Physical aspect of aging is succinctly described by Baba Farid in one of his couplets: “With my small legs I traversed the expanses of deserts and mountains / Today my earthen water-bottle seems to be at a distance of hundreds of miles from me.”
The poet-saint is pointing to a state created by old age which renders one’s mobility a distant dream. He was a man with no possessions as he literally owned nothing but he was looked after by his dedicated disciples in the long years of his old age. But what about ordinary mortals? Are they lucky enough to have loving care-takers? No, they aren’t. What they depend on is their grown-up children who don’t have much of resources. The poor and working classes eke out a miserable existence. Middle class makes a living caught between the dreams of moving up and fear of going down to the unenviable ranks of working classes. So men and women of these classes spend most of their precious little on their children in the hope that they would be a source of solace for them, something to depend upon, when they are old. In the process they don’t save much. Perhaps they can’t. Paucity of resources doesn’t allow them this luxury. The situation becomes frightening when they grow old and are forced through persuasion or coercion by their children especially sons to part with what little they have by way of possession. This tail-twisting is done on the pretexts of setting of a business, education or marriages of grandchildren. In most cases oldies are emotionally blackmailed. Some willingly and some grudgingly fall in the trap. They in fact have no option. State provides no social security net. They have nothing to fall back upon except their children. So they feel forced to acquiesce to the emotional dictates of their children. If they don’t, they are likely to be mistreated and disregarded. In the worst cases they shall be abandoned. How can they survive if abandoned in a society where state offers no protection and family is the refuge of all, the pious and the scoundrels? So oldies part with whatever property and monies they have. There is no other way for them to hang on to the family.
When this happens things start taking completely different turn than expected. Moneyless or propertyless they start losing whatever little clout they previously had. They are taken as a burden that weighs down the family, wastes it resources on somebody who is more like something that has been thrust upon them, dregs of the past which impede the future progress.
Old men/women are thought to be duds or blanks. Their experience is disregarded and advice is brushed off. Mian Kamal Din, an unmatched folk-storyteller, delineates the scene in which an old Rath (lord/ fighter) Meher Sarang, chief of his clan, mustered three thousand fighters to attack the town of Rajoa in district Jhang. He asked his uncle Hamayun, an old man, to have look at his fighters as per his wish: “The old man came forward leaning over his staff. He scuffed his feet around. After having a good look at the fighters, he said; “Sarang, do not mount this punitive expedition.” “Why?” “Nobody’s face shows the fire and passion except that of Noor Sipra. Your fighters seem so scared that they can already see from here the town of Rjoa and its people stalking them. Your fighters will be routed. This Sipra will be killed. Give up this campaign.” No one cares to pay heed to what old men say, comments the storyteller. The campaign ends in a disaster.
It’s not that old men are always shunned. In the colonial era two grand old men led resistance movements against the occupiers in their countries; Omar Mukhtar in Libya and Ahmed Khan Kharal in Punjab in India. But that’s not the general practice. In old age women suffer more than men. One, they live longer and endure greater pain. Two, being female they face gender discrimination. In a male-dominated society run on patriarchal norms they have little social space. Facing indifferent interior and predacious exterior they spend their days vegetating at home.
Large family is the norm in our traditional society which now seems to bursting at the seams. Number of men, women and children live together under one roof. It now seems an economic compulsion but it shrinks private space for individuals, stultifies critical thinking, abilities of adults and result in the stunted lives of children. Life in a large family is usually rife with gossips, jealousies, petty intrigues and pent-up frustration and suppressed anger.
Daughters-in-law are generally blamed for the hard to manage mess. They want to be rid of oldies - fathers-in-law and mothers-in-law - and their authority. In the large family we have old, young and children but none of them lives happily. Perhaps experience of such a family made Ezra Pound say in one of his poems: “Go to the adolescent who are smothered in family/ Oh how hideous it is to see three generations of one house gathered together! /It is like an old tree with shoots, and some branches rotted and falling.”
Blood-bond leads to a self-perpetuating cycle of emotional violence. Sadly, there is no tailor-made solution on offer. Joint family is a product of longstanding historical conditions. Without changing the concrete conditions which have created our familial structure and the ensuing culture, we cannot have a new family life free of pain and sufferings and indignity. One can say by subverting what Tolstoy says in the beginning of his Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” So dear oldies in unhappy families, hold on to what precious little you have until things change which is not going to happen any time soon. It is your insurance against bad weather. Your possession or property carries a lot of clout as long as you retain it. Dispossessed you would look like a worn statue with rusty patina that needs to be disposed of. — firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, November 28th, 2022