What Exactly Is It That Begins at 40?

When I was a teen, I would occasionally hear my parents and their contemporaries say “Life begins at 40,” a reference not only to advancing middle age, but – whether they were aware of it or not – to the title of a book, song and film from the 1930s.

The phrase came back to me as I sat down to write this recollection of an incident that took place when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in India (1968-70), with over a decade and a half yet to go before I hit 40 myself.

One way or another, I’d come to the attention of the local member of India’s national parliament, a well-educated, middle-aged gentleman whose name long ago evaporated from my memory. Curious about this young Hindi-speaking American, he invited me to his home in Chhatarpur, the major town in the district where I was living and working, for a wide-ranging chat over tea one Sunday morning.

I recall only one of the subjects we discussed: “love marriage.” This was a topic of great – bordering on prurient – interest among most Indians I knew, since traditional arranged marriages were the rule in that country. (And, I suspect, most marriages are still arranged even today.) The idea that men and women could mingle freely outside their families, and find, fall in love with, and marry someone on their own was a fascinating concept, a kind of “forbidden fruit.”

So my new acquaintance, probably aware of America’s high divorce rate, asked for my views on “love marriage.” His curiosity was no doubt a mirror image of the question that occasionally comes to Western minds when they look at a traditional society where all marriages are arranged: How can such marriages succeed when couples meet only on their wedding day and divorce is unheard of? How can two strangers come to be happy with each other?

Well, as those who know me are quite aware, I’m rarely reluctant to share my thoughts, so in response to the question, I launched into a lengthy, idealistic disquisition on the power of love – its ability to forge unbreakable, lifelong bonds. Of course, in my early 20s, without a good deal of personal experience in the matter, this was pure philosophizing, undiluted by reality.

When, at last, my lips had ceased flapping, my host turned to his youthful guest and said, simply, skeptically and memorably: “Ah, you’re too young to understand. Rascality begins at 40.” Immortal words.

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