Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Twilight Dream

Every few months, we make a trip make to Kerala and the joy of going back to one’s home town has never been diminished despite so many years. After marriage, there are two of us now who keep making plans about the trip and despite the difficulty of getting our tickets, we manage to do it every time, even if it sometimes requires a 32 hour journey (like the trip we made this month).

In the midst of all the bonhomie of going back to one’s roots, there is a strong disconcerting thought that always plagues me. In every trip, we meet people, primarily of the elder generation, who wait for someone to communicate with them once a while. Every household or tharavadu has aging members, who have their medical problems but would still be interested to meet you. They would remember the family to which each of us belongs and go on a tangent about the family history; courtesy prevents us from stopping their flights of fantasy.

Many houses that I visit have grandparents who wait for their near ones to make their annual visit while they spend their time wallowing in front of boring television melodramas or reading the plethora of magazines that dot the Kerala paingili magazine circuit. Usually on the TV stand or the drawing room shelf, I see family smiling photos of their offspring beaming from distant lands – Gulf, US and Bangalore are the hot favourites I encounter regularly.

While the drawing room is in sync with the current generation, the rest of the rooms are more or less a reflection of the older times. The old grandfather clock still ticks in a few houses while the store room has a stock of all those things that I had seen in my childhood but have now made way for modern equipment. There are a few albums with those rare black and white photos that are slowly withering away after years of neglect; but they still hold a value unlike the snaps that adorn my laptop now.

The golden oldies have a similar set of complaints whenever I visit them – failing health, safety concerns, loneliness and very prominently the unavailability of maids to take care of household work. I see sprawling houses and a lonely car parked in front of many of the houses I visit but these are silent houses which break into joy only when kids come in during their school vacations. The outside money has brought in wealth and spending but not reduced the insecurity brought about by living alone.

The inhabitants battle a sense of boredom and live every day waiting for a call; so every marriage, child birth and pooja is a source of entertainment for the people. Regular stories floating around of old people being attacked and robbed when alone has also led to the growth of flats even in a place like Palakkad – something which was unthinkable even a few years back. Many of them have found refuge in God and karma and left things to fate – once upon a time staunch communists cannot seek Marx in times of depression.

The maid problem seems to be a Kerala-specific problem, a developed nation issue where menial labour has few takers. Most houses fund it difficult to hire and subsequently retain maids because it is much more lucrative to do small time Government jobs that pay more. The MGNREGS, with all its issues, is helping in giving better paid employment opportunities in the State but the unlikely fallout seems to be the maid availability issue.

This may sound like a trivial problem when you keep the lofty ideas of socialism in your mind but for many, this is a serious concern. It is compounded by the fact that lack of jobs at a more educated strata have led to a massive migration of people to other places. So, what you have is eventually a set of oldies who have to fend it out all alone, without sufficient support to run the house.

As things stand, the rapid spread of modernization, growing urbanization and crumbling of joint family system have led to an increase in the insecurity and loneliness among the population. We all have faced bouts of loneliness but there was always a future to look forward too but what happens when we touch the autumn of our lives? Will our children be somewhere in the vicinity to be available at our beck and call? This is a truth that will come to haunt all of us one day and I shudder to think of how we will manage this scenario.

Economically, we find ourselves as part of a generation that receives no pension; so what you earn and invest now is our only source of income in the twilight years. With spiraling medical costs and an increasing life span, we are committing ourselves to a substantial medical assistance as time progresses. Remember Aparna Sen’s touching 36 Chowringee Lane where the teacher Violet Stoneham is finally back to her loneliness as the young couple which dotes on her suddenly disappear from her midst. Eventually there will be just the two of us sorting out our old age trivialities and maybe waiting for the final call….

It is such a bitter truth to accept that once we age, we may not be so important at all – there would be the next generation who starts believing that we are impediments in the growth of this country. As I touch 30, I have already started feeling slightly cut-off from the current lot of teenagers who are born and live in a much more connected and consumerist world. Probably aging would start much earlier now and as you touch 40, you may be part of a population that is already past its prime. When companies hire and promote employees practically every year or two, there would come a time when you realize that Nature has caught up with you and maybe it is time to re-utilize your talent in better ways.

Just wonder whether begetting children is something that people do as an investment for their future. We have children thinking that one day when we grow old, there will be someone to take care of us when the legs tire and the body is no longer one's friend. But when the same children do not have time to be at your side, will there be a tinge of regret? I guess its a generation to a generation thing - after a few years, we are more attached to our children than our parents and we realize this when we grow up.

Sometime back, the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, while referring to the ageing population had observed: Trees grow stronger over the years, river wider and like with the age, human beings gain immeasurable depth and breadth of experience and wisdom. That is why older persons should not only be respected and revered but they should be utilized as the rich resource to society that they are.

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