Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Yet another conversation near the pond...

Jacques Barzun’s “From Dawn to decadence” lay open on my lap; as I sat near the duck pond (my customary haunt…). It was a beautiful Sunday evening; threatening to rain, but never did. A pleasant breeze wafting around, the ducks going about their business with a serene countenance unruffled by daily cares. A few new additions to their flock, though: all merrily enjoying being alive and sticking together in warm comfort of their family.

The elderly Indian Gentleman was sauntering along the pond. He was a tall man; reasonably built, close to six feet, I must say; hair completely greyed; wearing a loose fitting pair of black pants and striped white shirt. His hands were clasped behind his back; walking back and forth apparently lost in thought. He lives in my community. I have been seeing him around for the last eight months, on and off; near the swimming pool, washing area; or playing with a girl child (His granddaughter, may be). I distinctly remember his relaxed demeanor, earlier this year. He would be in the pool or walking around the community, exuberant, laughing whole heartedly; making conversation with anyone who happened to pass him by, enjoying the flush of spring and summer. And then slowly, over the year he had visibly mellowed down. Gone was that vivacity and energy; a forlorn look had started creeping into his face, and I would see him sitting on a bench with a faraway look. I have not spoken to him at all; merely acknowledged each other’s presence as our paths crossed. Yesterday, for the first time I saw him near the pond; we smiled at each other and I continued reading Barzun’s marvelous account of the Reformation.

The Sun was setting, it was becoming difficult to read. I put down my book and looked around to find my acquaintance sitting on a bench a little away from me. He slowly got up and came over to me and introduced himself:

“I am Ramanathan (Name changed). I have seen you many times walking with your back pack...”

I replied in the affirmative and gave him my name. He sat down beside me and continued:

“Do you live alone here?”

“Yes, I do…”

“Are you married? How about family...”

“Well, I am not married, and my family lives in India. Kerala, in fact. I lost my father a couple of years ago. My mom lives with my brother…” - I thus condensed a three year history for him.

He went on:” You must be finding it difficult with food. Does your mother come to stay to with you? It will be nice, you know. It will also be helpful to you…”

An interesting proposition. I paused for a moment and said “I would definitely want my mother to come and look at this country, stay with me for some time. But frankly, when I bring her here, it would definitely not be to help, cook or clean my place. I guess, she has done enough of that even in her seventy odd years of dedicated life to bring us to where we are today. She will come here, relax; enjoy the beauty of this place; breathe some fresh air; will take her to visit her relatives all over this country; and then when she has had enough; she will have the liberty and decision to go back at any time. In other words, sir, staying with me will be her prerogative and certainly not a moral compulsion from my side….”

My words silenced him. His face dropped a little. I was afraid that I had hurt him. I quickly added “Sir, I hope I did not offend you in any way…” He straightened up immediately and smiled at me saying:

“No, No young man, I was really happy hearing you say what you said. I wish I had the same freedom. You see, I am a retired government employee. My wife and I and over sixty five now. We have a huge social circle and lots of community activities back home. My only son, came here about four years ago along with his wife. Our first trip here was real fun. I had dreamt about seeing America, and couldn’t have enough of it when I landed here. As you can see, I am by God’s grace in decent health and was able to travel. Then my first Grandson was born. We are all delighted. We came back to see the child and stuck on to take care of him. My daughter-in- law had just gotten her new job, and you know how it is? So two years - back and forth, making sure the young kid had us at home for him. But then, I was already beginning to miss my familiar Indian surroundings. My friends and I had planned a lot of things to do after retirement. It had to be postponed. Well finally, we got back home after the kid was old enough to be trusted with day care. We are so happy to return to India; and also painfully realized that we were tired and visibly older than ever. Taking care of the baby, house and all the rest of it was a very laborious exercise. Somehow we had not bargained for this. Anyways, towards the end of last year, we had to be back again; my daughter-in-law was pregnant, and my son wanted our help yet again. Frankly, I was not keen, but my wife’s maternal instincts got the better of me. We are now here for another couple of years, I guess, going back and forth, bringing the second kid up. But believe me Bala, this is a thankless job. My son has taken us for granted. In these four years, he has professionally grown as well. So his Wife and he go out for vacations leaving the Kids with us, with a customary phone call each day to make sure that the kids are alright. And we are here spending the last part of our lives, still caught in household chores and family upkeep; each day slipping away from us…. Every time, I broach the topic of going back, there is uneasiness in the house. My wife urges me to keep quiet, but somehow I feel that my freedom is lost yet again, after having striven fifty years for it…”

I am a patient listener. Every word that he spoke smacked of truth. Coming to America, planning a family, bringing ones parents as baby sitters clothed as parental love - you will see them all over the place pushing trollies and baby carts with a tired look in their eyes. Lost in an alien country, language, culture, religion; they brave it out for the sake of their children. How long will the initial euphoria last? Once, they settle down, all that remains for them is boredom and feeling of psychological oppression. I remember a trip to New Jersey a few months ago and happened to drive through Edison. It was unbelievable to find so many elderly couple baby-sitting kids. I am sure some of them enjoy what they are doing; but a significant number would give anything to get back to their fold. I have also heard young professionals flippantly say during many a conversation “Hey, My parents will come over and take care…” I am never happy when I hear such blatant suppositions. It is a tribute to our culture that our parents still feel obligated to do things for grown up children. The west would smirk at such a task, or at the very least make their terms clear. Unconditional love also comes with its own caveats. But somehow, we have come to take it as granted, and there lies the problem. Mr Ramanathan is representative of a generation of fathers and Mothers, whose old age is spent flying 25 hours to America and back every six months unmindful of their health and interest, assisting their sons and daughters in bringing up their kids while they are busy rising up the corporate ladder. The English language has a word for such a job; I will, however finish this essay by leaving it unsaid.

It is night by then, and both of us slowly walked back to our community. The canopied road was utterly quiet; just an occasional sound of insects and gentle breeze caressing the trees on their way. We bid each other farewell, and promised to meet again soon. I hope I find him in better cheer next time...

God bless..

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