This is 51: Madhushree Ghosh Responds to The Oldster Magazine Questionnaire
"I’m happy I get to be this age. I’m happy to be alive."
From the time I was 10, I’ve been obsessed with what it means to grow older. I’m curious about what it means to others, of all ages, and so I invite them to take “The Oldster Magazine Questionnaire.”
Here, scientist, activist, food writer, and debut memoirist Madhushree Ghosh responds. - Sari Botton
How old are you?
Is there another age you associate with yourself in your mind? If so, what is it? And why, do you think?
This is 51. Every year I am energized, excited for the next year, grateful to be alive. The concept of “40 is the new 25” or whatever the latest slogan is, is actually pretty harmful. We have been using age, especially “young” age, as a fast-disappearing commodity. I’d rather say, if this is 51, then this is 51. It’s a fact. It’s also a fact that many don’t get to see that age. So, I’m happy I get to be this age. I’m happy to be alive.
I’ve seen young children with eyes that have seen trauma and disappointment and their outlook toward life is a pessimistic one because they’ve lost hope. I’ve met octogenarians who are filled with life, laugh a whole lot, and make you want to be like them when you grow up.
Do you feel old for your age? Young for your age? Just right? Are you in step with your peers?
I don’t know what that means. What does “feeling old (or young) for your age” mean? Am I wiser than others around me? Do I have more physical issues than others? Do I feel more mature in thought, action and words than others? I don’t know. It’s what life deals you and how you deal with what’s thrown at you. I’ve seen young children with eyes that have seen trauma and disappointment and their outlook toward life is a pessimistic one because they’ve lost hope. I’ve met octogenarians who are filled with life, laugh a whole lot, and make you want to be like them when you grow up.
As for me, my philosophy is that I can be 51 only once. Mentally and physically, I am much more active than I was a decade or two ago. I laugh more, I love more, I live more. Does than mean I don’t act 51? I don’t know. This is what 51-year old Madhushree Ghosh acts like. And I don’t question it, because frankly, in this year three of the pandemic, none of us have any control over what life will deal us tomorrow. So I enjoy each age, each day, each circle around the sun and I hope my peers are doing the same.
What do you like about being your age?
Middle-aged brown women like me have an advantage. The advantage of invisibility. We were brought up as Gen-Xers to continue to look for, and gain the likability factor. We were brought up to be obedient, submissive and certainly not bossy. We were brought up to focus on getting married, having children, and making the marriage work.
I did what my parents wanted me to—we were the progressive family and education was most important to the Ghoshes.
The concept of “40 is the new 25” or whatever the latest slogan is, is actually pretty harmful. We have been using age, especially “young” age, as a fast-disappearing commodity.
When I married, I married on my terms. I remained childfree on my terms. A decade later, I divorced on my terms. Living as a single, middle-aged brown woman in San Diego, I live on my terms. I may be invisible to men in my community and yes, I am generalizing here—rather, ignored because what do you do with a devil-may-care-attitude South Asian woman?—and that’s my advantage. I am not looking for validation from the patriarchy. I am not looking to be liked. Which means, I live my life actively focusing on supporting other women, other writers of color, and writing about things especially related to food, science and social justice, without the proverbial likeability dagger hanging over my work.
We don’t have to be liked to do what we think is good for all. But the surprising part of how I live now is that the minute I stopped caring about what others thought, that attitude led to a freedom of expression I was unfamiliar with, and boy, it is such joy, this expression, this freedom!
What is difficult about being your age?
Not much actually. Sure, aches and pains that weren’t there in my twenties have miraculously materialized. Mammograms, colonoscopies and pap smears are part of regular healthcare checks. But I take all of that as reminders of my mortality and my gratitude that I am still here. My brain still works in ways it didn’t earlier. My lack of fear of speaking my truth is truly a lovely place to be. So no, it’s not difficult to be 51 and I can’t wait to be 52.
Mentally and physically, I am much more active than I was a decade or two ago. I laugh more, I love more, I live more. Does than mean I don’t act 51? I don’t know. This is what 51-year old Madhushree Ghosh acts like.
What is surprising about being your age, or different from what you expected, based on what you were told?
I was told we slow down at 40. It’s been over a decade, I’m still waiting!
I’ve been way more productive as a writer, as a social justice activist, as a patient advocate in oncology diagnostics than I ever imagined I could be. Being in science, technology doesn’t scare me. Being a writer alongside, I am curious to see other worlds of writers through their words. But I was told that by the time we are 50, we are slower, we are winding down, we are “settling” for what life brings us. And I couldn’t be more grateful and more satisfied with each day that brings me newer surprises and joys that I could only hope for in my thirties and forties.
What has aging given you? Taken away from you?
Aging has shown me perspective, helped me make strong female bonds with others my age—middle-aged women are powerful, we just don’t talk about it! Aging has given me a curiosity of what else is there that I could learn from. I have received joy, love, and friendships at this age that were unexpected and continue to bring me unbridled happiness. Surprising and happy to be surprised.
What aging has taken away from me is trivial compared to what it’s given me. The eyesight isn’t as it used to be. The knee and back surgeries bring pain at a different level but they also remind me that I still have a somewhat workable body. Aging means one loses our parents, our previous generations—we don’t talk about the death of our parents much, do we? I lost them both when I was in my thirties and it’s been decades for me. I feel their loss and their absence like the ache in my knee on cold winter days. Aging shows you grief. But aging gives you memories that only you have. Aging teaches you acceptance and in that acceptance is hope that we are doing okay.
How has getting older affected your sense of yourself, or your identity?
I think I’ve become a bigger smartass with my attitude! I don’t look to others for praise, validation or joy. I’ve become more comfortable talking about my life as a South Asian woman of science, a woman of color, a food writer who is also a scientist and a social justice activist who uses words and actions equally to ensure she will leave this world a better place than it was when she came into it.
I may be invisible to men in my community and yes, I am generalizing here—rather, ignored because what do you do with a devil-may-care-attitude South Asian woman?—and that’s my advantage. I am not looking for validation from the patriarchy. I am not looking to be liked.
My identity is certainly more defined, but I also feel being older gives me the ability to acknowledge my own biases. I work to unlearn my biases, I work to learn how to be better. The confidence I have in what I can offer is so different than when I was just a Type A 20-year-old showing off to the world. Now it’s a confidence of experience, of common sense, and a sense of knowing what I bring to the table. My identity, which combines food and immigrant writing with science and social justice, was forged over years, and that’s why that confidence is pretty unshakeable and frankly, powerful.
What are some age-related milestones you are looking forward to? Or ones you “missed,” and might try to reach later, off-schedule, according to our culture and its expectations?
In this garbage pandemic, I celebrated turning 50 and then 51. I celebrated it on Zoom with my friends and even though I live to feed my friends and community, I had to keep it low key and didn’t regret that at all, because we were doing the right thing by social distancing. However, what I’m looking forward to is, when this is “all over” and “all over” it shall be, I intend to celebrate those birthdays like my birthdays when I was 5 or 6. There will be food, giggles, music, poetry, and joy, joy, joy.
The other milestone isn’t really age-related but divorce-related. I have been happily divorced since 2016. The day the papers came through, I worked a fourteen-hour day in a different city, went to dinner, drank an old fashioned by myself at the bar, and headed back to bed in my hotel room. It was an ordinary day. I didn’t feel anything sad or happy or anything magical. But as I reflect on the life I left behind, the life I’ve created, and the world I’ve built, I realize it is a life worth celebrating. So, when all this is “all over” there will be an after-divorce celebration party with all my uncoupled, strong, middle-aged friends who understand the journey, the freedom and the lives we have all built.
What has been your favorite age so far, and why? Would you go back to this age if you could?
My favorite age has been, believe it or not, 50. Though 51 is amazing too. The reason being, that’s when my book, Khabaar: An Immigrant Journey of Food, Memory and Family was acquired by University of Iowa Press for publication in April of 2022. It has been a labor of love for two decades, so while I could have sat through the pandemic moping and worrying and waiting, instead, I worked with the amazing copyeditors and concept editorial team members of the press to make this book as good as I could.
Creatively, I enjoyed bringing my work to the next level, I started work on a documentary series, created the idea of a podcast, worked in oncology diagnostics, and spearheaded a diversity, equity and inclusion program that led to a mentorship pilot program for emerging leaders in biotech in my company. All in that one year! So yes, I am immensely grateful, and extremely excited about what the future will bring, but at 50, I finally felt what I was about, what I did, what I wrote led to a direct effect that has been positive and promising for all.
I don’t think I’d go back to 50—because scientifically it’s not possible 😊 but 51 seems to be similar and as good. So I have faith in the universe, that what you input is the output you get. Do good and good shall come to you—the timeline of which may not be in your control, but it will happen.
The minute I stopped caring about what others thought, that attitude led to a freedom of expression I was unfamiliar with, and boy, it is such joy, this expression, this freedom!
Is there someone who is older than you, who makes growing older inspiring to you? Who is your aging idol and why?
Hands down and always, Arundhati Roy. I love her quiet confidence, her resolute passion to call out inequity and discrimination, her voice when she knows she will run into trouble with the current Hindu nationalist government, and her writing that continues to amaze, educate, empower and enlighten. But more importantly, I love that she ages with the confidence of a person who isn’t there to prove anything. I love that the brilliance of her smile remains bright. I love the grays of her hair that makes a halo around her face. I love her activism. I even love her problematic stances because it shows she’s working through issues, and complex questions, and sometimes her opinion may not be ours. I love that she’s human. That’s who I want to be when I grow up—someone who takes pride in all the steps that made me, me.
What aging-related adjustments have you recently made, style-wise, beauty-wise, health-wise?
I think we make those adjustments daily and in bucketfuls right around New Year’s Day! I try to eat mindfully—I work very closely with urban farmers in San Diego, an effort to understand local, locally sourced, organic, slow food. I grow or try to grow my own seasonal greens, so I’ve been eating that from my little urban backyard garden. Is that hokey? Probably. Is that too hippy dippy liberal? Likely. Was I like this a decade ago? Absolutely not. I think as we age, we focus on joy, peace and ultimately, quiet. Growing my own vegetables gives me that. Cooking, and cooking for myself, and sometimes for the farmers gives me that quiet. It’s basically that I am working toward sustained mindfulness.
I understand the complicated relationships we may have with our parents, but for me, given that they died decades ago, I miss them terribly and I continue to celebrate my own birthday as a nod to them—look, you’re still here, through me.
Does that mean I’ve stopped eating meat? No, but I don’t obsess over it or seek it out as much. Which for a fish-eating, chicken-eating Bengali, is a phenomenal change!
Style wise, and maybe it’s more pandemic-induced, I am a free-the-girth kind of gal now. No more tight fitting clothes for me, ever. Ever.
Beauty wise, the routine remains the same. Kaajal. Lipstick. Earrings. Fun eye glasses. Other than that, remember to drink more water.
And don’t judge yourself, when you reach for that second gin and soda. It’s okay.
What’s an aging-related adjustment you refuse to make, and why?
Color. In America that’s what I noticed—older women just stop wearing color. If they do, we point out how different they are. I love color. I love the vibrancy of it, the playfulness of mixed hues and the contrast of clashing ones. My scarves reflect my sensibility, and I refuse to be the lady-in-black-always. Color is what makes me happy but also, I refuse to color my hair or remove the wrinkles from my face. They too make me happy—my grays, my whites, and the creases near my eyes and mouth. What joy it is to know that this face that was un-creased and unwrinkled has now lived through decades, losing its elasticity, grooving into ridges, furrows and folds, telling the world, look, look, this is what life is. What joy.
What’s your philosophy on celebrating birthdays as an adult? How do you celebrate yours?
I love birthdays; it’s the only day YOU were born. I also add that it’s the only day your mother birthed you, and a bond you have with your parents. I also understand the complicated relationships we may have with our parents, but for me, given that they died decades ago, I miss them terribly and I continue to celebrate my own birthday as a nod to them—look, you’re still here, through me. As long as I can talk about them, write about them, celebrate them, they’re alive. As long as I am here on earth, they will be celebrated and my birthday is one of those days.
I celebrate my birthdays by cooking for my people. I am fortunate to live in San Diego where farm food is plentiful 365 days of the year—I love highlighting memories of my childhood using ingredients from the country I now call home. I am fortunate to be around a group of friends who I’m proud to call my family. I think that term now is ‘framily’ (a mash-up of “friends” and “family”). In India, we used to celebrate birthdays by feeding others. In America, I continue the tradition.
Oh, I loved this one!! Pre-ordering her book from my local indie bookshop right away.
Not sure if "divorce-elated" is a typo or intentional, but am delighted either way.
I love this whole interview. Now I want to be friends with Madhushree and read everything she's written. The part about her love for Arundhati Roy really hit me. That she can love her problematic stances. That is so generous!
Something in here also made me think about how we/I use the term "old" as a pejorative. When I was a kid, everyone, including me, used the term "gay" as a synonym for bad. Not proud to admit that, but I said it too. Now, I use old that way. As if old means forgetful or weak. We have to change that. I have to change that. Starting now.