Lalita Rao

Archive: No Country for Old Women

Originally published in Asia Literary Review No. 16, Summer 2010.


IN HER OLD AGE my mother has discovered television soap operas. Bengali television soaps all follow much the same script: sprawling, squabbling, extended middle-class families of feuding brothers, conniving wives and formidable mothers-in-law. My mother complains about how slowly the story always creaks along – by episode 983 every plot permutation has been exhausted – but at 7.30pm every day she sits down in front of the television set to watch the lives of other families unfold. As do her cousins, friends, neighbours – all people of her generation. Their own families are too busy, or live in another city, or another country on another continent. Television producers grow rich churning out these ‘surrogate’ families, as does dream factory Bollywood. In the five-handkerchief hit film Baghban, Amitabh Bachchan, once famous for rebellious ‘angry young man’ roles, and Hema Malini, once a celluloid ‘dream girl’, play an ageing couple shuttled back and forth between their busy children, unable to live together, stealing tender moments by telephone late at night. My mother loves it.

     The breakdown of the extended family has become the arch villain in the story of growing old in a new India, where eighty-one million people are now older than sixty. As India greys, nostalgia for the extended family has become a national obsession of the middle class. In the second-century BCE Hindu epic the Ramayana there is the story of Shravana, the devoted son of blind old parents. In calendar art he is depicted as a young man carrying his parents in baskets suspended from a yoke across his shoulders, burden turned into filial duty. When I was growing up my great-grandmother ruled our household, putting jars of pickles out in the sun and soaking up the neighbourhood gossip. As her health failed, she sat on the veranda playing endless games of patience. She died in her nineties, surrounded by family. My parents looked after her in the end days, just as they looked after my grandmother and my grandfather. Whether it was love or duty, I don’t know. In India, it’s not always easy to tell the difference.

     I met Gauri Nandy, an anxious-looking widow in her mid-seventies, who has left her family in her old age. She now lives at Naba Nir, a home for elderly women in a residential neighbourhood in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), where she moved after her sons and daughters-in-law assaulted her. She had refused to sign over to them the title of her house. ‘They pushed me down,’ she says softly. ‘I hurt my leg badly. I had to go to the hospital. There was blood in my stool.’ Now she shares a blue dormitory room with a dozen other women. There’s a garlanded black-and-white photograph of her late husband on her nightstand, a picture of the monkey god Hanuman and a small potted plant.

     ‘I had a garden in my house,’ she says. ‘My husband gave me a little spade. He would bring me plants. I remember my plants – red lotus, jasmine, bel. Now I don’t know who looks after them. I miss them a lot.’

     Nandy says she did her best raising her sons, making sure they were educated. One works for the local electricity board, the other at the tannery. Their father helped secure their jobs. ‘If sons act like this, what can we do? Every family has this problem now. The times are bad.’

     It is a commonly heard refrain across India these days: ‘The times are bad.’ They’re not, not really. India has arguably never had it so good. In 2009, when most of the world was mired in recession, India’s gross domestic product expanded by six per cent. Prosperity is everywhere apparent in the emergent ‘New India’. Khan Market in New Delhi bustles even in the middle of a weekday afternoon with college students and young professionals crowding its crêperies and coffee bars. An autographed poster of Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean is pasted inside the window of a beauty salon, which claims to have introduced him to the black eyeliner used to such striking effect in the film franchise. GQMarie Claire and People crowd the magazine racks of news kiosks – these are the Indian editions, with beautiful brown faces on the covers. In the midst of all this is a Plexiglas donation box with the sign: Donate – Older Persons Need Your Help.


Gauri Nandy laments the breakdown of filial bonds in modern Indian families.

She moved into Naba Nir, Kolkata, after her sons and daughters-in-law assaulted her.


‘We have expressions in India, like, I was thinking about you, you are going to live a hundred years,’ says Himansu Rath, who runs the Agewell Foundation, which has put these donation boxes all over New Delhi. But such courtesy may now be seen as a curse. ‘Because of economic changes old people are being made to feel redundant.’

     Rath blames ‘economic change’. My mother blames changing attitudes towards the elderly. ‘Younger people have no time for us,’ she says. ‘They are so busy. The computer and television is pulling them away.’ Sociologist Ashis Nandy says it is a little of both: ‘I think a framework of individualism has come to dominate the urban middle class. There is an element of distance, of the western kind, creeping into the relationship with their parents.’ Irudaya Rajan, a demographer at the Centre for Development Studies in Trivandrum, Kerala, blames migration – internal and external. ‘I met a lady who ... told me she had three sons, two daughters. Now she is living with three dogs and two cats.’

     But eventually it all circles back to family. Prem Kumar Raja, the secretary of the Nightingales Medical Trust in Bangalore, claims that the breakdown in family support for the elderly is a relatively recent phenomenon. ‘Until even the 1990s ... elders were taken care of within the family. But with globalisation, the joint-family system is breaking down.’



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