A Calmer You, by Sonal Kalra: No, your parents’ house is NOT your house
So here’s the thing. We go around our busy lives, exist in the little bubble that our universe has become, and then sometimes a sudden gush of air blows it away, leaving us bewildered, vulnerable and angry. Such a moment happened to me, yesterday, when I saw mom in tears. Probing it led her to share the ordeal of a friend she had made during her daily morning-walk ritual. So these friends of my mom’s – the 75-year-old affable Mr Khanna (not his real name), and his lovely wife of nearly the same vintage, got the rudest shock when their only son dropped a bombshell last week that, without informing them, he had sold the house they are living in. And that they had 15 days to move to a ‘luxury’ old age home outside of the city, that he has already registered them in. Hello, if you have also been an idiot like me, going through life thinking that Baghban-kind of stuff only happened in Bollywood movies, then slap yourselves to reality and listen to this.
This gem of an offspring of theirs has lived in the US for a decade, and was, for the past few years, trying to convince his dad to sell their three-storey bungalow – valued around ₹8 crore – as he desperately needed money for a business he had invested in. The parents did not agree, telling him to wait till they were alive, and then do whatever he wanted to with the property. He did not want to wait any more. He also saw no logic in why his parents would not let him sell the property at the time that he needed the money, and when they could easily move into a one-bedroom apartment for the remainder of their lives. He was being ‘practical’, he said. “Ab aapke marne ki wait karoon?” – if you wish to hear the exact words.
This gem Khanna is their only child. He has been a good son, visiting India every year during the annual Christmas break, bringing along fancy gifts and grand children who speak with an accent. The elder Khannas proudly flaunted both. Three years back when he needed to show some asset base to apply for a green card, they had unflinchingly agreed to transfer the ownership of their house in his name. After all, “usi ka hai sab kuchh,” they’d said, then. “The worst decision of my life” – now says Mr Khanna, bitter, hurt and terrified at the prospect of vacating their home of 42 years, in 15 days. In the interest of fairness, I must mention that over the years, the son asked his parents to move to the US with him, but they did not want to leave their comfort zone.
Anyway, since this shocker, the relatives have been visiting and duly fulfilling their duty of making them feel worse. Some have suggested legal action against the son. He, in the meanwhile, has been mailing them photos of how the old-age home has a chess room, a doctor on stand-by, and once-every-two-days laundry service. He said he’d be sending them 30,000 bucks a month as ‘pocket money’, and would visit them with family. They are wondering if they are a family anymore.
I tried reading up on whether cases like those of the Khannas are on the rise, considering that we look at physical or emotional abandonment of parents to be an essentially Western phenomenon. And came across a 2018 report on the abuse of the elderly, by HelpAge India. It throws us some stats which may as well have been slaps on our faces. Here:
A survey, conducted in 23 cities in India, showed 60% of elderly people (60-69 years of age, of both genders) confirm that they felt abused at the hands of their children. The abuse ranges from disrespect and neglect to verbal intimidation, from physical assault to abandonment.
The main abusers were son (57%) and daughter-in-law (38%).
82% of the senior citizens facing abuse at the hands of their children did NOT report it in any manner, primarily for the fear of the family reputation, and also to avoid hassles.
Only 11% of those surveyed were aware that there exists a Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act 2007 under which they can legally implicate their children who are not taking care of their well-being – physically and financially. Even from the ones aware, not even 2% had ever taken any action or ever filed a formal complaint.
Dekho yaar, just like you, I’ve always been super proud of our Indian value system vis a vis the West, perceived to accord scant respect to familial bonding. I take heart that the same report suggests that approximately 85% of Indian senior citizens still live with their families. But, the larger debate of a joint family versus a nuclear one has very different dynamics that are beyond the scope of this piece. The graver issue of abuse towards the elderly seems to suggest that our value system has somewhere corroded right down to the middle. We seem to falsely equate this problem with the more pervasive ‘mother-in-law fighting with the daughter-in-law’ kind of a scenario but the bigger issue lies in the very way we, as a generation, are looking at finances and property earned by our parents.
For all our spiel about progressive self-empowerment that we like to dole out at every opportunity, there is a worrying sense of entitlement when it comes to property and assets earned by our parents. And this sense is becoming more and more arrogant with the changing times. ‘Arre, woh sab hamara hi toh hai…aaj nahi toh kal’ – has now become – ‘Why kal, why not aaj? If I need the money now, I should not be made to wait for my parents to die for me to be able to use the assets I’m anyway going to legally inherit’.
C’mon, people – I get the twisted logic in the whole ‘inheritance’ argument, but what about the fact that even if they are ‘merely sitting on it’, it is, at the end of the day, your parents’ money. Unless, of course, you happen to be an erstwhile royal and your family owns a hand-me-down-over-generations castle. If you’re not, please go earn your own assets, and then go bid them in an auction for all anyone cares. But to drop bombshells on old parents and giving them stress over not parting with theirs, smacks of plain cowardice. If either of my daughters ever says this to me regarding the house I have built with every penny I saved all my working life, I would ask her to take a hike. I seriously would. And I seriously would expect myself or my brother to be told the same if we decided to pull a similar stunt with our parents.
The HelpAge report quotes moving statements of some of the elderly people surveyed:
“My sons want to sell the house to start their own business, they often ask me when will you die.” — 63-year-old, Inderjeet Singh (Amritsar)
“I sold my old property and purchased a flat as I did not have house to live in. My son just left me to fend for myself, as he wanted all the money for his own business.” — 64-year-old, Siddesh (Dehradun)
“I am suffering from a disease and do most things on bed, my daughter-in-law fights with my son due to sanitation/hygiene problems caused by me.” — 75-year-old, Amit Srivastava (Nagpur)
“The behaviour of my son has changed after registering the property in his name. He now harasses me frequently.” — 75-year-old Abdul (Bhopal).
In my quest to dig deeper, I spoke to Ravi Kalra, founder of the NGO Earth Saviours, who rescues and rehabilitates abandoned people. And some of the accounts he shares will chill you to the bones. “Among the 450 homeless people living in my shelter in Bandhwari on the outskirts of Delhi, around 150 are senior citizens abandoned by their children. It is tough to believe but some of them have suffered the most heartless and callous behaviour. There is a very senior army officer from south India whose children beat him up and left him on the road. He came to us in a bad state. In another case, a young, affluent man from Delhi came to drop off his old father here. We turned down his request as we knew he could very well take care of his dad, knowing his financial and social status. We tried counselling him about his duties towards the old man, hoping he’d have a change of heart. Next morning, we found his father tied to a pole in front of our shelter. The son had just left him there. That man could have frozen to death.”
I don’t know what’s right or wrong. But here’s the thing:
Young people – get over the sense of entitlement, now. If you didn’t earn it, it is NOT yours just because you were born to those who earned it.
Old people – shower however much love you wish to. Write it to them in a will, but while you are alive, do NOT transfer your home in the name of your son or daughter. Your kids may be wonderful, but circumstances are always not.
Sonal Kalra was feeling sad for the Khannas but out of curiosity, she checked out the website of their new home. It has a spa and a gymnasium, too. Anyone? Mail your thoughts to sonal.kalra @hindustantimes.com or facebook.com/sonalkalraofficial. Follow on Twitter @sonalkalra