The Indian’s common challenge: after an age, how to parent your parents...
We are united not only by our love of spicy food, cricket and movies, but also by the fact that many of us are parenting our parentsbrunch Updated: Feb 17, 2018 22:23 IST
Lawrence Liang, the winner of this year’s Infosys Prize for the social sciences, said something interesting in his acceptance speech. The slickly produced and perfectly paced Infosys Science Foundation award ceremony had much of Bengaluru in breathless attendance. This year, the gender balance was exquisite, with three women and three men each winning Rs 65 lakh tax-free prize with its boat-loads of prestige. When I mentioned this to one of the smiling schoolgirls, she pointed out that every person on stage was a man. Indeed all the jury chairs were men, as was every person on stage, save when the women walked up to accept their awards. Small steps, I felt like telling this impatient, bright-eyed lass of about 14, with her neatly folded braids and blue salwar kameez school uniform.
Liang is a legal scholar, activist and professor at Ambedkar University Delhi. His expertise is intellectual property, free speech and access to digitised knowledge. He said, and I paraphrase here, that one of the things that bothered him was the fact that he couldn’t discuss his ideas with his mother. And then, he said, it occurred to him that his mother embodied the ideas and values he talked about. This may have simply been a son rationalising what is often called a generation gap, but it raises the question: as ideas and language get more specialised, how do we communicate between generations?
Older and wise guys
I was thinking of this during a family get-together. I live in a large rambling joint family full of chewing-challenged elders who disdain dentures and own up to their gastric sounds without guilt or explanation. Each of them is a character, indeed a weirdo, and I say this with admiration.
It was the year-end. A good time to take stock and use the opportunity to pass on the wisdom of the ages to the young of age. So I sidled up to my aunts who were toothlessly masticating some lukewarm gulab jamuns and asked if they had any advice for the youngsters in the room. Mouths full of jamuns, they looked up like a clutch of inquiring chipmunks. One aunt burped loudly, looking quite satisfied with herself.
“Advice,” she asked. “Like when to get married and have babies?”
“No,” I said. “More like life advice or career advice.”
These were, after all, women who had held jobs, raised children and irritated their spouses to perfection. They must have something to say.
As ideas and language get more specialised, how do we communicate between generations?
So I persisted. “Not about weddings or babies,” I said. “Something that you have learned and would like to pass on to your children and grandchildren.”
They all gazed at me in that distracted, vaguely dismissive fashion of folks who have seen Partition, Independence and the Depression, but prefer to focus on more immediate concerns like if there was enough butter in the pav, and too much tamarind in the sambar.
“What’s your killer app?” I burst out finally. “Your life lesson?”
“What’s a killer app?” asked my mother-in-law.
“It is something that can solve all problems.”
“Oh, like an ottan-mooli,” said my dad, alluding to a Malayalam phrase I didn’t know. “One medicine that can heal many diseases.”
“Can it heal piles?” inquired an uncle.
“No, if you take a kashayam (decoction) of cinnamon and dates, you can cure not just piles but a gallstone too,” said an uncle.
“Didn’t Subbu have a gallstone?”
The joke’s on you
I felt like clapping my hands and shouting, “Silence or stand up on the bench.” I needed a drink.
“Please,” I pleaded. “Can we focus on the issue here? I need you to advise the children on some life skill. Like building a habit or learning an instrument. Something. Anything.”
There was only a minute or two left before these geriatrics would accost me with questions about how to poke someone on Facebook, or save some silly fire-bursting emailed greeting on their computers for repeated watching combined with stomach-shaking laughter, or bug me about finding a video in which an elephant rolls over on the ground. They were a pain, my relatives and like much of India, I am surrounded by them.
What unites today’s India besides a love of spicy food, film songs, cricket and big fat weddings? I would say that many of us are parenting our parents – and an assortment of uncles, aunts, and random elders whose children live beyond our shores. It is equal parts frustration and comedy livened with moments of tenderness that borders on the sublime.
(This fortnightly 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.)
From HT Brunch, February 18, 2018
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First Published: Feb 17, 2018 22:23 IST