January 15, 2012

INDIA: The Secret To Living Longer

MUMBAI, Maharashtra / The Hindustan Times / Think / January 15, 2012

By Khushwant Singh

Coming on to 98 and still earning more than I did in my younger days, people ask me how I manage to do it. They regard me as an expert on longevity. I have written on the subject before; I will repeat it with suitable amendments based on my experience in the past two years.

Earlier I had written that longevity is in one's genes: children of long-living parents are likely to live longer than those born to short-lived parents. This did not happen in my own family. My parents who died at 90 and 94, had five children - four sons and a daughter. The first to go was the youngest of the siblings. Next went my sister, who was the fourth. My elder brother who was three years older than I went a couple of years ago. Two of us remain - I, who will soon be 98, and my younger brother, a retired brigadier three years younger than I and in much better health. He looks after our ancestral property. Nevertheless, I still believe genes are the most important factor in determining one's lifespan. 

More important than analysing longevity is coping with old age and coming to terms with it. As we grow older, we are less able to exercise our limbs. We have to devise ways to keep them active. Right into my mid-eighties, I played tennis every morning, did the rounds of Lodhi gardens in winter and spent one hour in the swimming pool in summer. I am unable to do this now. The best way to overcome this handicap is regular massages. I have tried different kinds of massages and was disappointed with the oil drip and smearing of oil on the body. A good massage needs powerful hands going all over one's body, from skull to toes. I have this done at least once a day, at times twice a day. I am convinced this has kept me going for so long. 

Equally important is the need to cut down drastically on one's intake of food and drink. I start my mornings with a glass of guava juice. It is tastier and more health-giving than orange or any other fruit juice. My breakfast is one scrambled egg on toast. My lunch is usually patli khichdi with dahi or a vegetable. I skip afternoon tea. In the evening, I take a peg of single malt whisky. It gives me a false appetite! Before I eat supper, I say to myself "Do not eat too much". 

I also believe that a meal should have just one kind of vegetable or meat, followed by a pinch of chooran. It is best to eat alone and in silence. Talking while eating does not do justice to the food and you swallow a lot of it. Also for me, no more Punjabi or Moghlai food. I find South India idli. sambhar and grated coconut easier to digest, and healthier. 

Never allow yourself to be constipated. The stomach is a storehouse of all kinds of ailments. Our sedantary life tends to make us constipated. Keep your bowels clean by whatever means you can - laxative, enemas, glycerin suppositories, whatever. Bapu Gandhi fully understood the need to keep the bowels clean. Besides taking an enema everyday, he gave enemas to his women admirers. 

Impose a strict discipline on your daily routine. If necessary, use a stop watch. I have breakfast at exactly 6.30 am, lunch at noon, a drink at 7 pm, supper at 8.

Try to develop peace of mind. For this, you must have a healthy bank account. A shortage of money can be very demoralising. It does not have to be in (crores) tens of millions but enough for your future needs and the possibility of falling ill. Never lose your temper; it takes a heavy toll and jangles one's nerves.

Never tell a lie. Always keep your national motto in mind: Satyamev Jayate  - only truth truimphs. Give generously. Remember, you cannot take it with you. You may give it to your children, your servants or in charity. You will feel better. There is joy in giving. 

Drive out envy of those who have done better than you in life. A Punjabi verse sums this up:

Rookhi sookhi khai kay
Thanda Paani Pee
Na Veykh paraayee chonparian
Na Tarsssain Jee. 

[Eat dry bread and drink cold water
Pay no heed or envy those who smear 
Their chapattis with ghee]

Do not conform to the tradition of old people spending time in prayer and long hours in places of worship. That amounts to conceding defeat. Instead, take up a hobby, like gardening, growing bonsais, helping children from your neighbourhood with their homework.

A practice that I have found very effective is to fix my gaze on the flame of candle, empty mind of everything, and in my mind repeat Aum Shanti, Aum Shanti, Aum Shanti. It does work. I am at peace with the world. 

We can't all be Fawja Singh, who at 100 ran a marathon, but we can equal him in longevity and creativity. 

I wish all my readers long, healthy lives full of happiness.

Khushwant Singh's column With Malice Towards One And All appears every Sunday.

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