The Parents Are Trapped: Why We Need to Talk about the Abuse India’s Elderly Face

Manik Sharma
·5-min read

In Delhi’s Dwarka, 76-year-old Avtar Kaur got into an argument with a neighbour over parking space. The quarrel was resolved but the woman’s family was not too happy about it. They confronted Kaur for picking up a fight and her son was so livid he slapped her, after which she became unconscious and died.

The incident is shocking and it draws attention to how we treat our elderly. If the son did not think twice about slapping his mother in public, it makes me shudder to think of the treatment meted out to her behind closed doors. It also brings to my mind another heartbreaking incident.

Though last year’s nationwide lockdown was peppered with endless stomach-churning images of pain and suffering, one in particular wrenched a chord closer home than most others. Journalist Barkha Dutt found Leelavati Dadi at Bandra station, waiting to get on a train back to Delhi, clenching onto nothing but a bag and a pack of biscuits. She was in the city to take care of her ailing son who got better and then asked her to leave. “He beat me up four times. What could I do,” the weeping 70-year-old told Dutt. Abused and disowned, the woman had been abandoned by the disease of the heart long before she could be claimed by a pandemic of the body. Her innocence, her plight should have made Leelavati the emblem of suffering and indignity that most elders in this country are made to go through for the small prize of living longer, miserable lives. To which effect, Kaur’s death after being slapped by her son, should be seen as the moment we consider and call out the many abusive relationships the elderly live in, with death as their only escape.

Irrespective of class or creed, elderlies are considered deadweight, liabilities that must be tolerated more than they have to be lived with.

No Indian political debate is usually complete without the invocation of “Mother India”. This trope has been overused, yet it has seldom become moral leverage for mothers in abusive relationships at home. Most older men fare better because they command power, both physical and financial. But it cripples them every day to comprehend losing that power. Irrespective of class or creed, elderlies are considered deadweight, liabilities that must be tolerated more than they have to be lived with. They are seen as unwarranted burdens one must carry for the sake of social approval rather than personal attachment. Our movies and sanskar might endorse the “it’s all about loving our parents” mantra but the reality behind closed doors is far different.

A survey conducted during the pandemic last year said that almost 70 per cent elders in the country believed abuse against them had increased during the lockdown. A HelpAge India report from 2015 claimed that every third elder in India had faced some sort of abuse within the family. It’s a glaring blind-spot in a country that registers a child’s touching of an older person’s feet as some sort of qualifier for social balance. It’s typical of India to be as morally vain in public as it is hostile in the sheets back home. The elderly, as is now both numerically and visually evident, face some of the most dastardly and intimate violence that they are either too weak or too insecure to call out. At least 70 per cent of India’s senior citizens suffer from ailments that they require assistance for. Because we are the country that we are, this help is seldom expected through institutional channels and must therefore, even if begrudgingly, come from the children that the old are left to count on. Rotten or otherwise, it’s the egg the old must rely on for warmth and a dignified send-off from life itself.

It’s typical of India to be as morally vain in public as it is hostile in the sheets back home.

To be honest, the Indian parent also lacks the kind of objectivity that would help them astutely plan the latter stages of life. This modus operandi of sacrifice, of “bacho ke liye kuch bhi karenge” has been waxed every which way and milked to the point that it has now become impractical. Parents ought to plan for themselves, their own independence as much as they think they owe their children a future. Often, the scales tip so heavily in either direction the notional act of compromise becomes an actual act of oppression.

And though Avtar Kaur’s death might be looked through the lens of class, her plight is mirrored by many, across barriers of pedigree and reputation. In fact, hers is a rare case, accidentally captured on camera. For millions of old Indians not on social media, nor savvy enough to digital public spaces that provide a degree of succour and release, there is no place to both hide or heal. They don’t have the courage to approach the police, plus they are bogged down by the thought of “log kya kahenge”. Oppressed, the old are reduced to hanging onto each other’s drooping shoulders, or the pity of a rare sympathetic listener. To these elderly we must turn our eyes and ears, so we can afford them a last lap of dignity; before their journeys are cut short by a blatant disregard for life, at times, at the hands of them they helped birth.