Thursday, May 21, 2015

To my cousin, from the land of Piku

Dear cousin, born and bred in the queen’s land,

A long time back we had an argument in which you almost bit my head off. I had said it’s not in Indian culture to just leave our parents alone or in an old-age home, and move out. You were angry because you felt I was criticising your culture. While I now feel that some of us Indians distance ourselves from our parents, most of us don’t. And yes, it is because of our culture, the way we are brought up, that most of us continue looking after our parents, and don’t move out. Watch a beautiful film called Piku and you will understand a little of what I am trying to say.
Our country is changing, and some of these changes I really like. Piku shows one of that change. She is a woman who does not abandon her father because she wants to move on. “You can’t be judgmental about parents,” are the lines the actress says, to a character who is trying to talk to her about her father. She knows her father is a hypochondriac and probably just trying to get her attention with his ‘ailments’. But that’s the way he is and she has accepted it.
You in the West may say this is because of her sense of duty to him. Since when did looking after parents become one’s duty? They looked after us and brought us up, so did they do this because of their duty towards us? So how is looking after them a duty?
Piku’s reality, which is the case for many Indian women, is that she hasn’t found a man who will understand her and accept her with her father. In the character of Rana, the writer creates such a man, who understands her.
In the case of an Indian man, it is accepted that he will find a wife who will help him look after his parents. But it is difficult for many an Indian woman to find a man who will help do so for her parents.
I don’t have overwhelming parents like Piku’s father, but I have been unlucky to find a man who was willing to be there for them, with me. The Indian male traditionally thinks of his parents first. Now the Indian woman is saying she also wants to be there for her parents. She is no longer the woman who distances herself from her parents after she is married. She wants her future husband to also accept this. While this may not be a big deal if she also has a brother (with whom their parents will most likely be staying), it becomes a big deal in the case of an only daughter or just daughters.
But the traditional outlook of some Indian men is also changing for the better. I know a journalist couple who spent their week alternating between her mother’s home and his father’s home so neither parent had to live alone for long. Or a man who got his widowed mother-in-law to stay with them.
I also read an interview of actor Abhishek Bachchan - the son of the Indian superstar Amitabh Bachchan, who plays Piku’s father - who said that whether his wife, actress Aishwarya was in town or not, every Sunday, he has lunch with his in-laws. Considering what I have read and heard about the Bachchans, this is most likely true, because they are a progressive family.
Tradition has kept the great Indian family together. Over time, nuclear families meant there were just one or two children. Many modern, educated Indian women, have been brought up by their parents to think of themselves as equal to men. Unlike earlier times when a woman was brought up by banning her from doing or saying certain things because they may not be allowed in her husband’s house, the modern Indian woman has been brought up to respect tradition, but with the freedom to decide and choose for herself. So she has donned the traditional role of the son, that of looking after her parents, and she has decided she only wants a partner who understands, accepts and helps her in this.
The film Piku is being praised all over because many people in India have accepted this change. They are part of the change.
Being modern does not necessarily mean aping everything the West does. Some of us Indians may not have accepted moving out, but that doesn’t make us regressive people. It’s taken the young Indian woman so long to stand up and say she wants to be there for her parents. Is that being regressive? Is that not being modern?   
This is our culture. It’s a blend of the old and new, the traditional and the modern, and keeps us rooted. It’s what keeps some of us close to our parents and why some of us don’t move out.

Your very India-born and bred cousin

Thursday, May 14, 2015

A tale of two brothers

After the accident my mother needed extensive dental treatment. It was during these sessions that I saw him again.
For years he accompanied his father to work every day, and spent it sitting quietly on a chair put up for him in one of the rooms in the dental clinic. Their father retired, and now he accompanies his brother, the present dentist.
I first heard about him from my father, when I was a kid. The mentally challenged son whose father took him to work every day.
He still sits quietly, sometimes doing namaskar, greeting patients. He can’t do much else. At intervals the dentist’s assistants offer him tea. Like a child he sometimes refuses to drink it, and like a child, drinks it when he is admonished.
The time shows on his face now. But not in his manner. He smiles, sometimes tries to talk to patients, but mostly sits quiet.
Quietly he watches his brother work. He doesn’t react to the sounds from the machines or to the patient and doctor interaction. The dentist hums a song that’s playing in the background as he works. Occasionally he explains something to the patient. He instructs the assistants. His brother watches quietly.
I wonder what he thinks. Is he aware of the success of his brother? Is he aware of all that he does for him? Is he aware of the changing scene before him? Of his father’s place in the clinic taken by his brother? Or that his nephew will one day take that place? Is he aware that he has seen time pass in front of him?
In these times when people are reluctant to even speak to their parents, it is heartening to see the dentist’s love for his brother. The unselfish love that made him take on looking after his brother from their father.
Time may have forgotten the quiet man who has spent his life sitting on a chair in a dental clinic, but love hasn’t. It’s all that truly exists for him.