The wanton insult of old age according to Mark Twain
Abracadabra By K. B. Ganapathy, Columns

The wanton insult of old age according to Mark Twain

April 27, 2020

These are the days of Coronavirus, COVID-19. These are the days of lockdown and social distancing. These are the days of house quarantine or isolated hospitalisation. These are bad days. These are days of despair.

Every day is the longest day. Every night is the longest night. Worse is when you don’t get sleep and try to suppress what might be a cough!

Though summer, this is the time doctor advises to keep drinking hot water.

In such a predicament, time hangs heavily during my waking hours. While having breakfast, I hear the chirping of the birds and buzzing of the insects. Small birds with coloured plumes land on my flower plants and garden benches. I had never seen this happen in the past 20 years I have been living here in this house. 

In the evening over my house and garden, the sky seems low with many flights of birds in formation, probably returning home near a forest or a water body.

Being summer, sun rises early and rays get warmer sooner than it was in the preceding winter. Actually, I was oblivious of all these metamorphosis of nature in all the 20 years I have been living here in my house, the “Fourth Estate,” Mysuru East. If anything, I should grudgingly thank Coronavirus for exposing me to this wonderful world of NATURE.

But yet, the question that hangs over me like a bugbear has been, ‘How to spend time? Or more appropriately, how to kill time?’ I am no artist. No painter, singer, musician, yoga or meditation freak. Nor good in any indoor table games, even though others in the house have interest. That said, I admit I am a habitual pen-pusher—a writing journalist. So I decided to read books and write if there is inclination or overflow of creative juice. This happened yesterday. Hence, I write this hoping it might interest my readers.

I was reading a book of short-stories titled “50 World’s Greatest Short Stories” given to me by Raghavan, owner of the well-known Pharmaceutical Shop ‘Raghulal & Co.,’ long ago on 3rd December 2018. Thanks to lockdown, I am forced to pursue knowledge further.

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The short-story I have chosen to write about here is by no less a celebrity writer and wit Mark Twain and the title is “The Five Boons of Life.” A curious kind of short story divided into five very short chapters– Chapter I to Chapter V. As I venture to concise the Chapters, I must quote the first opening part of the story in Chapter I.

“In the morning of life came a good Fairy with her basket, and said: “Here are the gifts. Take one, leave the others. And be wary, choose wisely; Oh, choose wisely! for only one of them is valuable.” The gifts were five: Fame, Love, Riches, Pleasure, Death.

The youth, being youth with all the desire of his body, instantly said, ‘There is nothing to consider. I choose Pleasure.’

The youth happily indulged in the worldly pleasures but found each pleasure in its turn was short-lived. Some disappointing and vain. In the end he realised he had wasted his youth and if he could choose again he would choose WISELY.

The Fairy appeared and said only four of the five gifts remain. The youth, who is now man, chose Love. After many years the man sat by a coffin in his empty home in sadness saying all his loved ones have left him one by one… For choosing Love I got only hours of grief.

The sympathetic Fairy appeared before him and said, ‘Choose again; only three gifts remain.’ The man chose Fame. Years went by. And one day the Fairy found him sitting solitary with the fame fading away, thinking. The Fairy stood behind him and could read his thoughts —“My name filled the world,  and the world was praising me. But it did not last long. Then came envious people, hate came, detraction and persecution…”

The Fairy said, “Choose yet again. Only two gifts remain. The precious gift is still here one among the two, choose.” He chose Wealth saying it has power. With this my life would become worth living. I will spend on luxury, those who earlier mocked will now crawl before me. I will buy, buy, buy!

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Alas! Three short years went by and he was in rags; reduced to poverty, penury. He realised the Gifts he chose were gilded lies, curses. They were not Gifts —Pleasure, Love, Fame and Riches. They are curses, liabilities, temporary. They only made him suffer Pain, Grief, Shame, Poverty. The merciful Fairy appeared and told him that in her Store of Gifts there was only one gift which was precious, which was not valueless. Death.

The man in utter despair told the Fairy, “Bring it. I am weary. I would rest.”

Chapter V

The Fairy came but with only four gifts. Death was not there. ‘Where is the Gift of Death?’ mumbled the man in rags.

The Fairy said, “I gave it to a mother’s pet, a little child…it trusted me, asking me to choose for it. You did not ask me to choose.”

The wretched old man bemoaned: “Oh, miserable me! What is left for me?”

The Fairy said what was left for him now was what even he did not deserve. ” The wanton insult of Old Age.”

In the first reading, I was not able to understand the meaning of the Fairy’s answer. I discussed with a wise friend on phone with much effort. He said in his typical style, “You f….r, it is for old men like you and I. It says, if you and I don’t kick the bucket before our wealth melts away what we are left with will be ‘The wanton insult of Old Age.’ Of course, till death comes. Got it old man?”

 As a friend I did not like him calling me an old man. I retorted: “Yeh. Got it, you dirty old man!”

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