Wednesday, May 11, 2011

When I'm Sixty-Something

Will you still need me, will you still feed me, When I´m sixty-four?- Beatles’ song, the late 1960s

My mother was a full-grown teenager from the mountains of eastern Nepal, already married off to my father when the Beatles began to rock the Western hemisphere with their futuristic pop songs focused on “me” and “my” well-being. Sixty-four was more than mere numbers or a cry of anxiety over aging for the Brit band. It also conveyed a steady increase over the past decades in life expectancy. In 1901, the majority of people in the UK did not live beyond 49 years.

When my mother was born, in 1946, a year before India became independent, the average number of years a British or an American expected to live was past the age of 65. She grew up weaving hay mats, doing daaura-pani, dhiki-janto, mela-pat and singing the morbid songs of “chhoriko karma” and “our duty” etc. Life was hard and cruel, and she had no idea how long she might live although my research now reveals that most of her contemporaries could expect to survive until their 27th birthday. Across the border, at that time, an average Indian or Chinese could have lived until the age of 31 and 35 years, respectively.

This past mother’s day (May 3), I briefly spoke to my mom in Damak, over the telephone. Yes, she is around and she did survive those many physical and cultural burdens, and waves of pandemics like flu, smallpox, cholera and malaria that vanquished many young people from her generation. She beat all the odds and managed to make past that mellowed sixty-four. As mothers are, she is a caring, amazing human being, and in that conversation, she wasn’t in the least bit bothered about her own well-being at this advanced age but showered tender concerns for my family and children.

Will you still need me, will you still feed me, now that I am past sixty-four? No, she did not ask that question. Rather, I found myself in an awkward situation, challenged by my own guilt – that bad conscience – over responsibility earned from her milk as a child and her cares over the years. Yes, I need your consolations when I am in difficulty. Unfortunately, I have not been able to do that one thing enough— to be always there for my mother (and my father, too)—that every child wishes he or she could do for their aging parents.

For most of my adolescent and adult life, I have been away from them. My parents pushed for it, encouraged me to venture out in the world, to chase my dreams: Kehi gar, do something, kehi ban, be somebody. So I wandered in quest of the elixir of my life. The steady pressure of modernity in the past couple of decades consolidated via widespread education, liberalizing polity, and economic globalization accelerated by new information technologies was such that traditional social and family structures began to disintegrate rapidly. The youth earned increased mobility. The decade-long conflict also forced family disintegration and further social disruption. More and more elderly people were left to themselves.

Today, our above-60-year old countrymen and women make up 5 percent of our entire population. They are a forgotten minority. Most of the elderly are forced to live in misery with no care or support coming from their own family members, not to mention governmental support or social security.

My concern is not that our elderly have to live alone, by themselves. Physical sociability or proximity has been radically altered. It seems irreversible for the foreseeable future, especially in view of the recent waves of our young migrant workers going beyond borders, across the world. The momentum for this outward-bound and vaguely defined “kehi kamau”, earn something, has reached a fever-pitch; only future historians will be able to assess the real extent of the magnitude and effects of this massive exodus of our times. And it may take decades before we will really become inward-bound, find our place among ourselves, our near and dear ones, and say, with clarity: I belong here, mom. Yes, only if our mothers are around or our life expectancy continues to stretch beyond the current 67 or so years.

Until then, I can only put together my own back-of-the-envelope guess list of what our future has in store for us, or what kind of future I think I can make for myself. And I try to find some clues to my future in my parents’ advanced age, in the lives of those five-percent-forgottens. Their present is a key part of my future. If I live long enough, I will be sixty-something in little over a couple of decades, say 2033.

Whatever the political visions and social strategies, well-being in the modern term may at the least encompass the freedom to choose your calling, pursue your dreams, to earn good education, receive fair economic opportunities, afford health care as well as gain social security or support for those that cannot help themselves. My parents and many from their generations spent their lives chasing some of these essentials never fully achieving any.

When they were growing up, the country had barely 1 percent literacy rate. My father self-studied as a young man and it was only in her middle-age during the informal education drive of the early 1990s that my mother braved to crack the literacy code. Reading has been a real company now in her advanced age for she often finds herself making friends with religious texts and some other literature.

Looking back, I sometimes feel they had a laid-back and relatively stress-free life. Although they had to toil hard agriculturally for lack of advanced technologies, skills, expertise as well as social services or descent health care, they did not have to compete as much for natural resources and other opportunities, for they were in aplenty, freely available in many cases. But that was as long as they were young and were able to physically exert themselves.

Alas, now they cannot, and not a day goes by without further weakening their energies. And I see few people speaking on behalf of these sixty-plus. The government’s “Status Report on Elderly People (60+) in Nepal” released last year underlined the need for legislative reform and awareness raising on the topic. But nothing much has been achieved beyond that “old-age allowance” amounting to a few hundred rupees and the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare operating the Old Age Home at Pashupatinath.

I think my story will be different in terms of obtaining and demanding fair share of benefits and social security or support during my old age. I belong to the “buzzing generation”, a complex mix of vocal professionals, goal-seekers, new adventurists, and revolutionaries, and even drifters. What is more striking about my generation today is the sheer number of people that make up this tribe. More than 80 percent of people in the country are under 40, and in 20 years their numbers will swell further as we get older. By the sheer size of the tribe, I will have a voice that no previous generations of this age- group ever had in this country.

I will feel young again in my sixties, for most of my countrymen will be that much young. Still I am waiting for that time when one young-elderly will understand the physical, emotional and spiritual feelings or needs of another young-elderly. I won’t have to glory any longer over the fact that I am turning gray merely to earn some respect from others. We may lead a more promising revolution, or may elect a more sensible leader from our own tribe, who understands us better, that is, unless some kind of authoritarianism installs a dictator for another thirty dark years.

In any case, it looks like I will need myself and I will have to feed myself when I am sixty. It will be difficult, but the best part is, I will be the mainstream; I won’t be among the forgottens, like my parents or perhaps your parents.

However, I have mixed feelings about the many scenarios of that future, both optimistic and dystopic, which I would like to share in my next column.

Published in the Republica, May 11, 2011.