(Image taken from: http://th02.deviantart.net/fs70/PRE/i/2010/180/3/c/Old_Age_by_davidsant.jpg)
Every morning the curtain rises
Alone, you listen to the dark dissolving
The stars slowly clicking themselves apart
The sky turns back into this breezy scarf
Shaken out by the awakened birds
You don’t touch each other but you walk together
Leaning against and within each other until evening
When, alone, you chase the wild night at your gate
Sweet to weep for, like a wet stray dog
You don’t want to hear the crows cry
The diminishing number of lines
To be spoken on this stage, set for how long
The shadow grows, flesh hollows itself out, another
Takes your place. Step by step you leave yourself
- Poem by Claire Malraux
- Translated from French by Marilyn Hacker
In my opinion, old age as the subject has received far lesser attention in poetry than it should. (Atleast in my limited reading) Maybe it is because many start writing poetry when they are young and when they grow old, they still live in their younger days. There are so many authors who go back to their younger days in their novels. There are very few who approach old age with the required seriousness and sincerity. The turmoil that youngsters in love go through is well documented by great writers whereas the turmoil that happens within a person when a gets old is not written about extensively. I know this is a fairly sweeping statement and exceptions exists but overall we are more interested in reading about life than about death. (Tarashankar Bandopadhyay’s “Arogya Niketan” is a glorious exception. As is ‘No one writes to the Colonel’ of Garcia Marqez)
In countries like India, dealing with old age is always a challenge: both for the person growing old and his/her children. The life expectancy has gone up. Health care is costlier and pressure of the job is high. (We keep reading about the widows of Vrindavan regularly. This is not a new phenomenon though. It has been happening for a while now.) We are still in a personal mode when it comes to old people. As a society we have not yet transformed ourselves to look at old age as an important societal problem and urge the government to take steps for the well being of old people.
As usual I focus on the urban society. In the past decade we have seen more and more parents living alone. Their kids are out of the country. They are living a good life there, personally and professionally. The grandkids, who are born there, have adjusted themselves well to their environment. Returning back to India is not an option for many. Similarly the parents are so used to the Indian way of things that they cannot integrate into a foreign milieu. The only option for them is a trip to their children’s country once in a while. Living there permanently is not an option.
This is why we see a lot of senior citizens in many apartments. The apartment complex provides the required support system. There are other senior citizens with whom they can mingle with. They can get involved in the working of the apartment complex. They have people around them who can help them in times of emergency. Mundane issue, which can become major issues if staying alone, like electric problems and plumbing problems are taken care by the apartment’s maintenance team. The security that the apartment complex provides is godsend for the senior citizens.
There are others who cannot let go their own independent house, house that they built with lot of effort: house that was built with lot of sacrifices. Whether they stay in an independent house or stay in a complex, the fact that they are alone hits them when they fall sick. It is the time when maximum care is needed. It is the time when someone has to be constantly besides you. Unfortunately it is during this time that you have no one around you whom you can call as your own. There could relatives around you or friends around but not having your own son or daughter around you can hurt a lot.
Being away hurts the children as well. Those who are able to get their parents to come and stay with them are lucky. Some take a conscious decision and come back. Those who stay separated from their parents are to be pitied as they are torn between their future, the future of their children and the failing health of their parents. This has given rise to the hiring of care takers and I see that care takers are in great demand. Recently a friend told me about a care taker. She was working for an old man whose children were well settled in US. When the old man expired, the children who came to India, asked the caretaker to be around for a couple of weeks more. The reason: she was the only one who knew about all the financial dealings of the old man!! That is the sort of dependence you may get to see in the future on a regular basis.
With families becoming more nuclear and extended families becoming rarer, the problem gets worse for old people. It is now almost taken for granted that in households where both husband and wife go to work, the parents would take care of the grandchildren. The old people do want to take care of the grandchildren but it is probably an exhausting job for them. In some households there is a support system with maids being present, in some there may not be any. The problem intensifies when the parent is ill. Looking after the parent becomes a major challenge, with both husband and wife having to concentrate on their respective jobs. Given the current trend of having only one kid, the future is going to be more tougher, with the kid having no option of moving his/her parent to a sibling’s house. The best old people can hope for is to live a healthy life and not fall ill, something which is generally beyond our control. I know of many parents who do not want to stir out of their small towns and come to city because they have a good support system which helps them when they are alone or sick. The seeming impersonal nature of the city does not agree with them.
That is about old people in the society. What about the person himself/herself? How do they feel when they grow old? How does it feel to live under the shadow of death? How does it feel to hear someone your age has passed away? The poem quoted at the beginning is a poem which looks at the approaching death as something natural. “Every morning the curtain rises” – Yes, every morning becomes a blessing. The raising of the curtain ensures you play a part in this grand cosmic drama for one more day. The poet knows “The diminishing number of lines/To be spoken on this stage”. The role gets shorter and shorter and you may be asked to exit the stage at any point in time. That’s why the poet says, “The shadow grows, and flesh hollows itself out, another / Takes your place. Step by step you leave yourself” Many would consider themselves lucky if they leave step by step. Claire Malroux approaches old age and death with a certain calmness which her craft provides her. Not everyone is as lucky as her.
( Claire Malroux’s ‘Morning Walk’ is another nice poem which talks about aging. )