One thing I find moving about some older people – grandparents especially but increasingly even people who are only in their 50s or 60s – is how convinced they are that no one from my generation knows or cares about what life was like when they were young. I'm not talking here about Golden Ageism, about elders who declare that everything was so much better in their day; quite the contrary, my grandparents are so awed by things like the Internet, iPods, even laptops and digicams, and so conscious of their own lack of understanding of these things, that they never dare to say anything bad about modern-day technology. What I'm talking about is more wistful and vulnerable. It's a feeling that a lot of older people seem to share – that with the world changing so rapidly, the past is becoming irrelevant and so are they.
Personally, I manage to relate to a lot of my grandparents’ reminiscences because much of it ties in with my interest in 20th century history – and of course the reading habit. And I see immense surprise on their faces when they start talking about the old days and realise that I actually know enough to participate in the conversation. Small example: both my grandmothers spent years in Lahore before Partition, and their eyes light up when I nod along or complete sentences for them (having read books like the ones by Bhisham Sahni and Pran Neville, and the recent Bapsi Sidhwa anthology). "How do you know about that?" they ask, and the expression of wonder is truly childlike. It's almost like they had believed that all knowledge of the world as it used to be would vanish when they passed on.
My nani told me about her old Urdu books recently, some of which she still has with her, though they are torn and fading – she spoke of them in the fond but resigned tone people reserve for something that means a lot to them but that no one else could possibly be interested in. It was startling (and, I hope, reassuring) for her to learn that I have friends who have studied the language and are interested in rare books from the past, and that I might be able to pass them on to people who can appreciate them - thus keeping them alive, so to speak, after she’s gone.
Hell, at a whole other level, even my dad was surprised when I offered to lend him DVDs of old concerts – Woodstock, Jethro Tull, The Yardbirds etc – the day he bought a DVD player. In him and in others of his generation, I see a different, more aggressive brand of vulnerability - an almost proprietorial attitude to the past, a defensiveness born of the belief that today’s youngsters are just too sure of themselves and contemptuous of times gone by. It’s a bit depressing to think that there might be a basis for these fears - that many youngsters are indeed dismissive of, even callous towards, the old; that the Hindi-movie cliché of "Dadi ma, yeh toh purane zamaane ki baatein hain" is grounded in real life.
[A related post on grandparents and the Internet here.]
P.S. In a lighter vein, one of the first times I became conscious of this phenomenon was while working at Encyclopaedia Britannica a few years ago. A middle-aged lady (she couldn't have been more than 48-50) was on the copy desk with me and one day, while we were tracking changes on a cinema-related article together, she suddenly started talking about the mid-1960s, specifically about actresses like Jane Fonda and Julie Christie. After going on for a while, she snapped out of her reverie and laughed self-consciously. "Why am I saying all this to you?" she said. "It's all so far before your time."
"Actually," I replied, "the reason I've been quiet all this while is that Jane Fonda is way after my time – though I do know pretty much everything there is to know about her father's career." (I was in my 1930s-1940s Hollywood phase.)
She giggled uncertainly, then realised I was serious and regarded me with a worried expression for a while afterwards, like she was afraid I might attack her with a curtain rod or something. But subsequently we had some nice conversations about the good old days, including Hindi cinema of the 1950s (it was always a source of immense surprise to her that a born-yesterday twerp could actually have opinions on Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar and so on, instead of just dismissing them as old fogeys from another world). However, she did find it hard to catch up when I got started on Paul Muni, Spencer Tracy, Carole Lombard etc – they were so much before her time.