In Which Telling Your Real Age is Taboo

By Soniah Kamal:

Who has not sat through a movie where a perfectly lovely heroine has been maligned with comments such as ‘boori ho gayee hai, thakhi wee lag rahee hai, uus kee Ma lag rahee hai ‘, she looks aged, she looks tired, she looks like his mother’. I had the pleasure during a recent trip to Pakistan of watching with a group the Indian film ‘Bhoothnath’ starring Amitabh Bachan, Shahrukh Khan and Juhi Chawla. Part way into the movie, the men, all around forty years of age, began confirming with each other that indeed Juhi was looking older, much older, indeed she had become decrepit. She’s looking like Shahrukh’s mother, they remarked to each other, Shahrukh kee Maa lag rahi hai. The women at the gathering are all thirty plus or younger and they all glance at each other almost guiltily, all perhaps wondering what I was wondering.

Really? said I out loud. Shahrukh kee Ma lag rahi hai, is it? You men are welcome to your opinion but pray, do tell, from where exactly does Juhi look old or like his mother? Because I think she looks gorgeous. Better than any of you any day. And how come she looks old enough for you to merit comment but Amitabh Bachan who is actually old enough to be her Daddy and looks it never-the-less merits not a single comment from the collective-you. I suppose Sean Connery, and Clint Eastwood, and Robert Redford, and Mel Gibson playing strapping, nubile heroes is also perfectly kosher even if they should be babysitting their leading lady rather than romancing her. I am told in, all good humor of course, that I’m insane, and while in Pakistan to shut up and please get with the program and once I return to America (where, by the way, these gender double standards exist in Hollywood too) to shout out my grievances from the rooftops. And yet, as more popcorn and Sprite and Black Label is brought out, the men do look sheepish and the women decidedly smug even if, come tomorrow, they’ll be hushing me if I tell the truth about my own age.

In Pakistan– a group oriented society where being an individual, or at least radically different, is routinely discouraged– the one instance of ‘passing’, i.e. pretending to be something you are not, that seems to be fairly rampant and socially acceptable if not even encouraged is women– and even many men is liberally lying about one’s age. It is nothing for women, especially if they are single (unmarried has such ugly connotations, no?) to routinely present themselves as at least five years younger than they really are. In fact so insidious is this practice that most people automatically tack on an extra-three to five years to a girl’s age.
Which is highly irritating for the likes of me who actually do tell the truth and do not see the merits of passing for younger and frankly couldn’t careless. And yet…and yet…in Pakistan and amongst Pakistanis I routinely find myself avoiding answering questions about my age for the sake of family and friends because apparently not only will I ruin their their lives if the truth comes out, at the very least I will humiliate them and make them the recipient of smug looks from those whose ages will not be outed because they don’t have foolish friends or relatives like me. Passing for younger seems a game the entire country plays even when they know how old someone really is. I mean I have grown up with you. I know exactly how old you and you are not ten years younger than me! Come on! Girl! Guy! I know you are close to forty and not the thirty you purport to be and please no need to take out your passport or other ID with Date-of-Birth to verify the truth of your lies.
But this is the way in a country where marriage prospects are eons better, especially, for a girl, if she is on the younger side. It is actually I am told, dangerous to break the chain of deceit, lest girl remain unmarried. Therefore in order to uphold your collective malaise I’m to sacrifice my individual right to tell the truth? This will not do. I would like to tell the truth and I do. Only to be glared at by family and friends: what purpose can telling my real age possibly serve? Well, the only purpose that faking one’s age serves is perpetuating the myth that youth is fairer and lovelier, and perpetuating a poisonous culture wherein ‘there is a prime for woman’ after which she, apparently, dulls and fades and may as well hide her face and die.

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