Finally, unwillingly, I have entered adulthood.
Around the world, the threshold varies: ages 13, 15, 16, puberty, graduation, first job, marriage, homeownership. But for me, and a lot of Indians I suspect, maturity really begins when we take charge of our parents’ lives.
I was initiated about a fortnight ago with a middle-of-the-night email from my brother saying my father needs an angiogram, which is basically a screening of his heart and clogged arteries. As routine as it is, I panicked and contacted every doctor I know. I googled and cried and cringed as I conjured the search terms reflecting my fears. Like “angiogram and mortality” and “heart surgery risks” and “Indian men and life expectancy”. I checked flights to the US and then decided to wait.
My fellow members of Generation X and Y—I’m right on the cusp—know this dilemma. Despite the transition to nuclear families, most of us were raised to believe in a certain duty to our parents. Has that changed, too?
“You give birth to children to make sure they take care of you when you need them,” says Dilip Kumar, a chartered accountant with ICICI Bank who lives in Mumbai. “I am staying miles away from my parents and I feel guilt at every moment.”
On 13 May, the 30-year-old received a call from his father, then staying in Noida, to say his mother had suffered an attack that partly paralyzed her. Still, he was told not to worry, that a full recovery was expected.
The next night, his father called again, this time sobbing. She had haemorrhaged and the situation was critical. Dilip checked flights—the last one to Delhi already had left.
With few job opportunities in their native Bihar, the family is flung across the country: Mumbai, Pune, Gurgaon, Delhi. One sister lives in Ranchi, another in Patna.
That whole night, Dilip could only think of two things: “She’s the happiest when I go to her,” the eldest son told me of his mother. “I believe she likes me more than my other siblings.”
The other was the painful realization he had never gifted his mother anything of significance. “Not even a sari,” he thought. “Oh man, God cannot do this. There’s still so much I have to do.”
My first thought was how much has remained unsaid. Like many, our family is dysfunctional and imperfect—but close. My father does not ask about the weather or my feelings. We never say “I love you”, but do cook the other’s favourite foods during visits. So I desperately hope he understands what I really mean when I ask what kind of meals they serve in the hospital.
Based on hours of unscientific research, I advised him to have the procedure at a bigger facility, even if it means waiting a week or two. That’s where we are now and I have calmed down substantially. Still, there’s no going back to the innocence, the childish belief in immortality.
This waiting room is a thoughtful place to be. Many of us born in the 1960s and 1970s see parents as anchors to identity, to a past left behind but still one that shapes us and our outlook. One friend of mine recounts an American insurance agent’s laughter when he requested a heftier policy to provide for his parents in case of his death before theirs.
“No,” my friend said gravely. “You don’t understand. That’s the Indian way.”
“Do you miss him?” I ask.
We are sitting in B.N.P. Sharma’s drawing room. I promised Dilip Kumar I would check on his parents.
“I cannot express this relationship between me and my eldest son,” he finally says. “He has adopted most of my principles. He wants to please everybody.”
The elder Sharma thought he would spend his retirement from the State Bank of India meditating in villages across Bihar, but it hasn’t worked out that way. Two years ago, he moved to Noida to be with a son working there. Last weekend, he moved to this flat in south Delhi to be closer to hospitals and his wife’s doctor.
He leads me into another bedroom where his wife, Yashoda Devi, 57, is getting her legs massaged by a daughter-in-law visiting from Pune. She can take little steps now, but still can’t grasp anything with her left hand.
Initially, Dilip pledged to fly to Delhi every weekend. But it got expensive and impossible between work obligations and a baby at home. His father told him there was no need anyway. What could he do? His work was more important.
“I wouldn’t like to see him without a job,” B.N.P. Sharma says, “for the sake of his future and his family.”
That’s the tricky thing about Indian parents. Our goals might have changed, but theirs seem the same, duty flowing downward.
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