Sunday, September 21, 2008

Valley of the immortals

The summer of 2000, somewhere between Geneva and Paris : The train is chugging past a series of European clichés framed against the train-window-rolling meadows, blue lakes, and chunky piebald cows… A soft summer sun, the rolling inertia of the TGV and the constant chatter of some of my students I was travelling with had my drowsy head lolling in rhythm in no time, until…“Ram-me-ya, What’s-the way-ya, Ram-me-…” The lyrics I couldn’t vouch for, but the tune seemed vaguely familiar… this was… this was…. Oh yes, this was Lata Mangeshkar with an accent; Ramaiya Wasta… Raj Kapoor’s Shree 420. I woke up with a start to see a tall slim middle-aged lady, dark glasses on her forehead holding up a lock of thick auburn hair cropped short, crooning, hopping on and off key, to some enthusiastic support from the students… Antakshari in the Alps!

“Ketarinah Kerovpe from with the United Nations. I love India… and Raj Kapoor” she’d said when we sat down for coffee later in the dining car. “Raj Kapoor? That must’ve been long ago…” the words tumbled out before I could hold them back. She laughed… “It was... I must’ve been in university then… almost half a century ago”. Half a century? That would make her not a day short of seventy, at least, and here she was looking not a day older than 45, and I said so. She seemed charmed. “It’s my mother”, she said. “Although my father is Armenian, my mother is from Abkhazia, in Georgia, although my mother would tell you that Abkhazia never really was ‘in’ Georgia (did you read the papers today)… She’s in her 90s and strong enough to do her own gardening… I owe this compliment to her.” Abkhazia?! Sounded familiar but I couldn’t put my finger on it... “and to the yogurt I guess”, she said, scooping out another spoonful. Yogurt?! Yogurt!… I remembered now... when I was a child, my grandfather would force feed me a lot of yogurt… so much so, that at a point I was sure that if you’d cut me up, yogurt would ooze out of my wounds instead of blood. And he did so because he’d heard the Georgians lived incredibly long lives because of their ‘yogurt’ diet.

“Not all Georgians,” Ketarinah pointed out “only those living in Abkhazia… that place is truly Shangri-la. Tall mountains and clear sweet water… but you’ll be disappointed if you go there expecting to see everybody looking like they just walked out of a Baywatch set. You’ll see a lot of ‘middle-aged’ people though… crinkly eyes, a missing tooth, or a streak of grey. But the interesting bit is that they’re all far older than they look, are incredibly active, ride horses, chop wood and work on their farms at an age where most people elsewhere would consider being able to go to the toilet on their own an accomplishment.”

Usually, I’m a sucker for such stories… but this time, I was skeptical. … could such a paradise really have remained undiscovered for so long… “Not undiscovered, just forgotten…” said Ketarinah. “In the 1970s, a popular magazine had stumbled upon Abhkazia and its super centenarians… it was said that in Abkhazia, people didn’t grow old. They just got better…”. And their secret? Yogurt? “Dunno… was a popular myth at the time,” she said. “but wasn’t very popular on our dining table…” Humph!

Baited by the conversation, I tried to find out more. After all, who wouldn’t want to live to be 150? Initially, I was disappointed. You wouldn’t find any Abkazhian in any official list of centenarians. Skepticism surrounds every longevity claim from the region. Names like Khfaf Lazuria, claiming to be 140 and Shirli Muslimov, apparently an astounding 168, couldn’t substantiate their claims because neither they nor the other super-centenarians had reliable birth certificates. To compound matters, it was discovered that the erstwhile Soviet Union’s communist propaganda machinery might’ve exaggerated these figures to prove the superiority of their socio-political setup.

But wait, there is hope…

While it’s undeniable that most Abkhazians don’t have reliable birth documents, visitors to this region have confirmed that many of these golden oldies were actually exceptionally sprightly great-great grand parents. Muslimov himself (died 1973), was one such great-great grand father who was busy riding miles and tilling fields till his last days. Though exact life-spans are difficult to ascertain, most Abkazhains have very low incidences of cardio-vascular diseases or cancer compared to the rest of the world, maintain a slim profile and actually live long, and very healthy, lives.

Still interested in their secrets? Okay, here goes… they eat right – lots of organic, home grown tomatoes (anti – cancer) and citrus fruits, cheeses and nuts; they shun stressful deadlines (hope my editor’s reading this) and walk a lot in the high mountains. But that isn’t the real secret of their vigour and vitality. In Abkhazian society, senior citizens are valued like national treasures. The older they get, the more sought after is their advice and families take pride in taking care of their elders… good conversations, social utility and strong family bonds seem to be the real secret of the Abkazhians. And yes, ahem…there’s one more thing… Abkhazians marry late (30s and 40s). Since pre-marital sex is frowned upon, these people are late bloomers in more ways than one. As a consequence perhaps, they can keep at it for far longer and till much later in life; ‘experts’ feel that here too might lie yet another key to the secrets of Abkhazia.

So, there you go, give what you can a shot, and don’t bother about the rest… later, we’ll explore some other regions which are home to super centenarians … meanwhile, don’t hold your breath.

Long live life!

Did you know there existed careers in ageing? Gerontology is the science that deals with the stage of life that women fear and men refuse to acknowledge. The social, biological and psychological aspects of ageing have for long been subjects of scientific study, mainly with aims of extending the youth phase infinitely or conversely, adjourning the greying blues sine die.

According to the Gerontology Research Group (GRG), there are 78 living supercentenarians (individuals who have lived to 110 or beyond) as on August 29, 2008. While the GRG roster lists persons from USA and Japan to be among the longest living, Italy, England and Canada also make their appearances (some of which will be subjects of future columns in this series). Claims to validated demographic data on supercentenarians are however as many to be found as there are possibly the ‘wizened’ folks around, thanks to un-standardized data collection methods and poor record-keeping. It can be one reason to explain the absence of Abkhazia, even with its assertions to be a romantic Shangri-La, on the GRG list. At the same time, Abkhazia’s claims, although unsubstantiated could not altogether be rejected, for its inconspicousness may have to do with its very remoteness.


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