No Country For The Old: Shunning Our Parents In Modern India

14/01/2015 8:09 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST
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Never do I feel the agonies of growing old more than when I visit Dehradun. Despite the quick proliferation of shopping malls and slick Puma stores, the town has still not lost its charm of grey heads and green hedges, if you know where to go looking.

Further up, amongst the twinkling lights of Mussoorie, it's a similar story. The sister towns are home to an assortment of bungalows overflowing with the kinds of stories you only otherwise find on your bookshelves.

In Mussoorie's quiet Barlowganj, on the edge of a cliff overlooking the raucous Jaypee Hotel, a 97-year-old gentleman lives all alone in a little one-room cottage, surrounded by window-lined corridors.

In that glass box, where the sun visits rarely and the wind frequently, this little cottage lives up to Bette Davis' adage: "Old age is no place for sissies." The major is definitely no sissy. Many times walking past his house, on days when the cold, cacophonous mountain wind is particularly nasty, I've wondered how he's holding up. A relic of the British era, the major will tell anyone who stops by for a quick hello or to drop off a piece of cake that his two children and five grandchildren, who live all over the world, have him busy on the phone most of the day.

I want with all my heart to believe him. I don't want to believe that he's imagining the phone calls and conversations, or that time has stood still for him, and all he has for entertainment is his mind, and memories. Possibly curled up in bed, cantankerous from the weather, the muscle aches and the loneliness.

Old age is tricky. Horror stories fill newspapers about old parents being abandoned by cruel children, and most of us, who have any kind of emotion, feel immense anger from reports like these. How can people be so cruel, we wonder? Locking up elderly parents in a room or away in pathetic, harrowing old age homes?

It's crystal clear who the bad guy is there. But when we stand in judgement of the more obvious malefactors, do we absolve ourselves of our own guilt of abandoning the elderly? When we expect our parents and grandparents--who sacrificed their entire lives for us, only to get forgotten in the melee of our careers, lives and future families--to move, are we not being cruel?

It's so easy for us to wonder why grandparents and parents who stubbornly insisted in living in cold, ancient homes in Dehradun and Mussoorie, are so unreasonable.

But what do we want them to come for? No amount of love can make up for that room they're shoved into, while the rest of the house gets on with their busy schedules. That polluted park they wander around for half-an-hour, or that mind-numbing television show they watch day in and out, is no barter for the towns and cities they are familiar with. Big Indian cities are geared only for the young, and are ostriches when it comes to the demands of the old.

It's an easy option in countries like America, where parents boot their children out at 18, and societal focus is very much on nuclear families. Yet, where they lose out on family values, they win with strong welfare packages, nationwide pensions and dependable free healthcare.

But in countries like ours, when the state fails, where mothers mother their children long after they've had their own children, how can we explain those very children abandoning their aged parents when life gets too distracting? Parents who save and scrimp to send their children abroad become victims of their own ambition.

Whose time is now? The children living their lives and trying to make something of themselves, or their parents, who after giving everything to the fruit of their loins, are now looking for time to unwind with their children near them? Do we expect the nation's youth to never migrate, or should we perhaps inculcate in them a stronger feeling of home, and responsibility?

(This piece first appeared in The Sunday Guardian)

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