My grandmother (dadi) always said that in one’s lifespan, the 20-35 years window is the best with its share of fun, abandon and a sense of invincibility. She passed away when I was 31. But just as this window started to close in on me, her words resurfaced. I started becoming more cautious. For someone who drove a Tata Sumo (without power steering) in the early 2000s, I started worrying about driving a top-end Hyundai Venue.
My octogenarian grandmother, however, did not let caution slow her down – she lived a happy, full life. Bindaas is how most people remember her. She once left her eye prescription instead of a shagun envelope at a wedding. The groom’s father called the next day and she laughed hysterically while narrating the story to everyone. She had trouble hearing and I remember she once congratulated someone on the death of his father, mistaking what the person had said. “That’s so good to hear,” she had said, only to be corrected by her sister.
In hindsight, I feel that while caution didn’t get the better of her, the feeling of irrelevance did.
The first time I saw her feel irrelevant was in 2009, a year after her husband had passed away. My cousin had taken us out for dinner to Kebabs and Kurries in Mumbai and while the entire family chattered, laughed and joked, she sat at the head of the table, looking lost. She diligently jolted herself from inattention to focus. I now think she missed her husband and grieved silently – she didn’t want her children or grandchildren to worry.
I distinctly remember two instances where she seemed to get respite from this feeling, albeit temporarily. Once, when she watched the movie 3 Idiots. My cousins told me that she almost fell off her chair laughing during a scene where an unsuspecting Chatur reads out a speech in Hindi (a language he doesn’t understand), parts of which were replaced by his mischievous batchmates with obscene words. The second time I saw her hopeful was in 2011 when Anna Hazare and team were fervently pushing for the Jan Lokpal Bill as part of the anti-corruption movement. I was away in the UK for my master’s and when I spoke to her over the phone, she told me how different things would be when I returned.
Unlike dadi, who was content and happy with life, my nani was unhappy for the most part of hers. While dadi withdrew, nani became fiercer with age – she would let off steam by speaking her mind. She was unperturbed by the thought of being unpopular and unthreatened by her children turning indifferent towards her.
My husband’s uncle, Soli was somewhat similar to nani in his old age. He was angry with life and more than happy to be left alone. In his last few days at the Parsi General Hospital, whenever I tried to pep him up, he would fold his hands and thank me for visiting. A polite way of asking me to be quiet. During one such visit, he was talking normally to us until his supper arrived at 7 pm. As soon as the attendant asked him to have some soup, Soli froze. He was anorexic and had been refusing food. He then rolled up his eyes to look back at the ceiling and lay motionless. He pretended to be dead. This lasted until the attendant declared it is alright if he didn’t want the soup. Soli was unhappy – he had no kids and his wife had died 20 years before him.
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So while dadi seemed to give in to her end with a feeling of irrelevance and sadness, nani and Soli seemed to embrace it with some degree of enthusiasm.
“Life sucks. I’m in a better place.” This is what nani and Soli’s epitaph might read.
A month ago, I spoke to my mother’s friend – in her 80s – who had called to discuss an article I had written. I asked how she spent her time now that she had moved from Dehradun to Noida to be with her daughter.
“You know I have so much time now – I go through photographs of my kids and grandkids throughout the day,” she said.
After a long conversation about how she was adjusting to her new routine, I wondered if she felt irrelevant or unhappy – was she like dadi, nani or Soli.
I couldn’t figure it out.
But one thing was common – they had all felt lonelier in their old age.
When I asked my friend and mother-in-law to read this essay, they thought it was fatalistic at best and reductionist at worst – I sounded like an ageist, my friend said.
They are not entirely wrong. The world is greying gracefully after all. According to a United Nations report, “The share of the population aged 65 years or over increased from 6% in 1990 to 9% in 2019. That proportion is projected to rise further to 16 percent by 2050…” which means a steady rise in the older generation’s influence than ever before.
And when this generation calls the shots, the feeling of being irrelevant itself becomes irrelevant. In fact, the tectonic shift has already started to take place in some quarters – the older generation is planning road trips and outings together; they are happy to invest in community living and value freedom.
But I’m not too sure if one can paint the entire ‘above-60’ folks with the same brush. I still feel my grandparents’ generation – in their 80s and 90s – got a raw deal. They were comfort givers to their parents, grandparents and children. But when their turn came, our society was at the cusp of change. They got lonely.
Those in their 50s realise this and have mentally made provisions to deal with what lies ahead. For those of us in our 30s and 40s, I think we have no choice but to get fiercely independent. I wish I could tell dadi that one more window might open for our generation, hopefully with its own share of fun and abandon and a sense of invincibility.
Ambica Naithani teaches International Baccalaureate (IB) Economics at the Cathedral and John Connon School, Mumbai. She has a keen interest in socio-cultural issues from around the world and loves to narrate stories of human interest. She tweets @ambicanaithani.
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