Indian culture seems too distant and fragile to sustain old age.
After reading this
news item I felt like sharing it and since it's not written in any of the
Indian languages, it does not bring out the trials and tribulations .I
have posted in my Tamil Blog post .I have depicted the reality and one cannot
deny the fact that still it's a regular common feature that one sees in
Indian culture seems too distant and fragile to sustain
old age. A sense of tragedy haunts the future. One is forced to ask what is the
use of the idea of India, of all our pride in our culture, when the old are
left to die or live in indifference. One
of the most hopeful sights one can see on Marina Beach, Chennai, is to watch
groups of old people walking together, talking boisterously, comparing notes,
showering each other with a barrage of anecdotes. Occasionally, one can see an
old couple walking like a dignified pair, content with each other, as if their
walk is a continuation of their love affair. There is dignity, a companionship
and a beautiful everydayness to it. Parks and beaches are often scenes for the
celebration of old age. I must confess that these scenes are public and
reassuring. Yet, as one probes further, one discovers that this is a small
slice of the reality of the old age in India. The HelpAge India
report (2014) on old age abuse
provides an altogether different picture. The statistics are frightening and
the few interviews, deeply disturbing.
One of the most hopeful sights one can
see on Marina Beach, Chennai, is to watch groups of old people walking
together, talking boisterously, comparing notes, showering each other with a
barrage of anecdotes. Occasionally, one can see an old couple walking like a
dignified pair, content with each other, as if their walk is a continuation of
their love affair. There is dignity, a companionship and a beautiful
everydayness to it. Parks and beaches are often scenes for the celebration of
old age. I must confess that these scenes are public and reassuring. Yet, as
one probes further, one discovers that this is a small slice of the reality of
the old age in India. The HelpAge India
report (2014) on old age abuse provides an altogether different
picture. The statistics are frightening and the few interviews, deeply disturbing.
Based on a sample study of 1,200
people from six Tier I cities and six Tier II cities, the report suggests that
old age is a frightening prospect, an ecology of violence where over half the
elderly interviewed report to experiencing abuse within the family. Oddly,
while the percentage of abuse has gone up, the report indicates that at least
41 per cent of those abused did not report it. Abuse, choked within and caged
in silence festers like a sore. Fear and helplessness that there is no one else
to depend upon and few to report to, adds to the penumbra of silence. While our
myths and advertisements perpetuate the myth of happy old age, the data tells
us the behaviour of our society is an insult to old age
Old age, a commodity
When cities are ranked in terms of the
level of abuse, Bangalore tops among Tier I cities with the sample reporting 75
per cent of abuse. Among Tier II cities, Nagpur is highest with 85 per cent
interviewed reporting abuse. What is interesting is that such abuse is not occasional
but sustained with verbal abuse (41 per cent), disrespect (33 per cent), and
neglect (29 per cent) emerging as the three most frequent types of abuse
reported by the elderly. Despite their helplessness, the elderly are good
sociologists, analysing the roots of their abuse to emotional dependence,
economic dependence and the changing ethos of values. There is a sense that in
a deep and fundamental way, we are no longer a caring society.
While the numbers speak loudly, the
interviews, even if sparse and bald, capture the sociology of old age more
For many, old age is a space of
helplessness, callousness and indifference. Despite being caught in the web of
symbolic and physical violence, the old are still able to provide an
ethnography of despair. They point out quietly that old age has become a
The younger generation commodifies old
age by seeing the old as sources of pension, property, income. The old are like
the goose that must lay the golden eggs and move on. Waiting for the old to die
seems an unnecessary inconvenience.
Yet, when the old have nothing
more to give, they are seen as dispensable. Keshav, a 65-year-old from Kolkata,
complains that his wife and he are constantly abused because they do not earn.
His wife cooks for the entire family and yet they have to plead for a fair
share of the food. Worse, as the report notes tersely, “even requests for
medicine or clothes are met with taunts of their impending deaths and termed as
a ‘waste’ on them.”
The political economy of our new old
age becomes clearer in interviews. Old age is not a part of the ritual cycle, a
natural process where the old retire with dignity, providing a richness of
emotion and memory to the family.
Today, when the elderly wither away as
a commodity, a milch cow to be milked by greedy children, they become waste to
be abandoned. One literally sees them as “useless eaters” to be denied food and
medicines and to be eventually abandoned in the dust heap and suffer in silence
and indifference. Many of the old reported that they went hungry to sleep.
Politics of abuse
What makes the report so devastating
is that it is so baldly written. It’s a no-nonsense approach, its census of
violence becomes even more devastating because of a sheer absence of
sentimentality. It provides the facts and asks you to feel, feel angry or
When parents complain that they have
been reduced to being less than domestic servants, denied even their basic
needs, one wonders what happened to the idea of India, our sense of a
civilisation, the empty boast about our Indian-ness.
The report shows that the
vulnerability of old age is created out of the political economy of dependency.
The old probably grew up expecting their children to nurture and protect them,
sustain their sense of worth and dignity. What breaks them is the fact that
their children see them as being useless, a burden, and yet what adds to the
desperate poignancy is that they are not able to cut loose.
The family, memory, emotion becomes a
guise of dependency perpetuating the violence as the old feel there is nowhere
to go and no alternative system which could sustain them. The extended family
or the neighbourhood, the local politician or the policeman are of little help.
To the vulnerability that abuse creates, one adds a sense of helplessness. Old
age is now an iron cage from which there is no exit.
There is a touch of the new to this
politics of abuse. The tyranny of the regime is enforced by the son and the
daughter-in-law. The daughter-in-law is the new Hobbesian sovereign in these
sociological anecdotes as the mother-in-law becomes a desiccated old creature,
unrecognisable from the soap operas of old which glorified her power and
The son sides with the wife against
the mother upturning one of the oldest norms of domestic politics. It is also
clear that there is a generational change here.
The new generation wants the old to
give them property but then move on. They are not seen as part of the ritual
cycles of domestic life. The old grammar has changed. Old age, once a sign of
status, a rite of passage to dignity, is now redundant or pathological, a
problem for policy and social work, not for the family which states its
The report can be read both as a
sociology and a social policy. As sociology, the old themselves ponder on the
distance between generations, the absence of ethics and memory that could have
provided dignity to old age.
As a teacher I often ask my
students — a sensitive lot — to talk about their grandmothers, to give me
details about stories they have heard or food cooked. Most of them seemed
embarrassed, surprised with such intrusive questions; only one could talk of
his grandmother’s pickles with a zest that summoned a whole sensorium. For most
of them, grandparents have become occasional question marks, ritual burdens.
Few have recollections of stories told, preferring the narratives on TV or the
Internet. It is almost as if grandparents are like creatures out of Tussauds;
features that can be ignored.
I asked one student to describe the
touch of her grandmother. She almost felt repulsed exclaiming, “God, she is so
old and scaly.” An absence of memories and ethos of sharing disrupts the
ecology of old age. Dignity has become a rare word as abuse becomes the
The report also adds that for the
elderly, there is little knowledge of helplines or sources of appeal.
Shift in values
The report however raises a deeper question
in a tacit way. One has to understand that ours was a civilisation where the
old were honoured, where old age was a position of dignity and wisdom. Somehow
with modernisation, consumerism, individualism, the values of old age are no
longer part of our society, at least as reflected in the survey sample.
The question is does such a problem
have to be solved civilisationally or is it merely an act of repair, a creation
of social security to be effected by public policy? It is the erosion of values
that disconcerts one to suddenly realise that your grandparents are not a
refuge, a bundle of stories, a ganglion of memories, an appeal against parents
but an appendage, economically useless and burdensome.
The question is do we rethink the
norms of old age, treat it as a commons of stability and wisdom, and change the
values of our culture? The other alternative is to accept that old age is a
problem and accept that new institutions of support outside the family have to
be built. Social policy as a piece of plumbing and repair haunts the report.
Culture seems too distant and fragile to sustain old age. A sense of tragedy
haunts the future.
One is forced to ask what is the use
of the idea of India, of all our pride in our culture, when the old are left to
die or live in indifference. As children, we used to laugh when we heard that
the Japanese were buying land for old age homes in India. Maybe they had a
better sense of the future than us.