By Sudha Menon
Sometimes chance meetings with strangers change the way we look at things. Often they throw up solutions to problems that may have vexed us for years and caused us countless sleepless nights.
Earlier this month I was at the Bangalore campus of a prominent IT company, addressing a largely group of women employees and talking about my new book, Legacy.
Since the topic of discussion was the legacy that we can leave for our children, I soon found myself talking to the audience about my own parents, my hardworking, uncompromisingly honest trade union leader father and my homemaker mother, who gave up her every dream so that she could raise her children on the limited resources she had at her disposal. Then, as if reacting to an invisible cue, the group started talking about their own parents, their struggles, how they had learnt precious life lessons from simply watching their parents going about their everyday life.
One young woman spoke about how she returned home to her widowed mother after several years of studying and working in other cities, only to find that her mother simply had no time to speak with her. “She gets irritated with me if I interrupt her watching her favourite serials”, she said. “I feel like the serial is more important than me.”
It was like the young woman was telling me the story of my own life. Over the last couple of years, my communication with my parents has been severely curtailed with my mother watching back-to-back serials till about 10 in the night and my father hooked to watching re-runs of decade-old football matches when he is at home. Upon dialling my parent’s home a couple of months ago, I was told by my father that I should call back after 9 PM because Amma was engrossed in her favourite show. I raged at what I thought was a snub till my husband put things in perspective by pointing out that that I had called them at my convenience, and should not expect them to be available every time I was free!
Here is what he also said to me. After bringing up their children and setting them on their own journey, parents today more often than not have a role in raising their grandchildren too which means that by the time they are done, most of them are in their late sixties or seventies and with time hanging heavy on them. “Since their family has no time for them, the older lot falls back on television which is the only way they find some connection with the world,” he said.
At the age of 67, my mother is suddenly rudderless with very little purpose in life. And that, said my husband, is the problem. If she is prone to sullen silences, bouts of depression, spikes of anger and mysterious aches and pains, it is because she has a vacuum in her life that she finds difficult to fill.
Walking into their home a few days ago, I was struck by the air of neglect, almost despair in the rooms. The once busy home has now boiled down to just my father and mother. It does not helpAmma’s case that my father is getting progressively deaf. When she figured out that she could not get his attention away from television, she simply decided to join him. They both now watch telly in separate rooms and telephone calls go unanswered till 10 PM because they are too engrossed.
Each of us has to deal with the impending mortality of our parents at some point in our lives, but more painful than even that, I am convinced, is dealing with the helplessness of trying to find a way to keep them included in our lives. Or to stop them from retreating into a solitary world of their own.
My mother refuses to leave her home unattended to visit me because she is convinced robbers will go off with the lemons in her garden! And, she cannot sleep without the noise of the local trains that roar past her house every three minutes of the day. And she won’t visit me because she can’t handle the silence in the gated community I live in.
When I visit her, Amma is too busy cooking and cleaning and feeding even the most casual visitor to her home with the result that I leave without having said any of the things I wanted to share with her. And without listening to her own stories.
At the end of my talk in Bangalore, a woman in the audience shared her recipe for a happy life for her own widowed mother.
“Every week, on a day that my mother picks, I pick her up and we spend the entire day doing what she wants to do. We go shopping, have lunch at her favourite places and sometimes watch a movie. I avoid telling her what to do and make sure I stay clear of any controversial subject that is remotely likely to cause anger or misery. If she wants to talk about something in particular, I let her do it but don’t add my two bits to it so that she gets venting time. I don’t take time off to do any of my errands and so she is happy that I devoted an entire day to her.”
On certain days of the month, she takes her 10-year-old son to meet her mother too and on these days, they take the public bus to get to grandma’s house. “That way he gets to know how the rest of the world lives and learns to be grateful for his own blessings. We pretend the bus ride is a great adventure and he has begun to like it a lot.”
Another friend of mine, a senior IPS officer has marked days in her calendar as “duty vacations” – days that are special to her mother. On those days, she flies off to Delhi where her mother lives and devotes the entire time to her mother. “It is necessary for them to feel wanted and not feel so redundant in our lives,” this friend said.
Last week, I spent a couple of hours with master chef Sanjeev Kapoor who was with me on a panel, talking about Legacy. “Till my father passed away, I did not know what my greatest grief was. I’m the happiest today if I am able to call my mother two times in a day and chat with her. We can only ever hope to pay them back for their many sacrifices by gifting them our time. That is the only thing they want from us.”
Put like that, it is the simplest thing to do. I have decided that once a month, for the rest of their lives, I will make the time to spend exclusively with my parents. They deserve it. I owe it to them!