotis on an open fire, and as easy with Zoom calls as she was writing postcards. “We have to adjust, is it not?” Amma will say, in her ever simple and ever direct way.

There is one thing she cannot adjust to, though. And that is inflation. While she no longer has to make her own purchases, her face crumples up when I tell her the price of everyday items. “But how do poor people manage?” she wonders, shaken.

Amma is equally shocked at how old she has become. “Has God forgotten about me?” she asks jokingly. But when I coax, “Since you are 99 not out, you may as well hit a century,” she agrees, emitting her signature rat-a-tat gunfire laugh.

In 1925, the year Durgabai was born, life expectancy in the Subcontinent was 27.6 years. Today, life expectancy in India has more than doubled to 67.2 years. Which means that the country will age rapidly over the next few decades. According to the India Ageing Report 2023 , the share of senior citizens — aged 60 years and above — will rise to 20.8 per cent of the population by 2050. That is almost 350 million people, approximately the population of the United States. It is double the 2022 demographic of 149 million elderly persons — roughly 10.5 per cent of the population.

By 2050, today’s conversation, about a young nation’s demographic dividend, will seem a distant dream. The focus will be on human health and well-being, the productivity of a shrunken workforce, and the fiscal challenge of providing retirement benefits and pensions for all.

Many countries will face similar challenges. Humanity will have to deal, for the first time ever, with issues of mass ageing. By some estimates, there are already half a million centenarians in the world today. Research on longevity has also speeded up, especially in the West. Unlike Amma, Silicon Valley billionaires seem particularly obsessed with increasing lifespans. One of them allegedly declared death to be a bug, not a feature of life! And the Methuselah Foundation wants 90 to become the new 50 by 2030. If that fanciful project fails, many hope that it will, more importantly, yield answers to the problems of dementia and other age-related disorders.

Amma may herself contribute something of significance to medical research. She has agreed to donate her blood to a project at NIMHANS, which analyses cell degeneration and rejuvenation in older people. She would surely volunteer to donate her body for research if she believed it would help others.

As we plan for her 100th birthday, I ask Amma, “How long should people live?” “So long as they are not a burden to others,” she says. “But it is not in our hands, is it?”

Wise words from a compassionate centenarian, who has gracefully added life to her years, not just years to her life.



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