The old man rings the doorbell and waits for a few seconds – by the force of habit of four decades. He sighs, reaches into his trouser pocket, produces a latchkey, and opens the main door.
Silent solitude salutes him, instantly.
He steps inside, shuts the door behind him, and walks into the stunning, palpable loneliness.
At sixty, the retirement age of Indian Central Government Services, he is old, and just retired; it is his last working day. He is yearning to talk to someone. He must unburden the chaos of mixed emotions wreaked by the solemn and life-altering moment. He cannot talk to his soul mate since she passed away some time ago.
He sits in front of the TV with a cup of instant coffee – filter-brewed decoction is a thing of the past, gone with his soul mate.
Finishing his cup of coffee, he contemplates calling his son in London. Missing his ever-attentive wife and yearning to speak to someone about the profound moment of his life, he dials his son’s number. He lets the phone ring twice and replaces the handset on the base…
…and waits for his son to call him.
The landline rings gently.
He picks up and says, “Hello.”
“Dad, you called?”
It is his son in London. The matter-of-factness of the tone and the greeting are upsetting.
No, ‘Hi, dad,’ or ‘How are you, dad?’
“I have retired, today, son. Had your mom been here…”
“Oh, congrats, dad, you can now put up your feet and enjoy life.”
“Dad…dad…I’m going home; can’t talk while driving; will try and call in the night. Bye.”
“Bye,” but the call is already terminated.
It is his daughter in Mumbai.
“Yeah. Listen …”
“Make it quick, dad. I’ve got guests coming for dinner; I’m in the middle of cooking now; I am tensed …”
“I am ‘tense’ not ‘tensed’ …”
“Oh God, dad, now, of all times!”
“Today was my last working day; I’ve retired. Had your mom been here …”
“Congrats, dad. Now you can enjoy your life; don’t have to run anywhere …”
“I need to talk to someone…”
“Call, bhayya, dad. I’ll call in the night. Okay? Bye, I love you, dad.”
Tears well in his eyes as the line goes dead.
This is the typical scenario of a typical old retiree. He is retired. He has lost his soul mate. He is lonely. He seeks the solace of a few kind words from his family, what is left of it.
Life has changed. The essence of the term ‘family’ has changed, almost unrecognisably, from the ‘undivided family’ or ‘joint family’ of yore. It has gone ‘nuclear’ now.
Life was easy; living was easy in a joint family, both for the old and young. Not just monetary and material resources, responsibilities and emotions were shared, too, a sort of ’all for one and one for all’ scenario.
Sons with their spouses lived with parents, grandparents, and other elders. The children and grandchildren would never run out of emotional security and support of the elders, the gentle imparting of familial and cultural values by grandparents, the knowledge-building efforts by the uncles and aunts.
The elderly were in caring company of their children and grandchildren. There would always be someone seeking their advice, drawing from the wealth of their experience, wanting to talk to them. They were never alone, in happiness or sorrow.
Simply, if one had a problem, one was not alone.
All this seems to be a thing of the past. The joint family concept is gone, forever, except for a few pockets in our country.
Nonetheless, must it become an excuse for insouciant indifference? I have strong feelings on this issue.
Indelibly etched on my heart and soul are the struggle my mother, widowed in the 1950s, underwent in bringing up my younger brother (who has since died) and me. Personally devastated, emotionally shattered, and financially precarious, she still found courage from the inner most recesses of her persona to guide us through the toughest phase of our lives. That being the case, it was binding upon me to care for her in every possible way when I ‘settled’ in my life and I did.
Every generation runs a relay race called ‘life’, receiving the baton of responsibility from the previous generation and, later, handing the baton to the next.
What do our elders need - wealth, property, automobiles, or trinkets?
Attention. Caring words. Compassion. Understanding. Wee bit time.
Same needs as those of their offspring, which they selflessly fulfilled attentively, caringly, compassionately, and understandingly.
Same security as what they provided to their offspring.
Lack of understanding of this sensitive aspect wreaks havoc with lives of the elderly leaving them to feel unwanted and uncared for.
Elders of the family, just like the children, need to be reassured that their children and grandchildren need them, want them, that they are not yesterday’s newspapers, that they play an important role in family affairs.
This must be done in all sincerity, not sham.
Children must realise the importance of elders. Parents and grandparents are needed not just when things go wrong. Their role is not that of babysitters or housekeepers. They render all these succours willingly and, in return, expect nothing but a kind word, a wee bit of attention. They are still entities with feelings, sensitivities, mood swings, in fact, the whole gamut of emotions.
They are the entities who moulded their children’s lives. They selflessly sacrificed so that their children could have a life. They ungrudgingly gave up on sleep to comfort a crying newborn. They unconditionally tended their offspring oblivious to their own frail health.
It is an emotive issue and one needs to handle it with utmost sensitivity.
There is something profound, pregnant, and poignant about it.
There is something Indian about it!
Let’s cherish it.
One needs to give happiness in order to find happiness oneself.
(To be continued in OLD AGE and LONELINESS – II)