The New World Looks Ahead, Not Back: The elderly left behind with their times in the new India
We piled into a mini-bus and took off through the traffic wretched, exhaust poisoned streets of Bangalore. It took us over an hour to get to the outskirts of the city where we came upon the retirement home. We pulled into a long driveway and rode passed a cluster of workers assembling a new complex of buildings. An elderly man, who was the manager of the retirement home, came up to me and offered a greeting that sounded something like, “Welcome to Shanty-town!” I just laughed and looked forward to a rather humorous time talking to India’s dispossessed elderly.
In India, it is traditionally an abomination to disassociate oneself from family obligation, and the young, with scarce exceptions, take care of their parents when they reach old age. This is the grand model of family reciprocity that once was prevalent throughout the world- parents take care of their kids when they are young and, in turn, they are taken care of by them when they become elderly. It is a relatively simple system that makes complete sense; but, somewhere in the great influx of everything western and the burying of everything that is Indian, segments of the Indian population has begun bypassing this time-honored kin arrangement. Too many work obligations and a way of living that the elderly oftentimes seem to find despicable has cause many of India’s old to seek refuge in retirement homes, such as the one that we were visiting.
We tentatively entered the main courtyard of the complex and in the center of which was a large octagonal pavilion, beneath which was plastic lawn chairs arranged in ‘panelist’ formation (there were a small number of chairs set up in a line in front of a whole bunch of seats in multiple rows facing them). We did not know what we were in for and it made us giggle profusely. We sat down in the front row of chairs and waited for something to happen; luckily for us, nothing did. So we just sat there, and, eventually, our self-parodying jokes even dried up. Soon it began to rain and we got the impression that we weren’t so special after all. Really, who wants to speak with a bunch of white kids from the U.S.A. anyway? I don’t.
But soon our uncomfortable wondering was terminated by Manager-man, and he told us to follow him over to an area on the edge of the courtyard; which we did. We took refuge from the rain under the eave of one of the rooms. The rain continued falling real hard; Manager-man told us that the old folks though that we brought it with us. I could only wish; as any way out of this encounter would have been welcomed at this point. But nope, we were just beginning our visit. Manager-man soon turned on a small transistor radio which bellowed forth an amazingly loud sound. He put it on an Indian rap station, of course. So we were ten university kids from America standing in an Indian old folk’s home listening to rap music, which was turned up loud enough for the entire complex to hear. So we danced (a little).
After an extended time of jiving in this spectacle, we were lead over to the main dining area of the complex. Manager-man was at the lead carrying the still loudly rapping radio, and we follow along after him rather meagerly. We soon set up shop in the dining area and sat down to wait for whatever would come our way. And who would have guessed? Old-people began to slowly filter in to find out what the hell were doing in their little community.
I tried at first to abscond into the small sea of friends who were sitting at a table all together. Then, I got the feeling that I should probably make use of this opportunity and find out something about this big old India; so I tried to say “hello” to an old woman who was walking near me. She walked right on by without even noticing me or my friendly advance. I laughed, said, “fuck it,” grabbed some tea, and went over to sit by a couple old ladies who were huddled in a corner. They were an interesting looking couple and the elder had a beard that was comparable to my own. I began talking to them and found out that they were mother and daughter and neither had anybody in the world except each other. I did not know if I should have been touched or empathetic. Anyway, all personal confusion aside, I had a bit of small talk with them prior to turning around and finding a solo old chap in the corner of the dining area.
Figuring that I may have a more involved conversation with a fellow of my own gender, I began talking to him. He seemed to be pleased to speak with me and told me a little about his life and present situation. He lived out his younger days in Mysore and was an accountant. He seemed to have a good deal of civic pride for his city and told be about its’ artisan tradition and urged me to visit. I then began asking him about his family and inquiring about the circumstances that lead him to the old-folks home. He told me that his wife had died but he still had one son. His son was in the military and was stationed in the north of India and, henceforth, could not care for him. He was also all alone in the world, and did not mention any other deep family or friend ties. The old-folk’s home seemed the best option to him; at least he could shoot the sit with people of his own generation, relax a little, and have his meals prepared for him. He did not seem too upset about his situation but, from the engaging way that he spoke to me, I could tell that he really missed the company of others and, probably, his family. I soon said a temporary good-bye to him and went over to a table of elderly Indian women and few of my female friends.
I sat down, helloed everyone, and introduced myself. After this initial introduction the conversation seemed to wan a little; so I took the lead as asked one of the women to tell me a story. “The story of your life,” is what I asked for. This got things going, and after a few moments of thinking the woman launched into a tale. She said that she grew up during the time that England occupied India and that she could remember all of the vestiges of their occupation. During this time, she said that there were not many opportunities for women but, at her grandmother’s prompting, she entered into the schooling system. This was a very rare action for a woman to take, and she was evidently very much ahead of her time. After completing secondary school, she entered into nursing school and graduated with the proper credentials to pursue this profession. She did this for an extended period of time before she took a job as a teacher in an all-girls high school in Bangalore. She became the principal of this school and still participates in its administration.
I then began questioning her as to why and how she ended up in the old-folks home, as well as her feelings on the ‘westernizing’ India. Her mood became a drear, and she went on to tell us that she ended up in the nursing home because her son was a ‘modern’ man and did not respect the time-honed ways of her Indian traditions. She said that when she lived with his family they quarreled continuously, and that their mind-sets were not of the same times. I then asked her about what she thought of call-center employees and especially women in the industry. She seemed to try to hold back her true feelings on this but she expressed enough to indicate that she thought that these new industries were having a disastrous effect upon Indian culture. She spoke with distain when she said that, “People today make more money but they also spend more. They do not save. They do not listen to the lessons of the old. They have nothing.” This seemed to sum up the feelings of all of the residence in the old-folks home about the new generation of Indians.
But the old woman’s reactions to the India’s ‘westernizing’ movement did not fully sit well with me. She, herself, was a progressive woman of her times; she sought education, employment, and a higher social status in a society where women traditionally did not undertake such ventures. I wondered where she drew the line between what she did and what young men and women are doing today in India’s IT industry. But as I thought about this it became apparent that, while the old woman sought the surface vestiges of an unconventional role, she still kept the traditions of her culture close to her heart. She physically filled positions in society that were uncommon for a woman, but she did so in a manner that would not greatly disrupt her culture- she made sure that the substance of traditional India was passed down to her kids and, thereby, ensured that she did her part in the preservation of her culture.
This is not so today, as was obvious from her description of her son’s household. When I asked her if her son would pass on the same Indian traditions as she did to him, all she could do was toss her hands up in the air in defeat. She knew that the generational chain of cultural transmission would end at her son. It was all over, her heartfelt traditions were gone in the wind.
To lighten the mood I asked if any of the residents could sing any old-time folk songs. One woman, who remained quietly attentive throughout the conversation as she did not speak English, eagerly began singing a Mirabai song. She sang passionately and was nearly crying; we all were. She sang for us an ancient song that she learned from her fore-bearers, as they did from their fore-bearers, as they did from their fore-bearers into infinitum. I sat and though about ancient folk-knowledge and how it is dying the world over. This woman sat before me and provided a link into the past- to another world where people learned their livelihood from their parents, folk-tales from grandparents, and measured their world by journeys on foot. This is a world that is fast disappearing, and I felt blessed to be in the presence of one of its’ last cries, lasts songs, last dying appeals. Where are we going? Why?
As I write this I am listening to fireworks that are exploding outside my Bangalore flat. With well trod expectations, they burst forth beautiful colors with a boom; but they only last for a brief moment, and then they are gone. As such will be the accumulation of India’s great leap forward. I guarantee you India; putting all of your long tried family traditions into the firework rocket to explode will leave you with nothing. Take warning, is all I have to say to you, take warning, there is nothing behind the facades of the west. This I know, as do the people of the old-folks home. “This will not last,” they told me, “This cannot last.”
*Written in the autumn of 2006 in Bangalore, India
Anduze, France, December 21, 2007