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Eating butter chicken at 32,000 feet

Away from the routines of home, Mum and Dad can be totally different people

brunch Updated: Aug 04, 2018 22:36 IST
Shoba Narayan
Shoba Narayan
Hindustan Times
first business class trip,vegetarian,eating chicken for the first time
Travel, in case of some parents, is a way of recapturing their younger selves (Istock)

On the first business class trip of his life at age 87, my father, a vegetarian, decided to eat chicken.

This was the second shock that I had since my parents and I boarded the Jet Airways flight from Bengaluru to Singapore. The first was that my parents had never travelled business class.

When the stewardess came around to get drinks orders, my mum, a devout Hindu, asked for “sweet white wine”

I don’t know why I was surprised when they told me this. Yes, money was tight while growing up on my father’s professor’s salary. But I had assumed that my folks would splurge and spend – live it up – once my brother and I left home, or at least after we were gainfully employed and settled with spouses and kids. They hadn’t. My parents had travelled, but frugally. International trips were for a purpose – to take care of grandchildren. Business class was not even discussed. They still hesitate to spend ~ 500 and live well within their means. They may have saved enough money to send four grandchildren to college, but they still bargain for oranges and okra. At least my mother does.

When I decided to take my parents on a holiday last month, I didn’t know where we would go, what we would do, or how I would handle their fragile health. But I knew one thing: my folks were going to fly business class.

The Jet Airways flight from Bengaluru to Singapore leaves at a civilised 10.45am. My parents got on board, a little uncertain about what to expect. Dining whenever they wanted to was a novelty, as was the array of options: Scotch, vodka, and champagne. When the stewardess came to get drinks orders, my mom, a devout Hindu who just turned 80, ordered a white wine. “Sweet white wine,” she emphasised.

Travel, said Anaïs Nin, is a way of seeking “other states, other lives, other souls.” In my parents’ case, it was their way of recapturing younger selves. Shorn of their home, routine, and homeland, they slipped into long-forgotten avatars. Fuelled by alcohol – gin and tonic for my dad and wine for my mom – they giggled like the newlyweds they once were.

A snapshot of Shoba’s parents flying business class for the very first time (Shoba Narayan)

Hinduism divides life into four stages: the student, householder, forest-dweller, and renouncer. Ever since I got into birdwatching some six years ago, I cannot wait for my forest-dweller stage. My parents are in their 80s. They are hardly sannyasins, renouncing the material life for spirituality. They want it all; they do it all. In this, they are typical of elders today. They feast and fast, party and pray, are spiritual and social. They withdraw inward and yet seek new connections. They want to experience pleasure, travel to new and faraway lands. The notion of reading the scriptures and sitting quietly in a corner is not their idea of old age. As childhood gets prolonged, middle-aged folks act like teenagers and octagenarians act like recent retirees. Those of us in the 40s and 50s are caught in the middle, catering to the needs and desires of children and parents.

Taking your parents on a holiday is not a uniquely Indian phenomenon. People in the West perhaps meet their parents only on holiday, living as they do, not in joint families but far away from each other. In India, many families still live under one roof or within an apartment, as is the case with me. I see my parents on a daily basis. But these are short fleeting encounters to drop off some lunch, check on the plumber, or teach my mother how to order on Jaypore.com.

I explored lots of places as options to take them on a trip – from Seychelles to Dubai to Europe. Travelling with elders requires expedition-like planning. You need access to hospitals and medicines. You need to know people, and preferably the language in case of emergency. You need proximity to the homeland just in case there is a birth or death that your folks need to hare back for. Lots of Asian countries fit these criteria: Sri Lanka, Dubai, Thailand, and Singapore. We picked Singapore for a simple reason. I had lived there before and knew the lay of the land.

What I didn’t bargain for were the emergencies that ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. What I didn’t bargain for were the surprises, which were all pleasant. What I didn’t bargain for was that I would get to know my parents in a totally new and uplifting way. You think you know your folks and yet, they have the capacity to surprise you.

It began with a walking stick, which my Dad dropped onto a train platform while mounting the monorail in Sentosa. I’ll tell you about that next time.

This is the first of a three-part series on ‘Travelling With Parents’. Part 2 will appear on August 19, 2018.

(This column addresses the issue of parenting our parents, an integral part 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.)

This Indian Life appears every fortnight

From HT Brunch, August 5, 2018

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First Published: Aug 04, 2018 21:10 IST