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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  1. It touched a chord somewhere. I too am from Palakkad but the last I saw of it was during the school summer holidays of the year 1961. Though it was 46 years ago, it seems like yesterday. I say this because I remember everything about Thondikulam very very vividly. I know that most of my contemporaries have moved out of the village to greener pastures but the older generation has got left behind for whatever reasons. This seems to be the order of the day.

    Added to loneliness is the problem in getting maids. I personally feel there should be a community kitchen that caters to the food needs of the elderly, thus reducing the work they will have to do.

    When you mentioned the black and white photographs, I remembered back in 'ooru' we had rows and columns of family photographs adorning all the walls. Since the TV was not yet invented, the old passed their time sitting on the easy chair waiting for anyone they could chit chat with.

    To think that Palakkad has changed so much! During those times we only had the agraharams. One would never have dreamt that flats would dot the landscape.

    I am really glad Pradeep that I chanced to stumble on your blog. It gave me a chance to reminisce. I plan to read all your blogs.

    All the best!


  2. Glad that I gave you a chance to reminisce; 50 years is an awfully long time be away from one's roots..Would be nice if you make a journey now after all these years but of course, the landscape would have changed totally and I wonder if there is anything that you may recognize there..

  3. It is sad .. the state of affairs with the current generation .. but it is the eternal struggle between following your heart and fulfilling your filial duties .. The older family model in India .. where everyone lived together always ... with grandmothers ..and mothers .. all looking after each others' children .. and complete pandemonium in the households at any given point in time .. were people happier then? Or does it make sense .. to break away from that setup .. and follow your heart (not materially speaking .. more in terms of fulfilling a dream .. studying ..etc) .. wouldn't that in turn make the current generation better equipped for aging more gracefully (considering they do follow they hearts till the end) .. and does eveyone end up in front of the tv .. flipping channels ... and waiting for their grandchildren who may or may not come back...?

  4. Can't say that one path is better than the other..Following your dreams is important but there may be a time when you end up eventually in a corner of a house waiting for someone..Sounds painful enough when you think about it..

  5. The way I see it, there are just so many paradoxes tied up to the issue of the aging and alone elderly in Kerala. For one, wages of the working class are so high, that people who hire these services have no choice but to be among the very highly salaried classed or an NRI in order to be able to afford it. I never understood what the halo around becoming a doctor was, when I was growing up. Now, finally I do. You need to earn like them in order to be able to run a household, pay bills, and build a house in your lifetime in this state. And all the non-doctors, have no choice but to go and earn their living outside the state. No pvt college here for instance pays the UGC_NET salary scale. You are expected for work for 12000 a month when in Jharkahand or UP you get 30000+.
    Domestic workers from a generation ago, see their mobility in terms of which social strata they are able to get their children into. Doesn't everyone after all? The teachers and petty govt officers of yore made professionals of their kids, so domestic workers want at least regular college graduates of their kids. A warped understanding of socialism, has sapped the dignity of labour. Young 'graduates', even if they cannot think an original thought in the subject they are supposed to have learnt, and got bye only by rote-learning the content in ''guides'', would rather be door-to-door salesmen or shop floor staff for Rs3000 a month, as against house maids for Rs5000. Besides, housemaids in the gulf get Rs15000.
    With a house, land and aged parents around you, it might be well worth it to give-up the 10-12k job you have and do ''care work'' and tend a kitchen garden, simply because, together they have an economic value that is more than 10-12k and offer MUCH MORE satisfaction besides. That's the point I think I am at.
    Other than that, there can be assisted-living arrangements for the parents of NRI's: very professional but at a price. But why not?