From Kanubhai to Heeraben, India’s complicated relationship with the aged

The elderly are coming of age in India and how we’re reporting their stories speaks more about us than them.

WrittenBy:Sandip Roy
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Image credit: Kevin Frayer/ Getty Images News

It seems to be the best of times and worst of times to be elderly in India.

On one hand we have the ‘shocker’ of Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson being “discovered” in an old age home in Delhi by the media. On the other hand, we have Kerala and Tamil Nadu going to the polls today with M Karunanidhi, 91, in his motorized wheelchair leading the DMK campaign in Tamil Nadu and V S Achuthanandan, 92, addressing 64 rallies in 13 days over 13 districts in Kerala amidst chants of  “our eyes, our heart, O brave VS, lead us from the front.”

In the middle of all of this, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mother Heeraben, 95, visited her son for the first time in New Delhi.

My mother, a senior citizen herself, has only one question when she hears any of this. Did they get knee replacements done?

If the burgeoning ads for painless knee replacements and in-and-out cataract surgeries are any indication, the elderly in India are a demographic that’s coming of age even as we keep bragging about our “youth dividend”.

As Ashis Nandy pointed out in an interview with this writer, “India is a young country. But with growing life expectancy it has a sizable proportion of elders. The younger are often earning more money and hold higher posts. But do not forget the elderly also can stick on to the post much longer. If you are heading an empire the children can no longer hope to inherit it as early as they used to.”

M K Stalin would certainly agree.

Our reaction to the latest spurt of India Aging stories over the last few days reveals far more about us than about the senior citizens in the stories themselves.

For example, Kanubhai Gandhi. Minister Mahesh Sharma has gone to visit him. The Prime Minister has talked to him on the phone. The Delhi government has offered support and a home. But this is not exactly the sadly-all-too-common story about a senior citizen abandoned in old age by a callous society.

The Gandhi couple is childless, but not without means. They spent four decades in the United States of America. He worked at NASA and in the American government’s defence department. She did research in biochemistry.  They do not want to talk about how exactly they ended up in an old age home in India. They merely say it’s a “long story” of “ups and downs”. They live in a home now, which has only two shared bathrooms, and most of the residents, though not the Gandhis, sleep on mattresses. They also say they have “reasonable” means to move out to a better facility if they need to. They are looking for an old age home for NRIs. Such things exist. There are facilities in Lavasa near Pune, or Ashiana near Gurgaon, or Dignity outside Mumbai, that aim to cater to the old age needs of the upper and upper middle class.  There are Indian-specific even in America, like ShantiNiketan Retirement Resorts in Florida (with Jain meals and daily bhajans).

But the very phrase “old age home” carries with it an automatic sting of rejection and the media headlines just reinforce it. Gerontologist Indira Jaiprakash told me in an interview, “Ageing came to India before development. In Western societies, they developed first and then longevity came.” That means we lag behind when it comes to facilities and infrastructure to take care of the elderly. Meanwhile on our soap operas on television, there are grandmothers and great-grandmothers who show little sign of aging, faces unlined, knees remarkably agile, perhaps a little hearing-impaired, but that’s just comic relief. It’s a make-believe world utterly in denial of the reality of ageing, a faux ageing that requires little investment from the rest of us.

In the media narrative, the elderly oscillate between the Golden Oldie Achiever or the Helpless Victim. We take pride in the idea of the can-do Indian, still going strong at 90, whether it’s VS on the election trail or Fauja Singh running marathons at 104. Or we are horrified at Kanubhai Gandhi apparently languishing in an old age home.

But we are less eager to expend resources (especially public resources) on proper geriatric services for most of the elderly who are not as limber as Fauja Singh. We might have reserved seats for the elderly in buses, but wheelchair ramps are few and far between.

An old age home signifies charity, abandonment, a place of last resort. “Old age home” as a phrase itself carries with it a stigma that “retirement community” does not said Jaiprakash. I remember seeing the billboards for the Dignity Lifestyle Township outside Mumbai promising a “hassle-free retirement township. Not an old-age home.”

Whatever the real reason that Kanubhai Gandhi and his wife have decided to live in Guru Vishram Vridh Ashram, the coverage of that story as an “old age home” story falls into a familiar Baghbaan narrative – except instead of an ungrateful family turning its back on the pater familias and mater familias, we have an ungrateful nation (or Congress party) turning its back on the Father of the Nation himself, albeit via his grandson.

It all really speaks to our own tangled relationship with an aging India, shot through with duty, responsibility, resentment, exasperation and yes, genuine love.  When Heeraben Modi visits Narendra Modi at his no-longer-so-new home at 7 Race Course Road, it’s presented as news as heartwarming as the Kanubhai Gandhi story is meant to be heartbreaking.

Modi wisely waits for his mother to return to Gujarat before tweeting out the pictures of himself wheeling her around his garden. At one level, this is the story of a dutiful son and a happy mother. Heeraben Modi must be bursting with pride to see her son go from their humble home to the Prime Minister’s residence. That’s only natural. She had made it clear when her son had his inauguration that she would come to Delhi if she was invited. She did not make it to that event and watched it on television instead. After this visit, Modi tweeted “My mother returns to Gujarat. Spent quality time with her after a long time & that too on her 1st visit to RCR.”

It’s a visit that was two years in the making.

This is part of Narendra Modi’s semi-sanyasi persona, the man who has given up attachments to family in order to single-mindedly pursue desh-seva. In a country where nepotism is rife, in a society which has had it up to here with stories of alleged lucrative land deals and airport security exemptions for First Damaads, that kind of detachment has its undoubted appeal. Modi’s lack of family ties is presented as part of his incorruptibility. At an election meeting in Amethi in 2013, Modi had bragged that even while he was Chief Minister of Gujarat, his mother went to vote in a three-wheeler; not even a taxi.

Yet if this story has been about any other ordinary Indian, we would have cattily remarked, “Oh look at the son, so busy going on foreign trips, it took two years to invite his mother home?” Let’s be clear here. This is not about reading conspiracies into the personal family matters of either the Gandhis or the Modis. That’s their business entirely, whether or not they tweet about it.

But what is more interesting is how these stories, as they play out in the public domain, inevitably become stories about ourselves. When the Prime Minister goes abroad, he routinely boasts to the world about how 800 million Indians are under 35. “The country that is so young, has young dreams,” says Modi. But young dreams come with old responsibilities. What Modi does not say, and what most of us do not think about, is the fact that 48 million Indians will be over 80 by 2050.

That’s larger than the population of California today.

The last few days have reminded us of that complicated reality.


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