There are many ways we have betrayed the core essentials of our culture and heritage, but it is perhaps in this, our disdain of our elders, that the betrayal reaches the nadir.
On a tour of the United States last year, one of our informal performances was at a senior citizens’ home. Plush lawns surrounded a series of low-set buildings. All the doorways were flat, without steps. The doors opened wide and were light to the touch. Wide corridors lead to the space which doubled as the auditorium. Other corridors pointed to a library, a gym. Three dining areas and a games room through well written and brightly-lit signs. When we arrived at the concert hall, over two dozen elders greeted us with grins and waves. By the time we were ready to perform, the room was full, with many seniors coming in wheel-chairs and many others with walking sticks. The performance-cum-lecture demonstration was greeted with much applause and enthusiasm and many from the audience wanted to buy the music and the books we had brought with us. One of my dancers asked me, “Can you imagine what it would be like to have such facilities in India?”
Cut to an old peoples’ home in Ahmedabad. As we enter the dusty compound some lost looking people stare vacantly at us. The manager’s office smells. He himself looks dishevelled and a bit hostile. “You have no idea how difficult these people can be. And there is always a money crunch. Food is so expensive and they make a fuss. They can’t eat this and that is not the way to cook that.”
I explain that we are doing a TV series on old people and wanted to interview the seniors for background stories. We are escorted to one room. Three women are sitting. A radio is on, playing bhajans. One woman can hardly hold back tears and keeps dabbing her eyes. “Her son had promised to visit yesterday but cancelled. She hasn’t seen him in two years. He lives in Manchester. He hasn’t seen her but she knows that he has come to Ahmedabad to meet his in-laws several times,” explains another more garrulous woman.
Why is she here? “My husband died a few years ago and I continued living in my house with my two sons and daughters-in-law. Then my third son returned after his studies and there were no more rooms. I offered to move into the living room and give him my room. So we did that. Then my sons started complaining that they couldn’t see friends as I was in the living room and needed to go to bed. I didn’t want to be a burden so I offered to move here. There was a big waiting list. I finally got in last year. I thought they would be happy that I was accommodating, and they would visit and ask me over often. But they never have the time. Not even for my grandson’s first birthday. I suppose I must have done something wrong in my last life to deserve this.”
We interviewed several others, both men and women. The stories of loneliness and neglect, of rapacious children only wanting the parent to sign over the home, were the common theme. As was the feeling of hopelessness and despair, despair at not being loved and wanted.
There are many ways we have betrayed the core essentials of our culture and heritage, but it is perhaps in this, our disdain of our elders, that the betrayal reaches the nadir. From the rishis to grandmothers, our elders have been the backbone of the transmission of heritage, of values, of lore and more. Can the school, the internet and TV really replace them?
The loneliness of the discarded elderly is manifold. When we forcibly remove people from surroundings they have been part of for decades we put an un-mendable tear in the fabric of their lives. In our system of living, the elderly at home have a circle of acquaintances, and friends. The newspaper man, the flower seller, the milkman, the sweeper, they are all privy to the chatting and sharing of news that the elderly find comforting. When we remove them from their homes, it is not only the family that they are being removed from, but all those other people that they see every day and whose joys and woes become their own. And it is the very walls and spaces of their homes, each carrying memories that are removed from them as well. Everything lost in one fell swoop.
I was brought up in a nuclear family, with one grandmother in far-away Chennai, and the others too austere to be close. When my brother got married he stayed in our family home and brought up his sons there. When I married and later became a single mother, I too moved just to the other side of the garden. All four grandchildren were brought up with Amma, my mother, very present in their lives, though she too had a hectic travel schedule as a dancer and speaker. She always told the best stories, and she always had something up her sleeve for them. Now both my nephews are married and have families of their own, and both have chosen to live with us and bring up their toddlers with the previous three generations. And each child has a special relationship with each member of the extended family.
There are irritations, and problems, of different likes and dislikes, of differing needs and tastes. But the joys and advantages far outweigh these. We know how to create our own little spaces, physical and mental, when to choose time alone, to be able to enjoy the rest. Yes, it takes time and effort to keep Amma feeling well, and cherished, but this effort brings out the niceness in us, the gentleness that reminds us that busyness is not what life is about. And I for one would have never had the freedom and career path that I have had, without the profound security of having Amma there, of knowing that in times of crises the right decision will be taken even in my absence.
So taking from my United States tour, India needs to adapt and bring in best practices from the western world to ensure that our country is senior citizen-friendly. In India the focus needs to shift towards providing them a comprehensive lifestyle rather than just housing facilities that do not provide for holistic solutions for seniors. There should be systems for just about everything — be it security, healthcare, wellness, specialised communities and we would like to imagine India — a country that facilitates seniors to enrich their lives.
(Daughter of classical dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai and renowned space scientist Vikram Sarabhai, Mallika is an accomplished Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam dancer. She is Darpana Academy’s honorary director and has been instrumental in leading the organisation in the direction of direct social change and activism)