Some articles I agonize over. Some are a gift from the muse. This one was the latter. I dashed it off in half hour in the midst of hectic activity.

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Life’s grandest challenge: watching those we love age

Oct 21, 2012

My father shuffles. It pains – and irritates – me to watch him. But that’s how he walks these days.

He is 80 years old, more fit than my mother and my in-laws, but still not the lithe vibrant man he once was.

When I ask my dad if he has any of the aches and pains that all my aunts and uncles complain about, he thinks for a breathless moment and quietly says, “No.” I sigh and pray that I have inherited his genes.

His big thing is access to toilets. That’s his only complaint. An enlarged prostate, the doctors call it, a common issue for elderly men. There is little that can be done. You could operate but it is really not necessary, they tell us.

My dad won’t hear of an operation. He barely takes any medicines. When I tell him to pop a sleeping pill, he demurs. He doesn’t refuse, my dad. That’s not his way. He simply laughs and doesn’t engage.

This is common among Indians of my father’s generation – people who grew up during India’s freedom struggle. They don’t trust western medication too much. They prefer the holistic ways used by their parents and ancestors – drinking tulsi (holy basil) tea for colds, rubbing on some eucalyptus oil for a headache, and applying a warm herbal poultice for aches and pains.

My mother-in-law is the same way, as is my mum. They’d much rather use naturopathy or homoeopathy. Anything but popping a pill.

Their steadfastness irritates me. I chide my dad when he complains of poor sleep. “Dad”, I say, “all my friends in New York are on Prozac. What’s the harm in popping a simple sleeping pill just so you can get a good night’s sleep? At 80, what side-effects could you possibly have?”

What I don’t say; what I cannot say, is this: “What long-term side effects can you possibly have at 80? Shouldn’t you therefore throw caution to the wind and pop pills if you must? That’s what I would do.”

Not my Dad, though. He prefers the natural ways.

My mother-in-law frequently announces that the one thing she cannot stand is her children getting old. “I don’t mind getting old,” she says, as she colours her long hair black – her only vanity. “What I cannot stand is to watch my children getting old.”

It’s the same way for me. I cannot stand to watch my parents get old. Not for mystical philosophical reasons but simply as a child impatient with their instructions, admonitions and cautions – all the stuff that I have been hearing all my life.

When my dad tells me to make copies of my passport before a foreign trip, I roll my eyes, and then do it anyway. When he repeats for the umpteenth time that I should get a chauffeured limousine in Rome instead of taking a plain old taxi, I purse my lips and sigh. “Come on,” I think, “I am not a child anymore. I know how to take care of myself in a foreign city.”

My dad visits me everyday. My parents live around the corner and he likes to drop in. I try to sit down with him for a coffee at least. It doesn’t always happen. Sometimes, I prefer to check my emails or be at the computer when he visits. He sits down to read the paper, gets the lay of the land and reports back to my mum.

He doesn’t take much space, my dad – neither physical nor psychological. He lets me be, mostly. Except when it comes to documents of any kind: passports, driving licences, mutual fund reports. Then his methodical instincts get the better of him. That’s when he nags; and that’s when I start taking deep breaths. Lots of them.

When I get old things will be different. I will be different, I think to myself. I will be just as I am now – vital, energetic, not a nag, even saintly.

This then is what the Hindus called “maya” or illusion. We see our parents getting old; their slow ways and constant nagging irritates us. And yet, what we don’t realise, what we don’t internalise is that we are all going to end up in the exact same situation. It’s called ageing and it hits everyone. Even my dad.


Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir


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