India se…..chronicling the invisible bonds

Sea change……lock, stock and barrel

When someone asks me where I am from, I automatically say Delhi. And the minute I land in Delhi, it envelops me in this familiar embrace that immediately gives me  a sense of comfort.

For many people, who have visited Delhi- this will seem quite crazy. The noise, the dust, the pollution, the flagrant disregard for the rules and law by many and the dirt – can tempt some to head straight back in the airport!

But for me, Delhi is where I get the greatest sense of anchor. The city where I was born, where I grew up- where my parents lived. The connections so strong, that many times when it rains in Melbourne, I can close my eyes and imagine the monsoon rains in Delhi and smell the earth and almost taste the jamun fruit!

20161215_060249Earlier this year, my parents decided to move out of Delhi. There was no one reason for the move, but rather a motley collection of factors.

For many who know our family, this was quite momentous. My parents both have lived in Delhi for most of their lives, my mother coming there in the early years of Independence as a child and my father as a young man in his early 20’s. They  were married on the streets of Hauz Khas, quite literally- my grandfather had a shamiana erected on the main road for the ceremony. I grew up in Hauz Khas, with my cousins across the road and around the corner. When my parents decided to buy their own home, it was in Delhi they bought- it never crossed their minds, they may one day want to return to the South, where their ancestral roots were.

So, why move? For many families, the dilemma that my parents faced, comes at one time or the other.

And I do believe our parent’s generation is perhaps the last generation that will face this 20161205_103010decision largely unprepared. With many families having one or two children, often settled overseas, the question “who will look after the parents” slips by. When the parents visit regularly and children make trips back to India often, it does not seem to matter. But as the parents get older, little things can get annoying, the trials of living in a huge metro, with largely indifferent services- it can be very isolating and get you down.

Delhi, sadly has lost its smaller town sense of community- mega apartment complexes with every luxurious amenity in sight, except perhaps a sense of belonging. The old “culony” where everyone knew everyone has given way to people in a rush. New money has meant that people are now impatient and intolerant of anything that loses them time or money. The pollution levels just add to difficulties.

And even more sadly, a teeming metropolis and the national capital has not planned for an ageing population. Most of the older DDA constructions, an absolute sea of SFS, MIG and other dwellings do not have lifts. In fact, most of the apartment complexes which came about in the late 80’s don’t have lifts, when they are 2 or 3 storey. Parking in most of these blocks is now a nightmare. They were designed for possibly 1/4th the number of vehicles that need accommodation. While public transport is greatly improved with the extensive metro, peak times are still impossible for older people to get into.
Other soft services like catering, medical and therapeutic are hit and miss. If you have had established decent relationships you will be okay, otherwise …..

After a few years of active retired life in Delhi, it was clear, the stresses of living here are just not worth the benefits.

20161214_155931As my parents scouted different places to “settle down” Chennai & Coimbatore came up as options. In true to form style, once my parents decided, they moved swiftly, booking tickets to visit both cities and scouting out retirement villages. For our part, my brother and I did our homework and booked guest houses so they could explore their options.

And even more swiftly, 2 days into their stay in Coimbatore, they had found an apartment they liked in a retirement village and 5 months later they packed up their 47 year long life together in Delhi into a container and moved right across the country.

Like many other things my parents have done, they managed their move alone as well. 20161213_093031When I arrived in Coimbatore, it was to ostensibly help them unpack and settle down. But much of what was needed had been done by them. My assistance was in the main practical and getting things done faster by paying outrageous bakshish!

But what struck me was that, even after 60+ years in Delhi, with few visits to the South, my parents slid into life here, pretty easily. The people felt familiar and the culture more welcoming. And most critically, the concept of retirement living is much more accepted and expected in the South of India, than in the North. The sheer number of retirement homes in Coimbatore alone are staggering, with infrastructure keeping pace. There are different styles as well, catering to different tastes that people have. Some are focused on supporting a quieter retired life, with a focus on spiritual side, quiet life. Others have badminton courts, swimming pools, gyms and spa treatments. Some are way outside town, within fields and others in the city.

The medical facilities are geared to manage elder care, with most signs advertising regular diabetic, cardiac and neuro checks and offering services at home or annual packages. Small shops sell diabetic cookies and tour operators advertise comfortable travel for older people. The service staff too seem to appreciate the income stream elder care and retired living brings, most happy to assist…

And most importantly, driving in Coimbatore is infinitely less stressful than driving in Delhi. Every time we thought of our dad, driving on Delhi roads, it would turn another hair grey, but after a week of him driving me around in this new town20161214_153816, I was confident enough to let my daughter take the wheels and let her drive! Next visit, she has negotiated with her Thatha, to let her have the car, from the time she lands!

A couple of years ago, while researching for my thesis on retirement among 1st generation migrants in Australia,  I found that many of the issues people raised here in OZ were exactly the same ones my parents raised in India-

Retirement living is not moving into the ages old concept of Vanaprastha, giving up all activity other than bhajans or going to pilgrimage or spend time looking after grandkids. People are now spending as much time in retirement as they are in work. Most folks want to indulge in activities they have always wanted to- like travel, watch movies, go to cultural events or take time out to write or take up a new hobby.

For many in my parents’ generation, it has been a newfound sense of independence- they want to be in control of what they do, rather than move in with their children and have a 2nd go at running a home, just 30 years older now. The everyday hassles of running a household, managing home help and organising repairs are the things they want to be rid off. Safety and security are the other key issues, some cities are just not as safe for older people, with many worried they may be victimised if they are seen to be without “younger” people “looking after” them.

Having spent a couple of weeks in Coimbatore, I came back feeling much better. In their golden years, my parents have the safety net of support, everyday hassles of maids and maintenance taken care off. The ability to lock up the house and leave for quick breaks or longer holidays without worrying about telephone surrenders and prepaying electricity. A healthier climate and cleaner air. And nothing made me feel happier, than when calling my dad to let him know I had landed back in Melbourne, he said he and my mum had driven off to get some paperwork from Hyundai, sorted out some bank issues and found an Adyar Ananda Bhavan for lunch! All is well!

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