Parents in India, sons and daughters in other countries!

The above article appeared in ‘The International Indian’ (NRI families) Year 2006

(Vimla interviewed Narain and myself and Ms Mohini, my daughter Madhavi’s mother-in-law. The interviews have been highlighted and put in italics) 

The above photograph of Narain and myself taken on our Silver Wedding Anniversary appeared midst the article amongst those of others, who were interviewed

Follows the article in full:

Parents in India, sons and daughters in other countries!

The huge number of ageing parents left behind in India by their ambitious offspring is growing alarmingly. With millions of young Indians settling in far-flung countries for money and a better quality of life, is the Indian family on the verge of collapse? Parents and children – divided by lands and oceans – reveal their bittersweet experiences and emotions!

All ‘left behind’ ageing parents say that young people should know that life is only a life- span and what they face today, the sons and daughters too will face when they see the twilight of their lives!

By Vimla Patil

A recent television commercial has left viewers across India chuckling to themselves – it shows an elderly couple going to the airport to receive their son, who is returning from the US after becoming a rich NRI. The parents obviously carry great dreams in their hearts – they expect that the son will now marry and bring home a bahu and that they will take care of the parents! Alas, the son brings his American bahu along to the airport and – as if this is not enough to shock the old parents – there is the loud wailing of a baby in the background. Created by an insurance company, this ad encourages ageing parents not to depend on their progeny for security and to make sure of their future by buying insurance! However, behind the self-conscious laughter of elderly viewers, lies a sense of pathos that pervades the lives of the huge ‘left behind’ brigade of parents India. Not only advertising, but also plays, Bollywood films and even folk songs are highlighting the unenviable condition of elderly families forgotten by their newly Westernized and ‘affluenza’-riddled children. A recent and very successful Gujarati play based on this theme is ‘Shrimatiji Sudhri Jaye To Saroon’ starring TV actor Sudha Chandran. Films like the Aishwarya Rai starrer Aa Ab Lout Chalen have also highlighted the plight of parents treated like domestic help by their ‘foreign’ sons in the new country of their domicile.

“Millions of young Gujaratis have gone to other countries in search of their fortunes,” says Asha Mehta, a jewellery designer and mother of Maharshi, who went to Drexel University in Philadelphia, US to complete his master’s in business and management, “In the seventies and eighties, urban middle class Gujarati families lived in small homes and could not accommodate sons when they married. In these circumstances they encouraged sons to travel abroad for education and then to build successful careers. Such boys not only supported their parents, but also sent huge amounts of money for the upliftment of their communities and for charities. Lalit and I – my husband is a businessman – sent our only son to the US as we felt he didn’t have enough scope here for achieving his goals because of extreme competition and quotas in various fields. In India, we feel, young people are stressed out because of corruption, political influence in educational institutions and reservations.  Because of all these, merit is often not recognized.

“We had one more reason for sending him abroad. In the mid-sixties, when we were young, Lalit and I wanted to go away to the US to make a life for ourselves. The visas had come and even farewell parties had begun. But my elderly mother-in-law cried all night saying that she would die if Lalit left – and he finally decided to stay back for her. We did not want to repeat this occurrence. So we did not stand in Maharshi’s way when he wanted to quit his secure job in a bank in Mumbai and study in the US. We could afford to send him and the opportunities he had in the US were stupendous.

“Of course there are pluses and minuses for this decision. After my daughter Vibhu was married, we were suddenly lonely and old! Maharshi is our only son and we miss him terribly especially as we get older. Around me, I see a huge number of couples whose children will never come back to India. In many cases, sons and daughters living abroad become ‘foreigners’ and forget their roots. They don’t stay in touch and give unbearable heartbreak to their parents who may have given unconditional love – and their hard-earned savings – to give opportunities to their offspring. However, there are also sons and daughters who show their gratefulness by inviting the parents over, sending them money regularly and taking care of their health. But the fact remains that elder parents are lonely after retirement and if their health is bad, then things often become difficult for them.  The soaring cost of living and the growing self-centredness of Indian society also cause stress!”

Frederick and Gracy Fernandes are fairly well-to-do retired parents with three children. “We spend our time walking on the beach and playing chess,” says Frederick, “And we miss our children terribly. Our elder son Sanjay was employed by Tata Consultancy Services in India. He was sent first to Bahrain, then to the Philippines and finally to the US by the company. So it was a natural progression for him. Sandeep, our second son, married a young woman who worked for SOTC (a travel conglomerate) and got a trip to Australia as an incentive bonus for outstanding work. When they both went to Australia, they loved the country and decided to move there for a better lifestyle and higher income. Sandhya, our banker daughter, is married to a software engineer in the US and is now poised to join him.

“We are extremely proud of our children because they are all doing very well and are in touch with us everyday, thanks to email, Web cam and other technological wonders. Touch wood, we are healthy till now! I look after all the investments and properties of my children in India. At the moment they are just settling down and I don’t expect any financial help from them. But we are lonely. When we were young, we had no time for our children because of our hectic careers. Now that time stretches endlessly before us, our grandchildren are away and we can’t play with them. I believe that young people will seek greener pastures and parents have to find their own salvation. I make sure that both Gracy and I work hard to keep healthy. We know that many faraway sons and daughters neglect their parents. Such people must realize that life finally becomes just a life span. Bad health and old age are the million-dollar questions. They too will face these questions one day and that is why they must do their duty now. This is our culture and all young Indians living abroad should be aware of this.”

Sandhya, now packing her bags to go to the US, adds, “Our parents have given us everything – money to create opportunities, education and an excellent upbringing. Even now, they work to build wealth for all of us! We keep taking their money and they give it unconditionally. We pray that they remain healthy. Around me, I have seen too many parents who are neglected, ill and lonely. I feel children must take care of their ageing parents through gratefulness, love and when needed, financial and healthcare assistance. This is a very emotional issue for me!”

Narain and Shakun Kimatrai come from an ‘international’ family. While Shakun was brought up in the Canary Islands, Narain belongs to a trading family that had businesses in Singapore, Hong Kong and other countries. “We Sindhis are a trading community,” says Narain, “Long before Independence came to India, we sent our children to Hong Kong, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Spain and other countries to spread our network of trade. So we are used to having our sons and daughters away from the family home. But now the scenario has changed. Many Sindhis are professionals and are seeking education abroad.”

Shakun continues, “In the case of our son Sunder and daughter Madhavi, we flowed with time and took things as they came. Sunder got his commerce degree in India and had to go to Singapore to get experience in business from our family firm before he could get admission to a US university. Once he got his MBA, he came back as a senior employee of 20th Century Fox and his journey of success began. He was transferred to Singapore and then to Australia as Vice President (Asia-Pacific) of the company. My daughter-in-law misses the comforts of an ‘Indian home’ but is brilliantly efficient. They come often to India and we too visit them. Our daughter too lived in India for ten years after marriage and then went to the US with her husband whose family has a petrol outlet business in that country. So we have not sent our children away with any plan. I believe life knows where we should go and it leads us to the right shores.

“But there are other aspects to this issue of ‘left behind’ parents. There are a vast number of elders in India who are helpless without their children. The ‘Old Peoples’ Home’ industry is booming with so many of them mushrooming in scenic locations to accommodate affluent parents. The not-so-well-to-do manage to live in poor ‘homes’ and survive. The situation is worsened by the increased longevity of life in India. Medical progress prolongs life beyond the usefulness of a person and when life lingers, loneliness and suffering are inevitable. The truth is that young expatriates who discover riches and freedom for the first time in life, do not want the burden of old, ailing parents and the best way to avoid this responsibility is to cut away all communication and disappear, as it were, in the ocean of people in other countries. A number of NGOs like Dignity Foundation work for senior citizens and try to bring solace to them but it’s not easy in a country where infrastructure and availability of funds are poor.”

Shakun’s daughter’s mother-in-law, Mohini Hathiramani – a grandmother of nine children – offers a wonderful solution for all ‘left behind’ parents. She says, “I live alone in Mumbai. What is more, I have recently suffered bad health and gone through a very rough time in life. All my four children – three daughters in Jakarta and one son in the US – live away from me. They care deeply for me and demand that I should go to live with them, as I am alone and unwell. But I love my home and my way of life. I spend most of my time in devotional activities and am perfectly happy in India. I believe strongly in the spiritual concept of ‘non attachment’ or ‘Nirmoha’! While I am happy for the children to prosper and live well wherever they are, I am not so attached that I miss them everyday. I believe that abandoning one’s possessiveness at the right time solves many problems in life.”

What should sons and daughters do to bring smiles and comfort to their ‘left behind’ parents?  To begin with, they should STAY IN TOUCH! That’s half the battle won, say most parents. They should volunteer help – financial or other – in case of sickness or need of any kind. If parents don’t need every-month remittances, children should definitely send birthday money or generous gifts for holidays etc. If monthly remittances are the need, then faraway children should aim at sending between Rs.10,000 to Rs.40,000, depending on their own incomes and their parents’ usual standard of living in small town or urban India. It is hurtful for elderly parents to be forced to cut down on their lifestyle gradually because of rising prices and their downslide to poverty. Most important, money should never be given as a ‘grudging duty’ because this hurts parents more than anything. Children should give gifts or money in the same spirit of love that parents show when they give unconditional support to their offspring!

However, even a cursory collection of quotes from elders, shows that there is a clear divide between three kinds of ‘left behind’ parents in India. The first category comprises senior couples from well-to-do families where everyone is not only well provided for by family business or accumulated wealth, but also through community support because of high social status and money power. In this ‘creamy layer’ of Indian society, whether sons or daughters send support money or care for their parents or not makes no difference to the lifestyle of the parents, who have their own activities like club life, excursions, travel and entertainment. Only chronic bad health and disabling old age are problems for such parents. The second group of parents comprises the happy ones – because their progeny shows a sense of responsibility and gratefully gives support whenever needed. But on the third side of this sunny pyramid are millions of middle or lower middle class parents who live in the darkness of despair. They slog relentlessly to pool together enough money or mortgage their meagre property to send a son or daughter abroad in search of a better life with the expectation that their offspring will upgrade the whole family from the morass of poverty and want. When sons and daughters of such ‘left behind’ parents disconnect with their roots and turn their newly prosperous backs on their old, sick and impoverished parents, the result is often an indescribable desolation of the human spirit!

Captions for the images sent with the above feature:

1.      Asha and Lalit Mehta coo to their new grandchild Veer, son of their daughter Vibhu. Their son Maharshi works in the US after graduating from Drexel University, Philadelphia.

2.      Frederick and Gracy Fernandes have three children, two in the US and one in Australia. “We did not plan to send the children away. It happened by their choice,” they say. Frederick looks after the properties and investments of all his children in India and does not expect financial support at the moment. They cut the cake on their wedding anniversary.

3.      Narain and Shakun Kimatrai on the occasion of their Silver Wedding. Two of their three children – a son and a daughter – are abroad in Australia and in the US. “We have flown with the river of time and not stopped the children from going away,” they say, adding that Sindhis have always traveled for trade and business.

4.      Mohini Hathiramani has suffered bad health but lives alone in Mumbai. Her four children – three daughters in Jakarta and one son in the US – dote over her. But she believes in Nirmoha or detachment and says that giving up possessiveness at the right time brings peace into one’s life.