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Old, alone and far away

LAKSHMEE SHEELA SUNDAR writes of the dilemma faced by the first generation immigrants to the United States.



Keeping to their traditions in food and other customs ...

I cannot die here, on the streets of Moncton, I tell myself over and over - people wouldn't know where to send my body. I cannot die here in this country; where would I be buried?

Lakshmi Gill "Out of Canada" (Geography of voice) Courtesy: Indiaspora.

SEPTEMBER 11, not withstanding, the scramble to the United States continues. As in most developing countries, for Indians too, the U.S. is the ultimate destination to be in at the prime of one's earning age.

But what happens after that? What is life like in your sixties for a first generation Indian-American?

The 1960s saw the first big wave of Indian emigration. This was different from the colonial times when migration was one of slavery and indentured labour.

The post-Independence times saw the migration of professionals and businessmen. They were the first to show that good academic qualifications generated openings, which, if seized appropriately, would enable one leap up the economic ladder.

While in India, they were admired for their achievements and have become the role models for successive generations, in the host country; they have been model immigrants. At work, they gave their best, blended with the prevalent work culture and did better than the natives and created the image of "hard working, intelligent and reliable" Indians.

At home, they adhered to their Indian values, food habits and traditions passing much of itto their children — the second generation Indian-Americans. Now in their sixties, these pioneer immigrants have retired or are close to it. They have achieved what they set out to and the reasons that took them abroad are no longer valid. So, the apparent picture is they are old, mostly alone with only their spouse at home. So what is their life like? Being in an alien land heightens the old age problems of loneliness and empty nest syndrome.

Chidambaram, a structural engineer who went to the U.S. in 1969, is now 65. He will retire in a year or two. His only son works in London. And Destination India is on top of his mind. "I have come to a fork in the road and I often feel the urge to return home to India," says he. " I long for the familiar South Indian way of life both culturally and socially." However, his wife, Mangalam, who retired after 30 long years in management jobs in leading financial companies, feels they could somehow get along in the U.S Issues like medical facilities, pollution and basic infrastructure play an important role in deciding their desire to return home.

Like the Shyams, who considered the idea, but gave up after a short experiment. Instead, their friends are an important support group. Along with two other families, they moved to the warmer Florida from New Jersey.

Interacting with peers is as much an important part of old age as of any other phase. Only it happens naturally and easily when one is working and is on the move.

Some move closer to where their children live. Thus they are able to dispel loneliness with grand children being a major source of happiness and fulfilment.

Few like the Rajagopalans have actually taken the plunge. It was the availability of domestic help that brought them back to India. "Older people who do not live with children are mutually dependent on each other. With both of us becoming older, we definitely need help and domestic help in the U.S. is extremely costly and is not accessible like in India", they say.

Climate and culture were also the reasons for their decision. "We had decided for several years that we would come back. And because we were mentally prepared for certain disparities and were not experimenting we could adjust," says Rajagopalan.

Having lived here for over a year now, he finds India has changed in many ways. Good medical facilities, private transport, communication networks, good quality of goods are available now, he observes.

On the other hand, he feels, one has to contend with problems like water, pollution and general lack of civic sense.

What about relationship with their children and the exposure to strong American social and cultural influences? "Parents need to understand it and be supportive of the children," says Chidambaram. Rajagopalan feels that, though outside influences might shape them, basic values instilled at home do not change.

Agrees Mangalam, "The children of the 1960s and 1970s were brought up with Indian values, and they have, to a large extent, imbibed those values", she says. Old age also brings with it contemplation and fear of death. It gets stronger in the alien land, being alone with neither the immediatenor the extended family close at hand. So, some stick together with long time Indian friends. Some migrate closer to children.

Others engage in private pursuits. Staying back also enables them benefit from the social security system. However, they also wish living standards were better in India, so returning would be an easier decision to make.

Few actually heed to the hearts' wish and find life in India not as bad as portrayed to be.Although it could be better. Perhaps, it is all in the state of mind, as Rajagopalan put it.

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