Dr. Borphitz, the walrus-moustached Stalin-look-alike Austrian psychiatrist inside my head, leaned forward with an intrigued expression.
‘Vot are ze zymptoms?’ he asked.
‘Ambition. Discontent. Boredom. Restlessness,’ I replied. ‘Sleeplessness. Daydreams. Occasional compulsive indulgence in addictive substances. Intense, inexplicable attraction to nearest available young woman. Much pontification on the lines of “What does it all mean?” and “Where is my life going?” What is all this about? Is this my youth, Herr Doctor?’
‘Nein,’ replied Dr Borphitz, his gravelly voice reverberating inside my cranium. ‘I haf looked it up very carefully in my Official Walrus-moustached Austrian Psychchiatrist’s Handbook. Und zis is not your youth.’
‘Vot – I mean what – is it then?’ I asked, perplexed.
‘Zis,’ Dr. Borphitz said, moustache quivering significantly, ‘iz a textbook case of ze mid-life crisis.’
Mid-life crisis at 24? Impossible. I clicked my internal remote control and Dr. Borphitz disappeared in a Freudian fizzle.
Later that morning, I met up with Batman for a cup of coffee at one of those swanky new coffee places.
‘Holy conspiracy theory, Batman,’ I said. ‘Something’s wrong. I feel old.’
‘I just foiled an international terrorist conspiracy using a tricycle and a toothpick,’ he said quietly. ‘And you call me here to tell me you’re feeling old? I don’t think I can deal with two problems of this magnitude on the same day.’
‘But I feel weird.’
‘Weird? I’m a grown man dressed like a bat, my partner is a boy in yellow tights and there are moulded nipples on my costume. Don’t talk to me about weird.’
I soothed the cantankerous caped crusader with a guava smoothie.
‘I’m convinced about this,’ I said. ‘It’s not just me, but everyone around me as well. Someone’s stealing this country’s youth.’
‘No, I’m talking about youth, the sparkle in the eye, the spring in the step. I mean, just think of all the young Indians you know. Look at the symptoms – the sweaty palms, the hair loss, the earnest but glazed expressions, the dark circles, the tendency to flinch when spoken to – and look at their lives. All giving up their best years Preparing For The Future, Focusing On Important Things, Thinking Of Their Careers, Making Essential Sacrifices, Respecting Their Elders And Traditions While Simultaneously Embracing The Interconnected Global Age – there’s a pattern somewhere. This isn’t what young people are supposed to be like! Clearly there’s some sort of massive mind control operation going on, possibly sponsored by giant businesses. Anil Ambani was the first Indian MTV Youth Icon, for God’s sake.’
Suddenly he was interested. ‘Suddenly, I’m interested,’ he said.
And then I looked up at the TV playing silently in the coffee shop, where Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini were doing an energetic jig, looking radiant, young and more energetic than I’d felt in years, and had yet another brainwave.
‘And that’s where our nation’s youth is going!’ I yelled. ‘It must be possible to buy youth! There must be more to it than plastic surgery, cosmetics or exercise! That’s where they get it from!’
‘So what you’re saying is that Bollywood stars are stealing youth from youths? Right.’
But it was all making sense to me. ‘Not just them, but the super-rich in general, I said. ‘You know, because they don’t just look young, they feel young – it’s the old cliché about only being as old as you feel. And if youth is the period between childhood and maturity, they’re evidently getting it from somewhere, because they never really grow up, they act like brats all their lives – while 540 million earnest and innocent young people toil away towards a shimmering, prosperous future they will never know how to enjoy. There must be some secret process by which youth can be transferred – and it’s all covered up under the guise of makeovers, spiritual healing, and other such diabolical devices.’
‘And how is this all done?’ asked Batman.
‘Science and technology,’ I said, waving an expansive arm. ‘You know, research and development. Maybe it’s all done through textbooks – or self-help books – or exam-oriented tutorial classes, or SMS, or music videos, or the Internet. Whatever it is, it has to be something that young people waste their lives on.’
‘Shaw said youth was wasted on the young,’ said Batman thoughtfully. ‘It just might be possible some crazed scientists actually went that extra mile to set things right…you know, you’re on to something here. Demi Moore in the new Charlie’s Angels film – Jack Nicholson’s love life – Hugh Hefner, Sting, Sharon Stone, Ravi Shankar – it all fits. Not to mention George W’s mental age – they must have overdosed him. And it also explains why all you do is talk about the good old days and glycerine soap ads on Bangladesh TV. They’re stealing youth from you, and they must be stopped!’
‘Holy Critical Mass, Batman!’ I exclaimed. ‘What do we do?’
But our crime-busting adventure was doomed to failure. Just then, a crew from one of the news channels swooped in, and a pretty young reporter materialized in front of us. ‘Batman, our studio experts say, like, you’re a fictional character and you’re not real. How do you feel?’ she asked breathlessly. But even as she pointed her mike at the space where he’d been a second ago, her cameraman gasped, for Batman was gone, and so was my chance to save this nation’s youth. I stared hopefully at her as she held her mike in mid-air, mouth open in astonishment. But to no avail; an instant later she was at the next table, asking a group of kurta-clad aspiring filmmakers whether coffee was in, and, if it was, how they felt about it.
I walked the streets of Calcutta, cunningly avoiding both pot-holes and puddles, but my heart was heavy and my head was bowed. The young were getting older, the old were getting younger, and soon they would all meet in some kind of monumental mid-life crisis that would make the mid-east crisis seem like a joke. What was the way out? Organized, armed rebellion? Nah. Everyone was too busy studying, and anyway Revolution lost its appeal the moment it was discovered by men in suits and/or ponytails and branded, like everything else is nowadays. I could open some kind of little clinic – Beat Youth Loss in 30 days with Revolutionary New Swedish Techniques – but that would get lost in the middle of weight loss clinics, phone sex lines and new universities that jostled for young eyeballs like fishmongers between Sealdah and Howrah on the no. 71 bus.
And we were/are supposed to be the generation free from baggage – the continent-hopping, metrosexual, crossover club, the with-IT kids, the service-economy-superstars, the Liberalization Lounge-Lizards, the Groovy Google Gang, the multicultural world-movers. Instead, people I know are sitting in call centres pretending, in fake accents that in my college days would have seen them getting lynched by public-spirited individuals, that their names are Wendy.
‘I’m from the Youth Transfer Corporation,’ she said.
‘Mallika Sherawat?’ I gasped.
‘For legal reasons, I can’t be, though I look exactly like her. But rumour has it I’m topless right now,’ she said.
‘But you’re not.’
‘Ah. These rumours, I tell you.’
‘What are you doing here?’
‘When people cling obstinately to their youth, avoiding conventional methods of youth drainage, and cause bottlenecks in the process of youth transfer, the women (or men) of their dreams are sent to collect,’ she said. ‘Hand over your youth, baby, whatever little’s left of it. You’re doing nothing with it anyway.’
‘But Kiera Knightley is the woman of my dreams,’ I pointed out.
She smiled. ‘That’s just what your brain tells you, baby. Here, look at my back.’
‘No, stop, really. Why do you want to take my youth away?’
‘We started the company because we realized this generation was misusing its youth resources. We invest your youth for you elsewhere, and if you sacrifice your youth in the right way, you’ll be rich enough to buy it back later. Well, it’s too late for you, but the rest of your misbegotten generation can try.’
‘But it won’t be the same, the whole point of youth is that you don’t appreciate it while you have it! And what’s wrong with this generation?’
‘Self-obsessed. It’s always I, me, myself.’
‘But everyone’s self-obsessed, not just young people. And not just this generation.’
‘True, but young people are young and can be blamed, and we didn’t have the technology before. Now shut up and give me your youth.’
‘No. Go away.’
‘Here, look at my cleavage.’
‘Damn. All right, then.’
Later, as she walked away, swaying seductively into the sunset, I had a last fleeting moment of post-youthful defiance.
‘You’ll never win!’ I yelled. ‘You can buy youth, but you can’t buy innocence!’
She turned and smiled. ‘Innocence is overrated, baby. But we’re working on it. We’ll get there.’ And she was gone.
I clicked my internal remote, and Dr Borphitz reappeared.’So, mid-life crisis. Lead me to it,’ I said bravely.