This Indian life by Shoba Narayan: 

It is the best way t to keep the mind active and alert

Shoba Narayan
Hindustan Times

Want to live longer? It seems that the whole world does. Anti-ageing, age reversal and longevity have become buzz words of our time. In 2018, anti-ageing related start-ups mopped up $850 million in venture capital investment. Laura Deming, barely 25, founded The Longevity Fund and is feted all over the US and Europe. Young start-ups such as Life Biosciences, focusing on longevity are attracting talent like never before – Dr Mehmood Khan, previous Chief Scientific Officer at PepsiCo with a resume that includes diabetology as faculty of the Mayo Clinic, is joining it as CEO. The Harvard geneticist founder of the firm said he was “humbled” by Dr Khan’s choice to join his firm.

Unlike the West, and specifically California, where tech billionaires are throwing the money to discover the fountain of youth, here in India, we take ageing casually. That is changing. Most of us who are currently over 30 could live well into our 90s. And unless someone like Dr Khan discovers a cure for brain dysfunctions, arthritic joints and dementia, it won’t be pretty. On that cheery note, let us get to the question of the day: how to age well? Or as I call it, is there a way to game ageing – to get the better of it?

In terms of nutrition, there are lots of good books and good advice including two by Kavita Devgan (after reading her book, I leave my raw garlic in the open for 15 minutes to enhance their benefits before chewing them), and Sujata Kelkar Shetty (whose writing got me into intermittent fasting). Countless apps have gamified fitness. But there are two things that are hard to game: mental health and friendships.

Friendship helps you age better. You have to cultivate it: slowly and steadily, one friend at a time. Think of it as the best investment of your life.

Dementia will hit us all as we age and 80 is perhaps when things start going downhill. So how to keep the mind active and alert? Well, here is a thought. As you age, try to start a business. The idea came to me in two odd places: Kyoto and Karaikudi. In Kyoto, I attended a programme in which elderly women took charge of tourists, took them home to teach them things from Japanese culture: the Chrysanthemum dance, how to roll sushi, how to drink tea and so forth. My family and I trailed behind a grandmother for a day to learn from her. And I thought, how many grandmothers are there in India who could do exactly this and get paid for it?

Aachi examining supplies in an app

I was in Karaikudi last month to research Chettinad culture. I stayed at a place called The Bangla, the family home of Mrs Meenakshi Meyyappan, who everyone calls Aachi. In her, I saw one secret to ageing: run a business that forces you to stay alert. During my day with her, she was examining Burma baskets, deciding the menu for dinner, planning a 50-person FICCI dinner at her family estate, looking through an app for cutlery choices, instructing the cooks on how to serve a group speaking French at the next table (“offer them eggs instead of dosa”). Her eyes darted around all the time, alert and engaged. In between, she was chatting with me about Chettinad cuisine and enjoying a choice but moderate dinner. “I prefer Continental cuisine at night,” she said. “Less spicy. Something like Shepherd’s Pie.”

Mrs. Meenakshi Meyyappan

I learned that she had grown up in Sri Lanka and that her brother was the beloved Chennai historian, S. Muthiah, who recently passed away. Watching her was a lesson in how to keep the mind active at 85. I returned home and told my Mum, who recently turned 80. “Ma, you need to start a business,” I said. “Doing what? Making pickles?” she asked. “Why not?” I replied. “It would give you a group of people to manage, force you to be sharp and worry about accounts instead of whether the water was pure, and force you to discuss things beyond the day’s cooking.” Well, I didn’t say any of that but I thought it.

Friendships are the other factor that helps you age better. In this regard, I feel that us South Indians have a lot to learn from the Delhi and Mumbai folks. Whenever I talk to friends up North, they are all jetting off with a group of friends to Bangkok, Bali or Boston, for attending a friend’s 40th birthday or to take annual holidays with a group of friends. People in Chennai and Bengaluru do this, but they belong to the YPO or are Aspen Fellows, or some such organised group. These trips and these friendships address the primal human need for connection. And the best part is that you cannot short-cut or gamify friendship. You have to cultivate it: slowly and steadily, one friend at a time. Think of it as the best investment of your life.

Shoba Narayan

(This column addresses the issue of parenting our parents and other unique facets of This Indian Life and our culture. If you have stories about the weird and wonderful relationships that enrich or enervate your life, write in.)

This Indian Life appears every fortnight

From HT Brunch, July 7, 2019

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