“What do you want to be when you are older?” I asked my audience at the end of a storytelling session. We had been reading a story about astronauts, and the conversation had veered into a discussion of all the things the children could be when they were “growed up”.

“Doctor!” “Teacher!” they replied, with the rock-solid assurance that comes from being five. “Cricket player!” “Film star!” One little boy in the front row even yelled, “Butterfly!”

“When I am older,” I said, “I want to be a superhero.” I flexed my muscles, then mimed flying through the air.

The children obligingly giggled, and then one of them piped up. “But miss, you can’t. You’ll be old.”

“So?” I said. “Can’t old people be superheroes?”

They shook their heads grimly.


They looked almost pitying at my ignorance.

“They can’t,” said the future butterfly. “They have to be old.”

I pondered over those words as I made my way back home, this perception of older people as somehow restricted in their choices because of their vintage, relegated to a box labelled “Oldness”, brimming with age-appropriate paraphernalia – walking sticks and billowing kurta pyjamas, false teeth and little prayer book . No superhero capes in there. Did the elderly “have to” be a particular way; did anyone?

And yet, that little boy was merely voicing an opinion reinforced daily in the world around him. Pick up a book, switch on the TV, and the stereotyped portrayal of old people is hard to miss – we are part of a culture that reveres age, but glorifies youth.

We may respect our seniors, and seek to learn from their wisdom, but it is our youth that we deem deserving of a voice.

I burrowed into my memories of books from my childhood, trying to dredge up images of elderly characters in them. Where were they in the stock characters that had peopled those books? There were fathers who went to office, sari-clad moms who were forever cooking or cleaning while Papa relaxed with coffee and the paper, boys having adventures, girls being “girly”. Usually in the background, either as genial grandparents spouting wisdom and reminiscence, or grouchy geriatrics obsessed with outdated customs. Witches in fairy tales were invariably wrinkled and white haired; old age, a curse that had to be lifted through some heroic quest by the story’s juvenile protagonists.

Also common was the depiction of the aged as feeble, frail and helpless. Their displacement to an old-age home was an oft-repeated theme, and almost always depicted as a fatal flaw in the characters of the adults in charge. Rarely was an older character given a voice, a shot at character development, a chance to be much more than a set piece that was equal parts white hair and homilies. Rather, they blended into a soothing sepia-tinted background, against which younger protagonists played out the stories of their lives in brilliant technicolour.

Lavanya Karthik

In the real world, however, things are very different. Our seniors are running ultramarathons, setting records at athletics events, scaling mountain peaks, swimming with whales. They are dancing and singing, acting in films and on stage. They are starting entrepreneurial ventures, learning new skills, travelling the world, taking on new challenges, reinventing themselves. They are running countries and business empires, winning Nobels and Oscars and Dronacharya awards, changing the world with innovation and inventions. They are choosing to move to senior citizen communities, living independently of their families. They are dating, divorcing, marrying, raising families new and old. They are even, in some notable cases, robbing banks and running scams.

Characters in Indian kidlit have undergone a sea change from the stock portrayals of office-going fathers and hausfrau moms that filled my reading childhood. Mothers in picture books and novels are depicted as career women, fathers routinely cook and clean. Some parents are single; others, gay or in significant relationships. Parents are depicted as flawed, but also as less authoritarian than they were in books a generation ago. Young female protagonists are portrayed as assertive and good at sports, boys shown as responsible and nurturing, and involved with household chores.

But are elderly players in these narratives any closer to having their individual voices heard?

There are some notable exceptions to this dismal picture: Paati, the doughty heroine of Asha Nehemiah’s The Mystery of the Secret Hair Oil Formula, Anurag’s progressive grandmother in Ramendra Kumar’s A Tsunami called Naani, Jamila Gavin’s cheery Grandpa Chatterji. The eponymous granny in Rajiv Eipe’s Ammachi’s Amazing Machines effortlessly slips on a toolbelt and crash helmet to give her grandson a lesson in both cooking and physics. And Ranjit Lal’s My Nana was a Nutcase stars a fiercely independent retiree who lives – and loves – on his own terms, much to his daughter’s disapproval. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and I look forward to finding more books to add to it.

I want books setting our elderly firmly in the forefront of their narratives. I want books peopled with older characters that aren’t just snowy-haired pensioners, but clowns and villains, dancers and film stars, sportspersons and writers and bank robbers. And I certainly want to find my future self in a book someday – white hair, wisdom, superhero cape and all.

Lavanya Karthik is a writer and illustrator based in Mumbai. Her “Ninja Nani” series stars a senior superhero and her grandson.