At a Saffronart jewellery conference in Mumbai recently, jeweller Viren Bhagat delivered a keynote to a largely adulatory crowd. He was accompanied by his wife, sons and a diminutive elderly lady – perhaps his mother or mother-in-law. I watched the lady in her crisp yellow sari as she sat quietly in the front row listening to his talk, and later as she sat amidst her family having dinner. She reminded me of my mother.
There comes a point in everyone’s life when you go from being the one taking charge – the adult – to the one being cared for. You go from handling things to the one being handled. In India, depending on family, this is done either with love or as an unshirkable burden. If you are an elderly man or woman, when do you go from being the name on the invitation to the “plus one” to your children? And how do you deal with the slow erosion of dignity that this entails?
For Indian women, this is a particularly tricky and painful transition, linked to age and locomotion. Both my mother and mother-in-law are at this point where they attend dinners or weddings and wait for one of us to bring them a plate of food. Some of it is linked to not being steady on their feet and not wanting to wait in the buffet line. For others, it is linked to the lack of self-confidence that comes with diminishing eyesight or hearing and a fear of an unfamiliar place or milieu. Some elders change and withdraw once their status changes – once they become a widow or widower. They literally shrink before your very eyes. Grief shrouds them like a cloak.
As long as you are in charge of your life and limbs, you retain dignity
So what is a good child or grandchild to do? How do you walk the line between taking care of your parents and giving them choice, freedom and autonomy? For me, after living around parents and in-laws for the last 10 years, I have decided that freedom and autonomy will serve them better long-term. It will keep their minds sharp and give them a sense of ownership over their destiny. The minute you start “taking care” of all their needs, handling them, they go from adult to child.
Dignity and decision-making are tied together. As long as you are in charge of your life and limbs, you retain dignity. Hand this over to your kids, or spouse, however loving they are, and slowly you sink. Some elderly folk are happy to let go, to let their kids – sons usually – take over their finances, to hand over the proverbial Tamilian “chaavi-kothu” or key bunch to daughter-in-law. They don’t want to deal with the chores of the household, the broken toilets, the dhobi-wallah who doesn’t come on time, the maid and cook, the newspaper bill. They have done it and don’t want to do it anymore. This is a fine thing. Perhaps your Amma or Abba may prefer to read the Quran or plan a trip to Mecca. Perhaps they only want to write “Hari Om” 1,008 times every day. Or simply engage with church and choir. You may think you are doing them a favour by taking their everyday choices out of their hands. But I would urge the opposite. As long as they can engage with the everyday of life, let them. Encourage them to talk to people, even if it is the vegetable man, because that is how they remember how to converse. Let them decide what Diwali or Christmas sweets to make because that is how they know how to take charge. The business of living is largely about choice, about decisions. Give that up and suddenly, your opinions stop mattering, you are dismissed as someone who is “out of touch,” who doesn’t know. People talk around you instead of to you.
A friend of mine is a busy advertising executive who lives with her in-laws at a South Mumbai apartment. For a long time, the arrangement suited everyone. My friend could go on business trips knowing that her kids were taken care of. The grandparents felt like they had a purpose. Sure, all was not hunky-dory. Small resentments simmered. But like many Mumbai families, they made it work.
Real estate prices rather than affection may be the reason couples live with their parents or in-laws. But in the larger scheme of things, I truly believe that the Indian joint family is a great invention. If the family is functional (without the depraving portrayed in the film, Monsoon Wedding), it is a great cocoon for the kids to be around their grandparents. It isn’t great for the working woman but it forces her to detach from minor irritations.
Best of all, forcing elders to engage with life keeps them young.
(This column addresses the issue of parenting our parents and other unique facets of This Indian Life and our culture. If you have stories about the weird and wonderful relationships that enrich or enervate your life, write in.)
Shoba Narayan is an author, journalist and columnist. Besides writing, she is interested in nature, wine, gadgets and Sanskrit. Her lifelong mission is to get fit without exercising and lose weight without dieting.