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Fate of the elderly reflects a sad reality of modern India

The most talked about film this week, Baghban, could not have been released at a more appropriate time, coming in the same week as World Elderly Day.

india Updated: Oct 18, 2003 12:01 IST
FREEHAND| Soni Sangwan
FREEHAND| Soni Sangwan

The most talked about film this week, Baghban, could not have been released at a more appropriate time, coming in the same week as World Elderly Day.

That a film about elderly parents being ill-treated by their self-obsessed offspring remains relevant even two decades after the Rajesh Khanna-Shabana Azmi starrer Avtaar, serves to show how real and omnipresent the problem is.

Two years ago, we had written about Sardar Puran Singh, a gentleman in his seventies, who had been thrown out of his own house by his sons.

For several days in the biting Delhi November, the old man and his wife lived on the footpath outside their home. After we reported the story, the Chief Justice of India directed an enquiry into the matter and within days, the old couple was restored to their home.

This report led to a flurry of telephone calls and letters from all over the city — all from senior citizens with tales of how their own children were ill-treating them. The story of Baghban and Avtaar is repeated in several respectable homes all over the country every day.

One letter came from a retired Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer living in Vasant Kunj. Both his son and daughter-in-law work in large multinational corporations (MNCs). The old gentleman’s problem became known because some women in the neighbourhood complained that he was exposing himself in public.

The reason for this was that because of the water shortage in the area, the flush in their second floor flat would not work. Coming home to a stinking toilet was something that neither son nor daughter-in-law wanted. So they would simply lock the bathroom door every morning.

It was to relieve himself that the old man would run out into the street, giving an impression to the women around that he was exposing himself.

Then there was this lady who would simply call up to talk.

Her children had a busy life — professionally and socially — and had just no time to talk to her. The lady had just about everything in material terms but was completely alone emotionally.

Himanshu Rath of Agewell, a non-governmental organisation that promoted the concept of ‘rent a family’, recalls the story of a Defence Colony family that owns a showroom in Connaught Place.

The old man had turned over the reins of the family business to his son and decided to spend his retirement days with his grandchildren. He would come to Himanshu and weep. His son had apparently put him in charge of the grandson’s homework supervision. If the kid failed to do well in school, the grandfather would be slapped — one slap for each mark that the boy had lost in school.

There is an old man at the New Delhi Municipal Council-run senior citizens’ home, Sandhya, who simply lost his zest for life after even his grandchildren forgot about him.

He had reconciled to his children leaving him at the home, but had continued to retain some faith in his grandson. The day this grandson was to return from abroad, the old man woke up bright and early, dressed in his best and was the first person to sit in the bus at the home that takes the senior citizens out for the day.

He sat in the bus all day. When the home administration called his children to check if they should drop him, they were told that no such plan had been finalized.

Since that day, the light seems to have gone out of his life.

If reading about these people is depressing, imagine what living their life may be like. And there is really no need to imagine — with each passing year, even the most successful, most powerful, most influential among us is moving closer to being in their shoes.

Cruelty to the elderly in our families does not entail physical torture — though this is probably more common than you might think. It is the mental agony of knowing that your own children, for whom you did everything, do not want you around that is worse.

Escaping the emotional responsibility by placing parents in institutions is simply no solution. Experts argue that the integrational approach is the best. The poster girl of senior citizens who continues to be feted, Zohra Sehgal, is one such example.

It is sad to see that a country that is led by a septuagenarian, where people really come into their prime in their forties, and where the people’s life span is steadily increasing, we still need films like Avtaar and Baghban to hold up a mirror to the reality of what happens in most homes.

First Published: Oct 18, 2003 12:01 IST