Monday, July 16, 2007

Sar utha ke jiyo

Over the last few months, a much-played clip on TV has portrayed an elderly gent stepping off a train, shoving away his son’s helping hand. On the platform now himself, he tries to attend to his wife, who is stepping out after him, but she snubs him just as rudely, and struts off haughtily with her head in the air.
“Sar utha ke jiyo!” the advertiser exhorts.
I watch this ad with mixed feelings, trying each time to interpret the phrase, how it would mean different things to different people – and which precise shade of expression in the crowded infinitum from dignity to arrogance would precisely describe, to me in particular, the feeling of holding one’s head high.
When I hear people express shuddering horror at the prospect of having to depend on their children in old age, I feel a little embarrassed.
The truth is, I’m completely dependent on my children even now. I’ve been so ever since the moment they entered my life. I’m not ashamed to admit that when they’re happy, fulfilled, enjoying success or recreation – I feel content. When they’re disturbed, ill, unhappy or confused for any reason, existence feels nothing but wretched. There’s no other dependence that can be defined as simply and as completely.
When babies soil their pants, parents consider it their loving duty to clean, dispose, and disinfect. When toddlers graze their knees, it’s a joy to kiss away the pain. To comfort a school-goer who has lost her best friend is nothing but a gift, a lofty privilege of existence! Parents put aside their need for fun, privacy, even self-fulfilment, and ride their kids to tennis class, maths tuitions, and birthday parties. They’re prepared to pump them with caffeine at any hour of day or night when they’re preparing for entrance exams. They valiantly tolerate mood swings and breaches of discipline, and then lend every inch of their own energy into generating that escape velocity for the children to swing off into orbits of their own.
And yet, just a few years later, these clich├ęs of parenthood run aground. The children extend a helping hand – only to be churlishly pushed away!
To me, this behaviour is surly and uncalled for, and nothing at all to do with ‘sar utha ke jeena’. When old age and illness or disability come to me, my dignity will come from trusting existence to provide me with carers who will treat me with patience and kindness. When my circumstances compel me to take help from others, my dignity will come from learning their ways and adapting to them. When someone holds out a hand to help me, my dignity will come not from pushing them aside, but from my deep gratitude for their presence, and for their generosity. My dignity – and pride – will be enhanced by the knowledge that my helplessness has provided them the opportunity to gain virtue from being charitable. I will proudly feel that I’ve earned my place at the table just by responding to the overtures of affection and kindness of those who are caring for me. I promise not to expect much, and to be grateful for every little that I get.

First appeared in Sunday Mid-day 15 Jul 2007