“On hearing him say he loved her
She felt like a fairy queen
When all he meant in saying it
Was that the grass in spring is green.”
From The Songs of Sinbad by Bachchoo
My great grandmother, Avabai Antia, my mother’s father’s mum to be precise, had an irreparable leg. At least that’s what I assumed, because she walked about the house on crutches and, as far as I remember, never left it. She must have had a broken or damaged shin, femur or hip and all those decades ago medical science hadn’t acquired the skill to repair it or perhaps our family didn’t have the means to have it repaired.
I can’t remember how or when she died and haven’t in all these years enquired as to when and under what circumstances she stopped being “bapaiji” or “mota mai”, the Queen Mother of the house and went to her rest, presumably in the care of Ahura Mazda, to that great hospital in the sky where lameness is abolished.
I remember her in her long-sleeved Parsi blouse and embroidered saris worn the “other way” from that which my mother and aunts wore them, with the flap coming forward over the right instead of draping backwards over the left shoulder. Her wooden-framed cane chair was placed perennially at the front door so she could look through its curtains across the eight feet of veranda to the busy street beyond.
She would deposit the crutches beside her chair as she settled down and then summon us, my sister, myself and cousins, to play. Her favourite game and ours with her was “Pawra Poiss”. It entailed her sticking her legs, damaged as they were, in front of the chair and each of us taking turns to sit in the crook between her stockinged legs and feet while holding both hands in hers to retain balance. The feet would then be moved up and down to become a sort of human-leg see-saw which would undulate to the rhythm of the verse she would loudly enunciate:
Mama ney gheyrey jaiss
Mamo aapey larvo
Khooney beysi khais —
Mami aavey maarvaa
Nhasi nhasi jaiss…”
Which roughly translated means, “I went to my uncle’s house, he gave me some sweeties which I sat in the corner and was eating when aunty came up to beat me and I deftly ran away.”
There’s a lot of folklore entangled in the verse and something about the relationship of a daughter-in-law to her sister-in-law’s children. The point of the recollection, though it will stimulate some wonder, is not that a lame old lady played leg-see-saw. It is to emphasise how naturally we accepted the joint family in which several generations lived together even in the latter half of the 20th century and certainly even to a very large extent in India to this day and into the future.
Long after my great grandmother passed away, our household consisted of my grandfather, my maiden aunts, my sister and me. Into this household in Pune was brought, from Mumbai where she lived on her own, my late grandmother’s elder sister who stayed with the household for several years till she died. My father’s family, the Dhondys, also lived in a joint family household. The disintegration of this arrangement began when my grandfather’s brother qualified as a doctor, married a rather grand lady and broke ties with the family to live in what we now call a “nuclear family”. I suppose on joining the Army my father did the same. Professional careers took them away.
Though family ties even in urban India remain strong, the development of the country, the requirements of capitalistic wage labour at all levels and the spread of the economy inevitably leads to the break-up of the joint family and begs or will soon beg the question — what happens to the old?
It’s a necessary question because in highly developed countries in the West the tradition of old people living on with their children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren is all but dead. It’s not that the European races are genetically disposed to be less caring about filial ties, but that the patterns of social development have turned the aged into a section of the population for whom the state has through the last century, and in an accelerated form after the Second World War, increasingly taken responsibility.
There are thousands of public, state-subsidised homes for the aged and privately run institutions to which those who can afford to pay send their aged relatives who cannot fully look after themselves and live alone.
Over the last few months in Britain the general recession which swept over the economy hit a network of these care homes which were run by a company called Southern Cross. These were homes for the aged essentially paid for by the state out of taxes. The sector was, under successive governments, both Tory and Labour, privatised. In other words the people who ran the homes were paid by a private company who operated the homes for profit, taking money from the state. The private firm, as one of their profit-making manoeuvres, sold off the buildings housing these homes. They then began paying rent to the new landlords who now owned the buildings. Last month it was announced that thousands of homes for the aged would have to close because Southern Cross could no longer pay the increased rents which the sub-prime crisis and recession have brought and still make a profit.
The government has had to announce that no old people will be thrown in the street as a result of Southern Cross’ going to the wall. Their relatives are far from clear as to what the government proposes to do with those who will be rendered care-homeless.
The Southern Cross embarrassment is today’s small crisis in a sector of government responsibility that will pose huge problems. The population of Britain is living longer. Advances in medicine and general advances in living standards mean that life expectancy has dramatically increased. This tilts the balance between the section of the population earning a living and paying taxes and those beyond retirement age who are paid for out of these taxes. There is no escape from that dilemma. And there is very little chance of granny and grandpa being readmitted to the nuclear family to turn it into an extended one once more.