Until that evening, I thought a hospital was the most depressing place on this planet. In a hospital, there is at least hope. In an old-age home, there is none — the inmates are like passengers of a bus that is taking them to the sunset of their lives. In the fading sunlight, they can only observe the world from the window; they are not permitted to alight until the bus has reached its final destination.
Quite symbolically, the sun had begun to set by the time I could locate the old-age home I was visiting to research a book. And quite ironically, the home happened to be situated right next to a park where elderly men were already out in their walking shoes — some of them would get back home to have their quota of two small drinks before dinner, some others would play with their grandchildren or help them with homework.
But in the old-age home, the inmates had no home to go back to; that was their home. A cold silence greeted me when I walked in. Not a soul in sight. I tried to listen for footsteps or coughing, but I all I could hear, in the silence, were sighs of resignation and the chirping of birds from the park. I was spotted soon enough by an attendant, who quickly rounded up the residents in the hall so that I could interview them.
It was the same story repeated over and over again: once upon a time they were a happy family until the sons landed dream jobs in the U.S. and the daughters got married to respectable professionals settled abroad. The elderly parents suddenly found themselves stranded in their own city. When one of them died, the surviving parent was either forced or coaxed by the children, all leading prosperous lives abroad, to move into the old-age home. No parent categorically blamed the children; all of them claimed that they had moved into the home out of their own choice. Except one woman — let's call her Ratnamma.
Ratnamma, 74 years old, was bitterly critical of her daughter. "My husband and I were living together until he died two years ago. Within 10 days of the funeral, my daughter brought me here. Imagine, she is my only daughter!" she seethed.
Ratnamma could only speak Tamil, and the inmate who acted as my interpreter had initially tried to present me with toned-down versions of her outbursts — it was quite obvious that he didn't want to bring a bad name to the 'children'. But Ratnamma had sufficient understanding of English to realise what the interpreter was up to. She rebuked him: "Let him know what I have been through." After which the interpreter began translating her sentences verbatim.
"I would have liked to stay with my daughter after my husband's death, but no, she did not allow me to!" Ratnamma went on. “She just dumped me here!"
"What does your daughter do?" I asked Ratnamma. "How old is she?"
"She is 42, she is an engineer. She is earning quite well. She has a son who goes to school."
"Why doesn't she want you to stay with her?"
"She says: 'Amma, who will look after you when I go to work and the child goes to school?' Am I bedridden to be looked after? Tell me. I get my pension. I am not going to be a burden on her."
The other inmates looked away in an uninterested manner as Ratnamma continued her tirade. They did not want to be seen in the same boat as hers.
"What does her husband do?" I asked.
"She is divorced. She and her child are living alone. Still, she is hell-bent on keeping me here!" she said.
Suddenly, there was silence. The anger on Ratnamma's face began to melt into embarrassment. "But I must say that my daughter is of good character," she sought to clarify.
"Good character!" the interpreter mocked her, seeking his revenge. "All this while you were saying how bad she is."
"She may be bad," Ratnamma fought back, "but her character is good."
Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, May 14, 2011.