Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Just say hello

"I feel isolated" said my father in one of our recent conversations.

His feeling of isolation might seem to be an exaggerated statement when viewed via a framework that is not his.  Father's world was, and is, defined by the old traditions in the old country.  The traditions where even the second and third cousins were as close relatives as siblings were.  A tradition in which the extended family was one hyperextended set of networks.  Interestingly, one of his cousin brothers, who is  a decade and a half younger than him, apparently expressed a similar sentiment as well.  My mother joked that the two (cousin) brothers were consoling each other!

Emotions and feelings cannot be countered with objective measures.  Emotions are emotions.  Thus, there was no use, I figured, in pointing out the reality that his everyday reports to me include the conversations and visits he had with different people.  And here he was expressing that feeling of isolation when we were Skyping!  A technological miracle that allows us to remain connected from our locations on opposite sides of the planet.

Back when I was new to this country, telephone calls to India were mighty expensive, even during the off-peak times, and especially on a graduate student budget.  Now, a telephone call is inexpensive.  But, father is no longer interested in the telephone--he has recently gotten used to Skype.  And that has its own problems--when the video doesn't work, because of network speeds in India, and all we have is an audio call, he loses the interest to chat. (It was when the video worked, a couple of days ago, that he made that remark.)

Of course, father's comment was not merely about his interactions with this son.  It was about the first cousins who have drifted away.  The second cousins who might not even know that he still exists.  The children of those cousins who perhaps do not even know of such a person.  In other words, a current world that is vastly different from his own old world in the old world.

The old traditions held that nephews take after their uncles.  While I don't know how much that is true, it certainly is the case with father.  Like his uncle, father, too, recited from Bhaja Govindam to underscore his feelings.  There is something powerful in the argument when one recites from memory the most appropriate verse, more so when it is in Sanskrit:
यावद्वित्तोपार्जन सक्तः
स्तावन्निज परिवारो रक्तः |
पश्चाज्जीवति जर्जर देहे 
वार्तां कोऽपि न पृच्छति गेहे
távan-nija-pariváro raktaç

paùcáj-jivati jarjara-dehe

vártam kopi na pøcchati gehe 
And then came the translation:
So long as a man is fit and able to support his family,
see what affection all those around him show |
But no one at home cares to even have a word with him
when his body totters due to old age.
Thanks to having lived this long, I knew better than to intellectualize his comments right then and there.  My first thought was that if that was expressed by Sankara a long time ago, even then he was aware that old people were sidelined?

More than that, I did not want to make a point that economic development comes with many variations of a Faustian bargain, and a complete redefinition of relationships is one of the ways in which we have paid the price.  Of course, it is also thanks to economic development that we now have plenty of people his age, and older--and on Skype--when a mere two centuries ago the average life expectancy for humans was less than forty years!

While father might express his isolation in one kind of an old-world framework, isolation and loneliness are increasingly characteristics of our existential angst. Not only among the elderly.  This is one of the issues that Oprah appears to have taken on, in which Sanjay Gupta writes:
According to estimates by University of Chicago psychology professor John T. Cacioppo, PhD, coauthor of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, at any given time at least one in five people, or roughly 60 million Americans, suffers from loneliness. By this I mean both the acute bouts of melancholy we all feel from time to time, as well as a chronic lack of intimacy—a yearning for someone to truly know you, get you, see you—that can leave people feeling seriously unmoored
So, what is a simple thing that you can do?
Just Say Hello!
Especially to your aging parents.

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