Freedom in the Golden Years

By Aneeta Chakrabarty

Her benign eyes were mutely seeking solace and acceptance. She was lost without moorings in a fast paced society for the young and the glamorous. Her beautiful, aged face bearing an expression of tired loneliness sought from passers by some recognition, some love even if it be false. She offered her hand too quickly to whomever she encountered but got only the cold nod of sophistication. She hugged her memories and illusions of her home in the rolling hills of Rajputana for comfort but even these now became too distant and choked the fires of her being leaving her existence cold.

Home was constantly in her thoughts. There in her small apartment in Delhi, she was in control of her own destiny. There were plenty of visitors, neighbors and relatives. She never felt old there. Here every moment she felt her dependence keenly. There she could summon a rickshaw and go and come as she pleased. Here she felt crippled because she could not even go to the grocery store 3 blocks away.

When her husband died, three years ago, there was nobody to care for her in the empty nest. Her daughter in America constantly asked her to come over to Virginia. The day she left for America, the whole neighborhood had shown up to wish her a good trip, a joyful life in the new world and expressed how lucky she was. That day she felt she had reached the moon. Today she could not feel the ground beneath her feet.

The days were long and lonely. She Look care of her grandchildren while her daughter worked. Her daughter and son-in-law were very nice but their lives were busy and cluttered with children's homework, taxes, chauffeuring, socializing and keeping up with the Joneses. The bitter cold in the winter worsened her arthritis. She did not want to complain too much as she hated going to doctors and hospitals. It reminded her of nursing homes and its sterile, efficient coldness. Besides her daughter had to take time off from work and arrange for babysitters to watch the children. How easy it was at home where neighbors just walked in and friendly doctors would some home.

Her old friends in India envied her comfortable existence in a big house but little did they know that this carried a big price tag. Who would voluntarily choose a life of emotional deprivation and a friendless existence? She thought of Sheila’s mother who was paralyzed and alone in the big house talking to her all the time. She also thought of Suresh’s mother-in-law who was made to feel unwanted. At least she was not treated badly and should be grateful for small mercies. Wandering through this palace like house she thought to herself- be it ever so humble, there is no place like home.

She wanted to go back but her daughter would not let her. "Babysitters are expensive and unreliable" she said. Can she not help her own daughter a few years more? Besides if something happens to her in India who would help her? She envied the Chinese and other immigrants. Their community arranged for the old people to get together, watch Chinese movies, exchange pleasantries and conversations. Their advice and wisdom was sought by children and parents alike. They felt they belonged because they gave as well as received. Her Chinese acquaintances felt renewed after every weekend allowing her to face the uneven stresses and strains of the week. In fact even though Pei Chi did not speak a word of English she felt more at home than she did even though she spoke the language.

The priest at the temple back home always welcomed her and asked her "Mataji, how are you and how is everything?", offering her sweets and prasad. Here the priest ignored her because she was not a viable candidate for his eternal fund raising campaign.

Recently she was beginning to forget where things were kept. The other day she searched for the sugar pot for a long time when it was right beside her. She imagined the children were making fun of her. Her body had become a bundle of aches longing for rest. Yet she felt all the pain would disappear if she could breathe the native air in her own ground.

One day she read the Ramayana to the kids and extolled the virtues of Bharat for giving up the kingdom. Her grandson immediately said that Bharat was stupid to give up a kingdom that came to him through so much effort by Kaikeyi. Her daughter and son-in-law did not even contradict him. She felt she was living in another world and another set of values that the ones that ruled the heady, busy world of the young and the restless. She could not even understand this world, leave alone fit in it. Everybody was always talking of preserving Indian culture and yet so much wisdom, talent and time among the elderly was ignored which could be used to benefit society and instill culture and tradition among the young. The affluent cream of society as they often proclaim themselves to be, lacked vision and depth. Talent and character seemed to be rubbing its nose on the ground and pays homage to money.

Today, something was different. The pangs of loneliness would not go away. The bitter cold only increased the dreariness of her heart. She could not shake off the depression that started in the morning and left her feeling numb and cold. The only sign of life was the constant pain of her flaring arthritis which increased to a mounting crescendo till all she could feel was a throbbing pain in her head. Slowly she got up not knowing what to do. Outside the sky was clear. It seemed to remind her of the bright landscape of her home full of life. If only she could reach the door and get out she will be home. She put on her boots and heavy coat and stepped out towards home and freedom or so it seemed to her wandering mind.

The big blue house on 1400 Riverside had not seen so many people in its front yard in all its 14 years of existence. Reporters, TV men, Indian community leaders eager to be photographed, gossiping women, screaming children, and sad old men and women were reminiscing about what a great lady she was. It was such a great tragedy that she was missing.

Everyone claimed her as their best friend. All kinds of theories and hypothesis were put forward, analyzed and rejected. The community leaders looked very intellectual and profound and seemed to be enveloped in great thought in front of the camera. They all ate the snacks and tea served by a friend of the hostess, expressed as much sorrow as their faces could muster and left only to regroup in another location and express exactly the opposite of what was said earlier.

All kinds of additions and modifications to earlier stories was magnified and transmitted. After enjoying a few more delicacies they all left with expressions of undying friendships, the sorrowful state of the worlds, their own goodness and the wretchedness of other Indians.

Completely forgotten was the sad tale of an old woman who had to escape to the heart of God because the heart of man shut her out. The community that proclaimed it was so rich became so poor in caring, sharing and understanding. In spite of the superior moral values claimed by Indian society an old woman could not find a hand to clasp or a shoulder to lean on. To still the ceaseless pining of her heart she reached a desperate end and in leaving let Father Time mark the callousness of a soulless world.

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