The last scene
EVERY society marks the biographical trajectory of its members into recognized scenes of a play. Each scene represents different roles and narrations, varying colours and costumes. As individuals graduate from one scene to another, they acquire newer identities and relations in the structure and dynamics of the play.
The imagery of drama is somewhat restrictive if deployed to understand life. While a play has clear cut scenes, actual life has several replays of the same drama enacted simultaneously. The final, the middle and the early scenes of a play coexist in actual life; it is their inter-relation which makes a scene or a group of actors problematic.
The last scene in life has invariably been understood either segmentally or integrally. In a segmental view, old age is set apart, constructed through stereotypes and discriminated against, simply because those enacting the last scene are considered worn out and removed from the central concerns of active, healthy and productive life.
Old age, viewed integrally, is understood as a repository of age-old wisdom and cumulative experiences. Viewed thus, old age gets metaphorized and embellished with respect and vital resources necessary for productive life. Seen as a single slice of life unconnected to its other phases, old age is often burdened with ageism, construed either as a second childhood or mere oblivion – in the words of Shakespeare ‘Sans teeth, sans taste, sans everything’ (As you like it, act 2, scene 7).
All societies evolve an inter-generational contract – between the generation now retired having lived its productive life, those in the productive segment, and the ones in the pre-productive stage. The intergenerational contract, implicit yet symbolised in cultural narratives, foregrounds interdependence and exchange of life support provisions in material and symbolic terms. While no society can claim that it follows the contract in its full details, its breach generates ambivalence and is rarely justified in clear terms.
The Puranic story of Shravan Kumar provides one example of a sacred rationale for a mutual sharing of life resources between the post productive and productive members in a family. The story glorifies the relevance of and relation to old age and develops the logic to a point where, in the act of serving the old parents, Shravan Kumar and his wife not just lose their precious material possessions but even their lives. The story, however, resolves the tragic ending by relating the happening to divine will.
Old age thus becomes part of a sacred cosmos which in turn strengthens the intergenerational contract. The story further contrasts Shravan Kumar with his counterpoint Damodar who treats his parents as the burdensome junk of his life. Shravan Kumar carries his parents around in a kanwar (a bamboo device shouldered by pilgrims for carrying their belongings) in search of a cure for their blindness by visiting holy places. Damodar, on the other hand, drives his parents out of the house as he perceives them a useless dead weight.
In our society of mega projects and transnational corporations, the ancient intergenerational agreement seems to have broken down in favour of the productive and professional segment of society. Consequently, while the post productive segment slides into crass old age, the pre productive begins to suffer from child abuse. Is it because the rhythms of productive life are so focused and engaged that they neither have the time nor predisposition to look at the scaly margins of collective humanity?
Rarely does the dominant consciousness of the productive segment of society display an ability to step back and examine its basic premises. Ironically, the vantage point for self-reflection comes from its own counterpoint – old age or childhood. Alternatively, productive humanity is forced into introspection in moments of colossal failures. Moments of breakdown offer material to look at constituent parts holistically, integrally and without imposing segments or contending divisions on common humanity. By itself, productive humanity views old age in its own image and suggests remedial measures accordingly. For instance, most studies on old age in India, backed by western perspectives in gerontology, invariably evaluate old people along measures of consumption (life-support systems) or productivity (gainful work).
Market mechanisms often become the cultural matrix in planning remedial actions. But one may relate to old age through resources of life outside the state or the market, and locate the old, not as recipients of societal philanthropy but an authentic section of humanity capable of providing vital inputs to life in the making. In its own life domain, a large chunk of humanity is constantly glossed over or dismissed by the dominant spirit of working people. There is, however, a manner of retrieving or harnessing life expressions and resources dismissed or pushed into oblivion out of sheer haste.
One glimpse of the lost reality of old age can be gathered by stilling the image of an old man bending down to pick up his walking stick. For a moment ignore the intention of the old man in bending down as well as the walking stick. What is left is a movement of the body as if in a certain sequence of a performing art, displaying grace and elegance. The task of retrieving the charm requires a vantage point located in movement of poise and not haste. While haste is invariably unmindful of its context, poise always depends on the fit with the surroundings. This is also the distinction between the young and the old. Today much of the reality of old age remains under-represented.
The present note turns to selected writings in Urdu fiction to understand the age-old aspect of old age. This literature sensitises us to the need to counter ageism and to examine the biography of the old in their own terms.
Kashmiri Lal Zakir’s novel Doobtey Sooraj Ki Katha1 (The tale of the setting sun) pastes a poetic adage at the beginning of the story:
Two fellow travellers, the sun and me/Had reached our station in the evening./Both were travel weary, slept on the earth’s mattress/Next morning the sun woke up and left me in my sleep.
The poem captures the breakdown in the intergenerational agreement, paving the way for the creation of humanity left in the lurch. In the preface of the novel Aao baat karen (Let’s Talk) the author argues that each fragment of life has a beating heart. He uses the metaphor of a mother and child. Though the growing child creates difficulties in communication and relationship, the mother rarely forgoes her responsibility. Even in moments when she cannot attend to the child or even comprehend it, the frame of the relationship is not transgressed.
As the child climbs the stairs of life, the mother gradually steps down the same ladder. While the child grows under the spreading light of day, the mother’s canopy of sunlight slowly recedes. Though they converse with each other, there is a hiatus of several stairs of age between them. Both struggle to understand each other, but with effort and difficulty. And as the ladder of life between them grows, their communication suffers. There comes a point when the son stands on the highest point of the ladder and the mother on its lower terminal end. Communication between them is now near impossible.
The distance makes their voices inaudible to each other. One is in haste and has no time to listen to a long narration. But the mother is reticent. She sees no reason to be in haste because the final stairs disappear into nothingness. She is reminded of the time when her son would cry and even if the cry was incomprehensible she never opted out of the grid of communication. Now, when the mother slips on the stairs, she is overshadowed by a setting sun, and the son is looking elsewhere.
This precariousness of relations between two generations becomes the dominant theme of the novel. The life of Durga Das, the protagonist, is traced from youth to old age. The novel juggles with the dilemma of locating the aged – in the family or in an old people’s home. The author opts for the family. Perhaps the novelist’s sensitivity grounds the remedy in the expressive resources of the family and not the stark instrumentalities of the market of which the old people’s home is one expression.
Can one simply break inter-generational relations? Perhaps not. Joginder Pal’s Maqamat2 (Stations) describes Jamal’s encounter with various contrasting stations (as generational points) of his biographical journey. Jamal, in his mother’s lap, learns to recite the word of God and wakes up into the world of insight and meaning. But in the next stage, when Jamal’s children are growing, his mother is beginning to lose her bearings in life. She is physically and mentally challenged. And when she beats at her locked room in anguish, Jamal chooses to sedate her. Was this the quickest and least expensive remedy? Jamal gets the first clue to his mother’s angst when his son, after marriage, pronounced that he wished to lead his life (with wife and children) in his own way, unencumbered by the old parents. Jamal now has the answer: his mother needed him, not the pills. He explains to his son how love for wife and children grows only if it has a wider constituency, that love for one’s wife grows alongside love for one’s parents. ‘Please include Us in your We,’ Jamal implores.
But Maqamat’s characters encounter a complex principle of inclusion and exclusion among members in a group. Jamal mistakes his wife for his mother. Why this inclusion of his mother after her complete exclusion? Perhaps continuities in primary relationships, when partially blocked, display a reserve and resilience to reappear in multifarious forms independent of the actor’s will. These relationships offer material for imagining a more sensitive blueprint for the inclusion of the aged in the community of the young.
Indeed, there could be yet another way. The story Nannhi ki Naani3 (The little one’s grandmother) by Ismat Chughtai describes an old woman who in a small town of some zamindari settlement had served as a maid to the families of the local elite ever since her childhood. Her salary consisted of the day’s meals and clothes discarded by the family. She was forced to retire when she couldn’t spot a lizard in the daal and a fly in the rotis. After retirement, she tries to carve out a niche for herself. She becomes a mobile prop in a given cultural setting and plays the role of an information conduit/carrier among families where she was a familiar presence.
Economically she was assetless and entirely dependent on her past patrons. Yet, she overcame her marginality by seeking membership in a common cultural universe. She is let in and accommodated. There was an ethos wherein she was assigned a position. For instance, everyone knew that she pilfered household articles, or demanded hospitality when the choicest food was cooked in limited quantity for special guests. She would entertain, embarrass, criticize, help – somehow succeeding in over-coming her marginality. There were sufficient fragments of both culture and relationships to which she had access. The story evokes the Žlan of a civilizational principle which binds the engaged and the retired without gratuity or regular financial support.
But Nanhi ki Naani ends tragically, thereby revealing the fragility of cultural resolution. A similar theme in a different setting is charted out in Hajra Kumar’s Mohabbut, Kitab Aur Tokrey4 (Love, books and baskets), the story of Master Shanker Das Nigam whose ageing happens coterminously with several other events in a small town. Master Nigam was fiercely fond of his rare books in Urdu and Persian, a passion not shared by his wife or anyone else.
He had not even deposited emotions in the family bank. As the country was partitioned and zamindari abolished, Master Nigam’s sons grew into marriageable age. Meanwhile, his wife dies and he gets further confined to his idiosyncratic past. The memory of a platonic love is not enough to alter the solitariness of his life. Subsequently, when the sons get married, Master is further estranged from his family.
Master’s esoteric engagements irked everyone in the family. At least in the past his wife would dry his damp books and the pickles under the sun in a common stroke. But with the passage of time, both Master Nigam as well as his chosen collection of books lose even their notional significance. Once when he is away for a long period his room is thoroughly cleaned and decked up for Diwali. The termite-eaten books and the wooden frame of the almirah are washed away. The ‘worn out’ books, Master Nigam’s simulacra, are, however, rejuvenated in a curious manner. Mixed with water and clay, the old books are converted into a soft paper mash to make baskets for storing onions and potatoes. Master Nigam can’t come to terms with the cataclysmic changes and passes away. On the 13th day after his death, 13 Brahmins are fed with the customary delectable eatables stored in the paper-mache baskets.
Is utility and productivity the only reference point for declaring an object or a habit obsolescent? Who is to judge? Who is labelled? How do the labelled respond? Perhaps piecemeal policy offers a restricted answer. For inviting a long term civilisational response to the query, one would draw attention to Joginder Pal’s Dadiyan5 (Grandmothers) in which the protagonist refuses to vacate her ancestral home to shift to a government quarter allocated to her grandson. When her grandson suggests that he would let out the parental house on rent, Dadi disagrees with him. She tells him that she will not leave the house alone, that if it is to be rented out, she too should be included in it. To give a further punch to her views she says, ‘If the old are of no use, rent them out.’
What was so special about the house which Dadi was defending so fondly? It had nine little rooms, three of them without a roof. The other rooms were in no better shape. But when Dadi opted to stay back, she wasn’t left alone. She found herself waiting for her own self as she moved from one room to the other. In one room Dadi found herself cutting vegetables, in the kitchen blowing the fire, in yet another resting on the bed, expressing concern.
The various dadis formed a moral community deposited in a robust and animated fashion in the seemingly dilapidated ancestral home. Not only did Dadi’s ego lend itself to a plurality of alters, she even found herself merging into the inmates of the local environment. The larger kinship starting from Dadi included koel, a frequent visitor, which she named Kesri and a host of house sparrows who had built their nests in the house. Another long term resident who formed part of Dadi’s practical kin was a king cobra. She had fed him a bowl of milk every evening from the time she became a member of the house after marriage. Dadi was Kesri as also the mango flower which she picked at onset of summer.
The mindscape and the landscape were part of a common being. Dadi, along with an entire milieu grew, matured and experienced ageing in a common frame. Dadi’s house was slowly frittering away and so was she. When she died, the first of her kin to spread the news was the dog who visited Dadi every evening for his meal.
Joginder Pal’s Dadiyan helps us to understand the nuances of displacement in society. Is compensation ever possible for a life lost? How can one provide a substitute for the house in which Dadi had spent her entire life? What about the villages and tribal lands which our policy makers cognize as just a simple piece of land? How can there be a simple substitute for a life whose complexity is unfathomable to an outsider? One reason why solutions to the problem of ageing cannot be meaningfully located in only making the elderly either good consumers or good producers is because production and consumption do not exhaust all realms and realities of a human being.
In attempting to retrieve the age-old from old age, an integral view helps restore the linkages between post productive and productive segments of society. This view also recreates the centrality of mutualism in collective life. One last clarification about the age-old in old age: Its constituents cannot be seen as mere functional inputs into an inter-generational combine. They incorporate a capacity to offer a critique of the dominant order, of the ways of the productive working segments. This capacity is a repository of ultimate knowledge, though unrecognized by the rule of fashion. It generates another form of knowledge to understand one’s relation to the limits of life; also the datedness of prevailing meanings with claims to perenniality. In its ability to carry a memory/record of how life was, old age confronts adulthood. It provides a powerful critique to alter the metaphors/the stereotypes which seek to lock old age in a fixed position.
1. Kashmiri Lal Zakir, Doobtey Sooraj ki Katha, Novelistan, New Delhi, 1985.
2. Joginder Pal, ‘Maqamat’, Naya Daur, September 1996, pp. 27-30.
3. Ismat Chughtai, ‘Nannhi ki Naani’, in Asif Nawaz Choudhary (ed), Ismat Chugtai ke Sau Afsaney, Maktaba-e-Shero-o-Adab Lahore, n.d., pp. 1294-1308.
4. Hajra Kumar, ‘Mohubbut, kitab aur tokrey’, Biswin Sadi, April 1996, pp. 51-55.
5. Joginder Pal, ‘Dadiyan’, in Joginder Pal ke Afsanon ka Intekhab, New Delhi, Takhleeqkar Publishers, 1996, pp. 90-100.