Today is my 55th birthday. Many of my young friends have told me I am yet another year younger, that they cannot think of me as old. I know they mean it as a compliment.
But the thing is, I like being old. I’m proud of my grey hair and I like being able to speak with authority about some of the great things that have happened in the world in the past fifty years. Martin Luther King was an icon of my childhood. Mother Teresa shaped my life. The women’s movement made me who I am. I am a witness to so much, simply by virtue of my years on the earth. Each year contained struggles and triumph; each year is precious and adds to my being.
So I don’t want to be seen as younger than I am and I don’t like it when it happens to anyone else, either.
This is a real conversation I had on email yesterday.
I was discussing how to make a large payment with a man I do business with. He needed the payment urgently and I was short of ready cash.
I can give you a check today, but I will still need till evening – I have to get the money out of my US account and transfer it to my Indian one. Even if I give you cash, it will take two days because they won’t let me take that much from the ATM in one go.
Ok. I will send my boy in the evening around 4pm.
Do you employ children or is he a man?
So I’m just curious: why do you refer to him as a “boy”?
Because people also ask me that send your boy…its funny.
I am very much aware about children labor and you know i cant send the small boy for that amount.
Bhai jaan, my point is that there is something wrong with calling a grown man a boy. It’s demeaning to him, and disrespectful. He’s not a boy.
I am so sorry, I will never call him a Boy. His name is Dinesh and I will call him by his name.
Me, alone with my thoughts:
Dinesh arrived right on time. Intrigued by the bizarre conversation I had had with his boss, I asked him to come in while I wrote out the check.
I was just about to have a cup of tea and I offered him one.
We sat at the table and chatted. It turned out he had come to our office many times for other payments, but somehow we had never met. He told me he was proud to be even peripherally associated with the Foundation because he admired our work so much.
I asked him about his family and he told me he had a 12 year old and a 10 year old.
“How old are you?” I asked.
40, just like his boss had said. Which made this “boy” older than the man who paid him his salary. It’s a common thing in India to speak of (and treat) grown men and women as children based on their status in the office or the shop. Somehow, illogically, it perpetuates the logic of low salaries and long hours and the ease with which unreasonable demands are made (Take this here. Wait for three hours while I ignore you sitting in the entry. Stay till ten PM for no extra pay.)
We kept chatting. Then, just like that, he told me about a boy (a real one – only 16) in his neighborhood. “He can’t speak. But his mind seems to be fine. He does the shopping for his family. He deals with money like a pro. I don’t understand it. What could be the problem?”
“Can he hear?” I asked.
“Hmmm,” he said, considering. “I don’t actually know. But his parents send him to a school on Rajpur Road. BIL, I think it’s called.”
BIL is Bajaj Institute of Learning – one of our colleagues in the Dehradun Disability Forum and a leading center for children and young adults with hearing impairment.
And – again, just like that – I realized that this man was so far ahead of so many. He had assessed a young person in his neighborhood, looked beyond his inability to speak, saw his other skills, realized his true potential. How many of us can claim the same?
Today is my birthday. I am 55 and I claim each and every one of my years. They have taught me all that I know today. They are the reason I can stand up in a crowd and say no if I see injustice happening. Those years are what give me the courage to stand by my convictions and to insist on the rights of others.
Those years are what make me certain that Dinesh is a man and not a boy. Nothing against boys. But our years add up. They make us grownups and they give us gravitas, integrity and respect. We earn them.