We Glorify A Patriarchal Manusmriti But Ignore Ancient Texts About Growing Old & Dying Gracefully

India has a rich tradition of talking about and dealing with growing old and death, but we do not think of these, while perpetuating patriarchy that discriminates against half the population.

India has a rich tradition of talking about and dealing with growing old and death, but we do not think of these, while perpetuating patriarchy that discriminates against half the population.

When my father fell ill and his health started deteriorating, I was beginning to witness a painful journey – it was the journey of a human being, alone and in pain, and often fully aware of the arduous task he knew lay ahead of him.

He had always been healthy – strong and solid to the core. An early life of rigorous outdoor activities had made him rugged and strong. I remember him getting up early in the morning – his morning habits of exercising and keeping himself healthy  made him quite a cheerful person. Always a sociable human being, with a ‘hi ‘and a ‘hello’ to everyone, I saw him grow old – his limbs losing strength, his vision failing, his steps faltering, this thoughts scattered – all that remained was his amiable self, and of course his loving heart.

Once the journey down the hill started, he knew, being a medical practitioner – he knew that it was a losing battle. Yet often, I saw in his eyes a fear; confused and unable to comprehend, he seemed to be making an effort to pull himself together even when the odds were against him. I saw – with immense sorrow – how he was losing it. I was a helpless spectator, while he fought with the fears – with his losing motor skills, with his incontinence. All that I could offer him were meaningless words – trying to comfort him, and of course medical care that was meant to cure, and not just to care.

Elderly in India

The elderly in India, I now understand, face a hostile world. They are of course easy business for the hospitals, targets that can bring profit to the pharmaceutical companies, where results don’t really matter. The art of living is also the art of dying.

When death is the only certainty in this transitory world, why are we not equipped to grow old gracefully and pass on with dignity? Why is our society so ill-equipped to face death or to care for its elderly with empathy and compassion and above all, with a rational perspective?

India has a tradition of addressing old age and death in a graceful manner. We have ancient texts, that discuss this aspect of human life which is inevitable. While rules of living that built the foundations of patriarchy, like the Manusmrithi have been celebrated and repeatedly quoted by scholars and laymen alike, we have preferred to turn away from texts that discuss other aspects of social living, old age being one of them.

The invisibility of the old

Senility is a complex process and a phase of human existence that is repeatedly portrayed as a depressive and alienated one, and our society refuses to speak about it. We are not comfortable speaking to sick old people. We feel uneasy when we face impending death in the form of an old person, bedridden and extremely ill.

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With the arrival of modernity, brought in by colonial presence, we began to turn away from the aged population. They were not productive, and within the framework of the nation, they were a liability. Society turned towards the youth, while the old were left behind to be taken care of within the larger family structure.

As India embraces neoliberal capitalist values, senility is a dreaded future we can be sure of, if we are healthy and young. With an exploitative work culture that sees the young as their potential labor force, the old are conveniently ignored and shelved. With the larger family structures giving way for smaller and fragmented ones, the old are left to fend for themselves. With a larger section of the population growing old, projected to increase to 300 million by 2050, Indian society has to start searching for ways to address the needs of the old, find methods to grow old gracefully, within a compassionate social system that is an age-friendly one.

Image source: pixabay

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About the Author

Swapna Gopinath

Reads and writes and thinks about gender identities and cultural contexts.. involves actively in women's issues.. read more...

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