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Age, a number just like the value of pi

So much of the great literature we grew up reading and the movies we grew up watching needed the ‘too late’ and ‘chance missed forever’ trope to work

When Gillian Anderson played Miss Havisham in ‘Great Expectations’ at the age of 43, it was considered a very youthful interpretation.(IMDB)

By Nisha Susan

LAST PUBLISHED 31.03.2023  |  03:00 PM IST

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I am about to embark on something slightly unusual for someone my age. I am writing this firmly in anticipation of somebody somewhere saying, “Aren’t you too old for it?" But the fact is, no one has so far.

I feel slightly self-congratulatory for having friends and acquaintances who lean towards generosity, and, more importantly, like to keep their doubts to themselves. But I also think we might be in a pleasant period of people loosening their age-appropriate strictures for adults (while tightening their age-appropriate strictures for children. But that’s a complaint for another day). Especially if the project being undertaken is vaguely in the self-improvement category. Higher education, weight loss, nice haircuts, climbing Mount Everest, career progression…all this is now in the “never too old for it" category. When my friend Laxmi recently mentioned teaching her 65-year-old mother to drive a two-wheeler in Bengaluru, she was festooned with sincere admiration in the WhatsApp group. “Never too late," as she said.


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I was thinking of how so much of the great literature we grew up reading and the movies we grew up watching needed the “too late" and “chance missed forever" trope to work. People were forever running to airports and train stations because apparently once the love of your life got on to that plane, it was never going to land. There was never a chance of calling them. Ever. It was that psychological moment or never again. I want to confess it made me crazy to watch it when I was young and leaves me utterly bored now.

Instead, life is circular and full of all kinds of chances to replay decisions. And when replayed, you may yet think that the decision to not chase the moving train was made with the fullness of understanding of who you are. I was reading Mrs Dalloway, a novel that is wholly set in a day in which the main character, Clarissa Dalloway, revisits various decisions, a man with whom she might have “had all this gaiety" if she had married him, a woman with whom she wished she had had the option to be, and so on.

When Clarissa is informed by her ex that he is newly in love, she is thunderstruck at the possibility of love still being open to him. The ex, meanwhile, is also thinking of what being with Clarissa would have been like. It’s a bit like that complicated line from Everything Everywhere All At Once, when Waymond (played by Ke Huy Quan) is talking to main character Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) in an alternate universe. In this universe, Evelyn is not a laundromat owner but a movie star. In this version, where she and Waymond are not married to each other, he says, “So, even though you have broken my heart yet again, I wanted to say, in another life, I would have really liked just doing laundry and taxes with you."

When I watched it, I understood it as less about Waymond and more about Michelle Yeoh commenting on her own fabulous series of choices—hanging from a helicopter in front of the Hollywood sign for a photoshoot, being awesome, taking this amazing role which Jackie Chan now claims to have rejected. So far from doing laundry and taxes. My highly idiosyncratic interpretation is funnier when you hear that a Korean news channel broadcast her Oscar acceptance speech—where Yeoh said, “And ladies, don’t let anybody tell you you are ever past your prime"—with a translation that omitted the word “ladies".

While reading Mrs Dalloway, I looked up Clarissa’s age. 51. This is a new hobby of mine. It’s a hobby I began when I recently re-read Pride And Prejudice and texted everyone I know that I am now probably Mrs Bennet’s age. Not quite but not so far either. Mrs Bennet was probably around 45. It makes me giggle to think of how ancient all the BBC adaptations made the elder Bennets.


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One of the most comic discoveries has been about Miss Havisham, the woman in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations who froze into a permanent state of trauma after her fiancé abandoned her on the day of the wedding. This particular character was terrifying in the illustrations of the abridged versions I read as a child. Dressed in white cobwebby outfits and with wild, white hair. Miss Havisham was the Transylvanian vision of what happens to the woman who wanted to be loved and wasn’t.

In the movie adaptations, she has been played by Joan Hickson at the age of 75 and Anne Bancroft at 67. Some years ago, when Gillian Anderson played her at 43, it was considered a very youthful interpretation. Dickens himself doesn’t mention her age but literary historians calculate her age as…40! This calculation is based on facts mentioned in the book as well as Dickens’ notes, which placed her as “scarcely 40". Gillian Anderson, in her infinite X Files wisdom, calculated her age as being around 37. As old as Deepika Padukone is today.

Literary historians like Kristen Hanley Cardozo have also pointed out that it was not like 40 was considered particularly old in Dickens’ time, so we must place some of the unintentional comedy at the door of the artists and film-makers who followed. Just like how old Harry Potter’s parents look in the movie versions. They were around 21 when they died but are always middle-aged in the movies. Perhaps we can blame it on how we always think of parents as being old when we are children and then are wholly shocked and unprepared for when they actually are old.

Age is just a number but it’s a number just like the value of pi. Recently, a friend overheard her younger colleague gushing about seeing a couple in their 40s being cosy in a bus. The younger colleague’s “how cute at their age" made my friend fully murderous. “What does she mean ‘their age’!" my friend complained. “Does she think our genitals have fallen off?" This had me in splits. For some reason, this reminded me of my brother talking about an acquaintance we hadn’t seen in a while. “Is their tortoise still alive?" I asked. He replied deadpan, “They may be dead but their tortoise is likely to still be alive." Talk about great expectations.

Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.

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