The Itinerant Indian Elder
Every summer huge numbers of Indian senior citizens cross national borders to be with their children, grandchildren and other relatives abroad. To these numbers, a more recent addition has been group excursion arranged by travel agencies to exotic locations that are sometimes considered more comfortable, convenient and more glamorous than exploring local destinations. A generation ago, it was only the wealthy Indian who could think of frequent travel abroad, but now it seems that the Indian international visitor has come of age. Airports, flights, city streets, shopping centres and parks in cities as far as Sydney and Seattle, and also closer ones like Dublin and Dubai are dotted with couples or groups who are instantly identifiable by some characteristic features. Apart from our distinguishable features, incongruent sartorial choices, there is usually an olfactory trail of freshly cooked meals that accompanies our movements. Furthermore, as the notable writer Gurcharan Das once commented decades ago, an Indian outside of India always seems somewhat out-of-place, a bit like a stray blade of grass on a concrete track. I too have noticed this look of displaced innocence and vulnerable confusion that many of us tend to manifest, perhaps unwittingly. Maybe this has changed over the years as we get more comfortable with travelling long distances, and learn new ways of adapting to novelty.
The number of young Indians who travel to study and work outside India continues to rise and the parents they leave behind make periodic visits. It is a phenomenon that many experience and a few write about. In a heartfelt piece in the Times of India, Junnarkar writes:
“With a lump in my throat, I write about the people who made it possible for us to get where we are in life. These are the folks who toiled away several years of their youth, spent a chunk of their retirement savings, took out loans and made sure they left no stone unturned to get us to our destination. It is on these stooped shoulders that we stood tall so we could reach unimaginable heights. No, they don’t remind us of this. After all, this is what most Indian parents do and how can they have any complaints when they are the much envied, admired parents who managed to run ahead of the rat race and send their offspring abroad. Often perceived as the lucky ones whose children fulfilled their dreams of leaving Indian shores and settling abroad, they are the parents who holiday abroad, get expensive gifts sent by their children and for whom money is not supposed to be a problem. And it’s true in most part. But between the broad smiles, behind the cheerful exterior and in those moist, rheumy eyes lies an untold story – A tale of loneliness, anxiety, fear and uncertainty that they would rather leave untold.….
……Of course, we invite our parents over to our place and take them around sightseeing and touring. Occasionally, we send them on group Europe tours, with other similar parents. On their visits to us, they get to spend quality time with their grandchildren and all seems well. But once the attraction of sightseeing wears off, settling into the routine in a foreign land different from India gets difficult. We expect them to look after the house, cook, babysit the children and they dutifully oblige. But often, our parents are elderly and it is difficult to adapt to new surroundings where the lifestyle is different from what they are used to in India. Using strange gadgets and equipment around the house like a washing machine or dishwasher, using an awkward slippery bathtub for a shower when they are used to a bucket and mug, using a western-style toilet, using the cooking hob, getting used to fire alarms, wearing unfamiliar winter clothing- all become daunting tasks. Not being able to go out alone by public transport and being dependent on one’s children to go everywhere, especially in the US, is something that takes times to get used to. Not having any company of their age is another factor to come to terms with. Once the children have left for work and grandchildren are off to school, there is nobody to see either outside or in the house, with alien television channels for entertainment. The weather is the biggest adversary, especially when it’s bitterly cold compelling them to stay indoors for fear of falling down or falling ill. Ill health is a big worry as medical insurance will not pay for a lot of conditions and the last thing they want to do is be a burden on their children in any way. Most parents bring along their medication from India for all the months they will stay abroad and are constantly worried about their medicines falling short or if they need new medication.“
Last year we did a small piece on the Indian elders and their negotiations of international air-travel. We opened up the conversation with a casual observation that, unlike passengers from other parts of the world, Indians tend to seek wheelchair assistance for international flights more frequently. This led to a series of comments from our readers that can be found here. We also posted an incident with a couple from Nepal on their first international trip to Denver that raises similar issues relevant to this discussion.
Wealthy Indians always had access to international travel, but for the hard working Indian middle class, the dedication to children’s education and careers has led to many changes, and international mobility is one of the consequences. The world had become a smaller place, at least up until the world was hit by a pandemic. As we read news about the vulnerability of the elderly in care homes in other countries, in institutions where the a large percentage of members have lost their lives on account of the pandemic, we need to also think about our own senior citizens, many of who are now forced to be by themselves, whether their children are in another city or another country. Plans for the summer would have been abandoned, tickets exchanged for vouchers which may never be used, these hundreds and thousands of senior citizens are having to cope with a strange paradox, in order to stay safe, they have to be by themselves, without assistance. This was something they had never imagined even if their health failed them. For those who are ‘alone-together’, a common expression among Indians, this period would have been much less stressful.
As I was trying to make sense of my own movements and the mobility of loved ones, I found this podcast to be highly informative. Almost all the questions I had about transmission from objects, the air, outdoors and closed spaces have been answered. Some doubts remain. As University of Minnesota epidemiologist Michael Osterholm informs us, it’s the air we breathe that is critical to staying well, and the “solution to pollution” even in this case, is “dilution”.
In a lighter note
To end on a lighter note, the weekly column Letter from a concerned reader in the Sunday Hindu provides a welcome distraction from the retired life of J. Mathrubhootham, who essays can bring a smile to your face even in these trying times. Whether about growing facial hair, making zoom calls or downloaded the crossword app, Mathrubhootham always manages to get a smile from his reader.