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Subir Roy: The dreaded L word

To save the elderly a lonesome old age, families are going halfway to the joint family days, living together separately

Subir Roy  |  New Delhi 

My friend who went round the world in pursuit of a successful career with a leading multinational now, after retirement, lives in Dubai largely for tax reasons. But he also has a home in Brussels. This is particularly helpful as it is just right for his two daughters and their husbands who live in England to visit him over a weekend. But as he narrates this he adds, you know how it is, they come when they can make the time. In Dubai he has company mostly when someone he knows is passing through from India. He wouldn’t spell it out but it is written all over his face that something is lacking.

This is in sharp contrast to the situation of another friend who has his hands full in Kolkata. When his son and daughter-in-law come on a quick visit from abroad — fortunately they have the means to do so twice a year — he is simply not available to his friends. Their ability to catch up with him the rest of the time is, however, further limited by what is dumped on his and his wife’s shoulders by his working couple daughter and aspiring lawyer son-in-law.

The burden they land on my friend is little, all of three years old, nearly. But he is almost more than the two of them can handle. The grandson, like all such youngsters, is a bundle of hugely excessive energy who keeps them on their toes as they prevent him from pulling at tablecloths and sending side tables crashing. It is difficult to visualise how my friend and his wife would have been if they did not have to routinely look after that child.

The process of being alone starts long before grandchildren arrive. Our son now lives in Mumbai and our daughter is pursuing her postgraduate studies in Kolkata. So we thought the best way for us to have a family reunion was not to try and do that in Bangalore but to go down to Kolkata where our daughter already was. All went well when suddenly our son informed that he couldn’t make it. A film producer who he was chasing for an assignment had given him a date right in the middle of the pujas. So we ended up having half a family reunion. Our son himself was quite easy with the development, even the final denouement of the producer not having a meaningful dialogue with him. These things happen to youngsters in this line, he assured me and my wife.

So we are looking forward to a family reunion now in Bangalore during the yearend. He will certainly be there then, our son assures us. Our daughter will also travel there from Kolkata. That is if a new development does not intervene. She may land a somewhat coveted job in Kolkata, which will of course make the December reunion for the family also a partial one. Your child growing up to get a good job is a great thing and so if that happens we will rejoice. But it’s long since we have got together as a family.

We are all enormously better off than what we were as children. Foreign travel was virtually unknown; even travel within India was a big thing. My first train trip out of home after my BA exams had my parents going to the station to see me off. In our joint family the menu was far more frugal than what we can now go in for if the doctor and age hadn’t got in the way. And I remember my mother occasionally complaining that we as a family had so little space and time to ourselves. The door of the one room in our rumbling joint family home that was ours was always open.

Where will the current condition of material plenty and, let’s use the word, loneliness for the aged finally end up, I keep thinking. Well, good news of sorts comes from a leading marketing consultant friend. We are now on our way to the modular family from the nuclear family, he declares from his grassroots knowledge.

Increasingly, he say, families are going back halfway to the joint family days. They live together but separately, in little flatlets under one roof, partially sharing a general kitchen and also having a kitchenette in the flatlet, not getting into each other’s way but being around for company and help when needed. One good thing about this arrangement is being able to travel without having to worry about who will keep an eye on the children.

But absolute the best will be the lot of the older people, particularly that aunt who never married or the uncle who never had any children and lost his wife long ago. Their great relief is having something to complain about, like children making too much of a noise after returning from school in mid-afternoon. The wife says these issues shouldn’t bug me as I am not that old; what’s sixty odd these days. But the forbidding though is that people live so much longer these days, and you do get a bit lonely at times.

This column will henceforth appear every other Friday.  

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First Published: Fri, October 30 2009. 00:34 IST