The Age Old ‘Old Age’ Problem Turns New [Short Story]

Nuclear families mean that caring for ageing parents is fraught with difficulty, even if economically things might be better. An insightful short story.


Nuclear families mean that caring for ageing parents is fraught with difficulty, even if economically things might be better. An insightful short story.

Archna and Om are two islands connected only with the water flowing between them. Or, are they two stars moving in their orbits – coming in visible range of each other at night and going their different ways in the daylight?

The price of being a star! Both of them were high achievers – he an ace cardiologist and she a renowned gynaecologist. Both of them were the stuff that the dreams of middle class parents are made of. They were respectful of their elders, were merit students, had stuck to the norms, had allowed their parents to make their major life decisions in their stead, became doctors as asked, and married each other as expected. So far they had been mindful of the society too – the famous log-kya-kahenge principle.

Parenting problems in reverse had slowly crept on them. Five years ago first Archna lost her father and a year later Om lost his. These achievers had not sprung up from feeble loins – their independent mothers refused a dependent life style. Both the senior women were retired professionals.  Archna and Om tried to do their best – visit them whenever possible, provided them cars with drivers, so that mobility at their will was not compromised.

Not as often as he wanted, but still often enough you can see Om climbing the stairs of his mother’s house, talking on his mobile. “Yes, I’ll be there in an hour for consultation”, and he rings the call bell. His mother opens the door with a smile, finds him in conversation on phone, and so keeps quiet. He sits down on the sofa still trying to reason with a patient’s impatient wife, reassuring her that her husband was in good care.

“Shall I make tea? With salt – your favourite?” asks his mother.

“Yes, Maa,” he follows her into the kitchen. His sister lived in Australia, and his mother preferred to live in her own empty nest than with him because his nest also remains empty as he and his wife daily fly away to their respective hospitals. After his father’s death, she had lived with them for a few months, but then the call of familiar surroundings and scenes beckoned her and she chose to come back to her own DDA flat where she had spent the last forty years of her life.

He starts the drill, “At night, you keep the mobile phone near your pillow, don’t you?”

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“Haan, Baba.”

“If you feel slightly uncomfortable, give us a call.”

Arrey, haan Baba. If I die during my sleep, of what use would be the mobile near my pillow?”

“My secretary rings you up at seven in the morning daily, no? Has she ever missed calling you?”

“No, Baba. Okay tell me how many days of mourning will you observe when I die?” She asks with a smile.

“You tell me, keep in mind my busy schedule,” he said with a twinkle in his eyes.

“When your father passed away, we had observed seventeen days of mourning.”

“Maa, at that time you were in charge. You tell me how many days and your obedient son will follow your orders.” This was a normal sample of their conversations – the lively seventy-eight year old lady fully prepared to let go off the life, and he as a doctor comfortable with the idea of death.

Again his phone rang and standing in the kitchen he started guiding his hospital staff to prepare the OT because a critical patient had just been wheeled in. “Maa, I won’t be able to have tea. I’ve to go immediately – an emergency.” He hugged his mother.

“Why do you come? We can skype, no?” she said affectionately, without any complaint. This son had given her only happiness – never any trouble. She prayed silently, “God should give such a son to all the mothers!” as she stood in her balcony and waved to him as the driver started the car.

Getting reliable domestic help is a losing battle, Archna had realised it very well. For the last two years her mother needed constant attention, so she had hired an ayah, a day time nurse and a night time nurse. Her mother did not want to leave her own home. The maids kept on making appearances, not lasting more than two or three months. Since there was no active mistress, the expensive knick-knacks attracted them and Archna had to sack them.

She never bothered about the groceries or the expense of the kitchen. She would have been grateful if she had got a maid who treated the house as her own home. At first hopeful but gradually getting disappointed, she had uncomplainingly dealt with all the relatives who came buzzing like bees with their mark-my-attendance attitude, full of suggestions, “Stop eating this or that. Take bed rest… ” Solid, substantial help, time they could not spare.

Archna had known her mother was not going to get well. The last year in bed had atrophied her muscles and the constantly recurring bed sores were a nightmare. She visited her mother in the morning every day before going to the hospital – in the last few weeks her mother had barely registered her presence.

Her passing away was a relief to her frail, cancer racked body and she would finally be reunited with her darling son whom she had missed with all her might. The thought of Anupam – a promising doctor – her younger brother, who had committed suicide, still dimmed the sunshine for Archna. She did not inform any of her well-meaning uncles and aunts. She did not want her Booas and Chachis to descend on her wailing and flailing. She did not have the energy to deal with all that formal emotional drama. She felt burned out. The mother she knew was long gone – this was her body only.

The ways of the alive amused her. She had told the ayah, the maid servant and the driver to take whatever they wanted from the home because she was going to dispose of the house. To her chagrin, her signal turned out to be a ‘Go’ for the free style which emerged. It reminded her of the visuals seen on the TV of looting during the riots. The maid wanted the fridge and the television. The driver too had his eyes on these items, which resulted in a loud wrangling match with both telling Archna tales of how the other had cheated while Maaji was alive.

“And here I thought the servants would be happy if I give them carte blanche to choose things they want. Each feels the other is getting a better deal. I’ll have to step in.” So the fridge, gas, utensils were given to the maid. The driver got the sofa and television. The Ayah took the beds, mattresses, linen, Maaji’s saris etc.

Archna knew it was time to break a few more rules. She did not hold a ‘chowtha’ too. She asked Komal, her mother-in-law’s neighbour, a retired government officer, to accompany her. She hired a taxi to Haridwar. They took the ashes from the dham and submerged them in the river thus fulfilling her mother’s last wish. The same night she took a flight to US to spend a fortnight with her son Akshiv, who was doing his MS there. She wanted to escape from all the banal, hollow formalities which she knew her relatives would heap on her. Om agreed with her. She chose to mourn her mother alone and turn it into an occasion for spending quality time with her son.

Times change. Scenes change. The disappearing joint family of traditional Indian society has left much desired in its wake. The nuclear families are reaching their fruition. The economic aspect well settled children can take care of. Parenting problems have acquired a new meaning. Age old old age problem needs new solutions.

Image source: senior Indian woman by Shutterstock.


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