Saturday, May 14, 2011

Life in a Metro: The Mind of a Mother

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.


Ardra said...

Had been to an old age home recently. Have not been able to shake off the sense of desolation and wistfulness that hung in the air. It stuck to my soul and remains there.
Most of them wanted to talk about far off memories of streets, celebrations.They remained drenched in the past as if it was just yesterday...

Your column appears only in the Chennai edition? :-(

Sepiamniac said...

Much as you might want to think that this is some nicety, I have to say this is a great way to begin your new column.

There are so many subtle truths about old age homes that you have brought out in this piece. One: definitely, there are people who believe it is better to check into old age homes rather than burdening their children.

However, they are not happy in a home, despite the fact that they are in it out of their own choice.

I know a neighbour, who chose to go to a home because he didn't want to depend on his only son.

But, seeing old people homes is heart breaking. In the evening of their life, the last thing they want is loneliness.

This piece brought a tear to my eye. You stopped by to think about them,when their own kids didn't.

sampat said...

i've been very much influenced by your blog and recently sent this link to THE INDIAN HOME MAKER'S BLOG

It's a feminist blog(?!)and since i relate to you a great deal,i would like you to check what debate has your post generated.

the excerpt of your post is at the end of this piece.Check out-

girlsguidetosurvival said...

..."She may be bad," Ratnamma fought back, "but her character is good."

Wao, did she mean her daughter is not promiscuous because she is divorced or she is not letting her mother live with her for she is promiscuous?

Is promiscuity the only barometer of charecter? We desis really have strange definitions and concepts.

May be this is a similar case
Read the post dated May 14 and 18, 2010

If you are researching on old age check Sarah Lamb's work, White Saris and Sweet Mangoes.

Desi Girl

Sudeep said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Neha said...

My dadaji always insisted to be sent to an old-age home in case he became very ill or his movements got restricted. And I always said that we will never let that happen, come what may. God-willingly, he was in the best of health and even took care of the family business till two days before he went away peacefully as if in a sleep.

I don't know what I have to say for children who send their parents to an old age home while they can take care of them. It's ironical that those who brought you up suddenly become a burden!

Payoshni said...

your writing has a certain romance to it.:)
chanced upon ur blog through IHM's blog and now cannt get enough reading through archives..

Keep writing !

Anonymous said...

came thru IHMs blog and man what a discovery.
atta boy
u had to b a journo