among the dead
is no alternative to financial comfort'
going on 17
his best company
We -- the 'East' -- decided to stick with the family unit. In a comparative study of cultures, this fascination with the family was seen as our strength and achievement. We did not need old people's homes, like in the West, because we took good care of our aging parents.
Beyond this magnanimous outsider's view was the keen and astute local viewer who observed the gradual movement of the old parents' cot from the bedroom to the verandah to the street outside and how rightly so. How many of us have missed this sight of a cot lying outside the house with unwanted parents who are too happy to be in the din of the street away from their lonely indoor existence? Once in the street, they are greeted by old folks lying on other cots and there is camaraderie.
It is true that modernity has touched eastern societies and values and fruits of urbanisation are being reaped by us in the form of a revised family structure. In our context, the phrase 'joint family' is now being seen as more restrictive and is certainly not preferred over the nuclear family which is believed to be more liberating.
A nuclear family means that parents live with their children but not with their parents. It also means that when those children grow up to become parents they must live with their children. So in two generations, at least one batch of parents becomes homeless under the strict definition of a nuclear family.
As people moved from villages to cities and then crossed national boundaries in search of better careers, it was not always possible to take the joint family structure along. The parents did stay with one of their children or alone, depending on their own preference or of the son's or the daughter-in-law's.
Old people, who invariably are parents too, are the subject of this Special Report. Their lives, joys and griefs, ailments, friendships, relationships have been discussed in each of the six profiles that we have picked here. There is a class distinction between them that defines and shapes each life but by and large all old people share among them something that transcends class -- the loss of youth and health and the ability to work.
Of course, Pakistan now has its share of Edhi's Old Homes and those run by the social welfare department of the government, but we decided to pick up old people who are either living with their family or on their own. There is no other version -- of children complaining about irritable, stubborn parents or even expressing their pain to see the once dominating parents become so helpless and dependent. This is just one side of the picture because this, we believe, is the neglected side. Over to this one-sided Special Report on our old folks.
How the blind masseur Lala, 66, survives "a selfish world" where there is "a war of all against all"
By Saeed ur Rehman
It took me two days to find Lala -- the blind masseur with his six bottles of perfumed, coloured oils, a radio with a brown leather cover on it, a plastic water cooler with a glass tied to a steel chain knotted around the faucet, and a thick cotton rug. He always used to be on the grassy patch, the green divider between Jail Road and Ferozpur Road. I asked another masseur nearby. His reply -- "He is on vacations but I am here if you need a massage" -- proved the impossibility of getting objective information from a competitor.
I asked a nearby tea vendor.
"Lala has moved to Miani Sahib."
"What do you mean? You talk about Miani Sahib as if it was Allama Iqbal Town."
"You are really naive. There are hundreds of people living in Miani Sahib."
"Living among the dead?"
"Jee, babu jee. Go and see for yourself. Look around the shrine."
I reluctantly walked into the graveyard across the road. It was lush green. The plants, helped by the rains, had transformed human bodies into quite nutritious compost. There were two or three men sitting around the graves, smoking reefers. I asked them about Lala. One man pointed to a row of public toilets: "He has put his belongings in that locked cubicle." "He must be around here somewhere" was another vague indication. I looked around the shrine for a while and came back to the comfort of traffic fumes created by the living.
At night, I tried again. The moment I walked some steps on the trail leading to the shrine, power went off. The waning moon was not very helpful in recognising human beings lurking in the shadows. I gave up.
The next day I was able to spot him sitting on the marbled edge of a grave, a bucket of water next to his feet. The web of wrinkles on his face rearranged itself into a smiling pattern after he recognised my voice saying salam to him.
"What happened to your massage business, Lala?"
"The police do not allow people to sit there after midnight. There are fears of the hammer group, the stone group, the pick-pockets, and the head-bashers."
"So you moved to the graveyard?"
"Yes. I thought it is better to come here by yourself instead of being carried here."
"What about your son?"
"He is only good for his own wife and his two children. I don't want to bother him."
"What about your wife, your house?"
"She died some years ago. I gave the house to my son."
"So now you are on your own?"
"Yes. Allah takes care of me. I am already 65 or 66. There are not many years left. This is the final destination anyway."
"What about your customers?"
"Some even follow me here. I massage them on any flat surface. They give me or 140 or 150 rupees. It is enough to get me by. I am done with the world anyway."
"Where do you sleep?"
"It depends on the weather. Inside a shrine if it is hot. If it is cold, I curl up in that cubicle. I have kept it very clean in there."
"Your son, your daughter-in-law, and your grand-children should have taken care of you."
"Aray! It is a selfish world. It is a war of all against all. Nobody can help anybody. Look at the prices of things. Do you still expect generosity from the world?" He started getting worked up.
I started thinking of retreating to the hopeful and young.
Outside, I asked many shopkeepers about Lala. Some said it was his bitter tongue that had driven everybody, including his children, away. He had not been generous with his daughter-in-law. His macabre, cynical view of the world had brought him to the point where nobody bothered him. Others lamented the selfishness of his son. Some said he had become bitter after he realised his wife had not been faithful to him. Nobody mentioned any structural, social, economic injustice. No one expected any social security programme for the homeless would ever come and help. There were no answers why some living people are being driven to the graveyard. It seems to be a logical destination for the infirm, the destitute and the homeless.
When life even after retirement is a happy phase...
"You see, it all boils down to your financial status. If you do not have economic problems and there is enough money to spend, old age turns out to be a livable, happy phase as in my case."
Tariq Mahmood Chaudhry, 79, a retired Grade-20 officer who has been on pension from the Forest Department for 18 years now, had just returned after getting his routine checkups done at a private hospital.
It was one o'clock in the afternoon as he entered the drawing room of his 1-kanal house in one of the posh localities of the city for the interview. Accompanied by his wife, perhaps out of habit being married for 53 years, Chaudhry looked tired after the hospital visit.
Both husband and wife were at ease once the purpose of the interview was told and that their identity would not be made pubic.
Did he have some medical condition that necessitated the hospital visit? "No, nothing, I only have a slight heart problem. But every time you go for a checkup, these doctors suggest so many tests."
Father of a doctor, actually a known specialist, healthcare should not be a problem for Chaudhry. "No it isn't. Our son takes care of small ailments and we do not need to go see a doctor each time."
How did he take retirement when it came?
"Very well. My mother garlanded me, also because I immediately got a job with USAID for the next five years. Then I worked for another three years with the World Bank. Even today I get calls from the department for consultancy work but now I just can't do it. I do not have the required physical faculties."
Apart from a son, Chaudhry has two daughters and seven grandchildren. This is how the day passes "between children and grandchildren. Sometimes I go out to pay the bills."
One of his daughters has come to live with them with her family after her husband's retirement. His son has an independent unit upstairs.
What about socialising with friends? "That, too, is there but not much. I go to Gymkhana Club or a restaurant to meet friends once in three four months and that's it. Because, you see, all my friends are now old and we cannot have much of a conversation. So I am home most of the time. I do go for walk in the mornings but I get tired easily, even though the doctor has advised that I should walk for five, six miles."
He believes there is still a sense of companionship with his wife for 53 years. "Yes, we talk when there is a need to talk. But we argue as well which is a part of life," he said and the wife concurred.
Tariq Chaudhry's pension has recently been raised to Rs 19000. But that surely is not the sole reason why he appears so contented. I try to probe. What makes him happy? "Just the fact that I am so satisfied with my life... There are no economic constraints. We get money from our son although we do not want him to, since he has so many expenses of his own. Three of his children go to an expensive private school. But he still does."
So they did plan well for their old age; I look around at the house that must have been built in the 1960s before asking. "This house is an ancestral home and has been a result of three generations' contributions. My father gave the money for the land and the initial structure, I then improved it and the unit upstairs is wholly built by my son."
And saving? "Yes, we were in the habit of saving from day one. We married off three of our children in a reasonably good way because of that. Also, we were mindful that we will be old one day and so we kept investing in different saving schemes." But his children have not inherited this habit and believe in spending money. "They spend money by going abroad for vacations," Chaudhry sounded unsure of whether he approved of it or not.
The son, a busy doctor, leaves home early and comes back late. He obviously has no time for his parents. But Chaudhry tries to ignore it.
"I've been generally lucky in life. I got a job soon after my studies. I earned enough and so life even after retirement is good enough. We were lucky to have a good daughter-in-law. We do not interfere much in our son's family matters because the generation after us likes its independence."
He watches a lot of television, as do many old people, but his favourites are the sports channels -- cricket, hockey and tennis. "I played a lot of tennis when I was young.
Has he become more religious with age? "I am as religious as I always was which was quite enough since I regularly said my prayers and fasted. The religion portfolio I have left with my wife."
Does his wife share this general satisfaction with life. "All she needs is money. I provide her that and she is happy," smiled Chaudhry before declaring: "There is no alternative to financial comfort."
What made him go on was his fervour for reading, politics and the fact that he was and will remain independent
By Ammara Ahmed
The dawn of September 6 this year will see Mehmood Ahmad turn seventy nine. It has been almost twenty years since his retirement.
Just twenty years back, the male students of Dyal Singh College were like energised electrons, colliding with every wall during college, from politics to poetry and cricket before finally sitting for their annual exam. Those were the days when public institutions were the finest available and no boy considered paychecks and prospects, because living in the moment was more engaging. His job was to teach politics.
Political Science was kept to the British, since Pakistan's politics became a wrestling match. The Constitution was more malleable than a copper wire. The territory was ready to collapse like a palace of dominoes. The theatrical parliament was interrupted by the military. Only corruption persisted.
In the 1990s, when private institutions sprouted in Lahore, Prof Mehmood found himself teaching in a private school. The school was located in a house and each classroom was a bedroom with an attached bath and a closet.
Unlike Dyal Singh College, the school had girls. It offered a foreign degree and western culture pricked it. Every now and then a girl would arrive in the class and sit closer to a boy than she should even with her brother.
But most girls were equally ambitious; more disciplined, scored higher and had better hand writings. In fact, a group was known as the 'flawless group', girls who never made a single mistake in their papers. In mid-year, perfect grades rained down. Seven, eight or even nine As. The more tuition you could afford, the more A grades you could score. What bothered him was the mechanism with which they planned their life. All of them would be supreme professionals. But there was no Bhagat Singh in sight, or Manto's talent or Quaid's vitality visible; only well-paid bankers, accountants, doctors and engineers. The thought of his grandkids turning into this was discomforting.
Yet, the real shock came when he actually met his elder son's children. They were not pseudo Americans -- they were real Americans. Forget Punjabi, the children spoke Urdu worse than monkeys, refused to eat the parathas their granny cooked, called them garbage and were rushed to the nearest McDonald outlet by their anxious parents. They had a foreign passport, alien language and ideals; there was hardly any wisdom in entangling oneself emotionally with them.
It was a relief to see his younger son's children. Though residents of Canada, they spoke Urdu, read the Holy Quran and visited Pakistan to absorb the value system here.
His Pakistani grandchildren were being trained at a super elite American School. Though they lived close by and talked in Urdu, their class was much higher than his own. It was as if they were brought up in an island in Pakistan. They had deviated so much from him that he couldn't understand them. The best option was to love them blindly.
After sixty years of dedication in the household and the kitchen, his wife's mental faculties had started diminishing. It was not that she one day woke up without remembering anything. It was a slow muddling-up of the events. Confusing the bills of the tailor with the driver's or forgetting to add salt in the dinner and sometimes going to the market to buy a particular thing and ending up with another one. The only viable cure was that Mehmood Ahmad intervened in the household and took matters in his hand. And this had caused a wave of anger between the two because the wife felt deprived of her rights. Matters are aggravated because she refused to acknowledge that she was unwell. She also had arthritis and had spent hundreds of hours and a truckload of cash to find a cure by hakeems, not knowing that it's incurable.
Life had two rewards for Mehmood Ahmed in his old age. One was his pension, which was sufficient for him to quit the job to help his wife cut the vegetables. And the second one was his reading habit.
Every time upon starting a new book he would think it's his last one. But the next time he opened a new book, he could still read it. It's a pity Pakistan didn't publish books with a larger font-size for the oldies. Like the westerners do.
Life seemed like a long avenue of loss, by now. The cost one pays for outliving them. He had no picture of his mother and her face was becoming vague, already. He had lost so many friends and family that he now related each year with a death. His life was becoming more and more expensive because of the number of pills he took.
When his first tooth was removed, he bid it an affectionate farewell for it had been in his jaw for seven decades, longer than most marriages in this world last.
His eyesight was succumbing to glycoma and every now and then he crossed the road at an inappropriate time.
When a traffic-policeman stopped him, he considered quitting driving. Before he could explain, the policeman intervened:
"Excuse me, Sir! I am your student. I stopped you to say Salam."
This was another reward he had forgotten. The hundreds of students he had trained, who were out in the world with his ideals, the invisible bits of information and impressions imprinted on their minds and serving humanity. What made him go on was his fervour for reading, politics and the fact that he was and will remain independent.
Photos by Rahat Dar
Profile of a septuagenarian lady who boasts a mighty young heart
By Usman Ghafoor
Naseem Rasheed Sheikh's joie de vivre is legendary. Ask her 20-something Korean friends -- in the neighbouring hostel for girls -- who have shared a ride while she bicycled in the street; or, the salesmen at different convenient stores who are forever a "happy escort" to "Maa ji"; or, even, her "bahu" whose major grouse is losing a Scrabble match to her.
On the wrong side of 70, Naseem -- fondly called Chheema -- is easily the most recognisable face in and around the old Cavalry Ground. She can be caught plucking motia flowers from wherever she can, early in the morning when she is out for a walk. There are those who don't know her; but then those who do, are simply wooed by her buoyancy and a gregarious disposition.
It's hard to tell from the way she carries herself around that she's diabetic and hypertensive and has had angina attacks twice in recent past.
"I love ice cream, and my doctor knows that. I've devised a solution: Double the dose for every extra scoop."
However, when she is visiting friends, all she wants is to have "gup shup".
"I enter a friend's place and make a public announcement that I won't eat anything. I go, 'mein tumharey kararey kaan zaroor khaoon gi!'" (laughs).
But there are times when she has no one to talk to -- because her children are all married and away, and hubby dear ("Ours was a love marriage," she declares) is mostly confined in his room. "It's like he is North and I am South! Our hobbies are completely different."
Her youngest son who married "apni pasand sey" occupies the upper portion of the two-storey house.
When asked about her relationship with her daughter-in-law, she booms, "Oh, we're like friends," adding quickly, "because I don't interfere in their life."
She badly misses the hustle bustle her folks -- especially her grandchildren -- create on occasions like Eid.
"Age is that time of one's life when all that most old people do is to fret and regret. I do neither," she declares, gleefully.
If there's anything that drives her to depression, it is solitude.
So, how does she cope?
"I write 'diary'." Period.
"My diary is my saheli. I can trust it with my deepest thoughts." Besides, she contributes articles to different Urdu dailies of the country.
Part of her sense of sadness in times like these is due to her 36-year-old son's death almost a decade back. This was one tragic incident that shook her from inside. But, again, she reverted to her dear ol' notebook. "I now started writing poems."
She pauses to recite a couplet of her own,
"Dil ko thaes pohanchey, shaer kehna meri aadat hai
Samjho yeh merey jazbaat ki ibaadat hai."
A dynamic old person, Naseem also vents her feelings through her art works. The myriad little, big sculpture pieces and paintings tacked to the walls of her drawing and other rooms are all her creation.
She is also involved in the social sector and works as a volunteer for Family Health Hospital and 'Rehnuma' (a family planning association), besides being a member of Picasso Ladies' Club. She also frequents an old peoples' home which is located next to Mayo Hospital.
"I go there, chat with people; it's great fun. I've also dedicated them a painting of mine."
Her never-sit-idle nature led her to recently lay off her cook, "because I felt I wasn't making myself useful enough. It has also helped me fight the blues."
Incidentally, this is her mantra for making a success of one's life, even as one crosses 70.
For Muhammad Hussein, grandparents are treated as "servants and watchmen" by their families; "you don't have to pay them, because they are going to guard their family's interests anyway
By Aoun Sahi
In Mandranwala village, in the district of Sialkot, lives the 70 years old Muhammad Hussein*, a father of six -- three sons and three daughters. Four out of his 20 grand children have already been married.
"I have spent all my life in this village and have been observing closely the 'change' that's taking place constantly in the behaviour and living patterns of the people," he says. Even at this age he uses a bicycle for travelling, "I do not like using overcrowded buses and prefer to walk on foot or ride a bicycle to cover up to 10 kilometres of distance. I still go to see my relatives on a bicycle."
His sons and grandsons are averse to him using a bicycle. Owner of five acres of agricultural land, Hussein only knows farming. "Since my childhood I've been involved in farming and tending livestock."
"Around 60 percent of my life is spent in the fields, working with the cattle. They are my best friends. My day starts at 4 in the morning and ends at 10 in the night. Most of the time I keep myself busy in different (agriculture-related) activities, arranging fodder for the animals.
"My sons are busy in their own lives, their own businesses, while my grandsons don't like working in the fields or spreading fodder in front of the cattle. They tire easily, but they take their grandfather's capacity for granted. They think he is made of steel.
"My children and grandchildren really hate working when it's hot outside, which is mostly the case in summers," he goes on, "In such a situation, I don't even ask them for help."
Hussein thinks that grandfathers are the best servants and watchmen for their families, "You don't have to pay them or take care of them because they are going to be there anyway, and they will guard your interests."
After all the hard work he says he has come to the conclusion that he is not important for anybody in the family. He began to feel this way after the death of his wife three years back. "Everyone is busy in their life. For my grandsons, their siblings, parents and friends are much more important, while my sons are busy earning for themselves. I am also not popular among my daughters-in-law. I know they hate me like anything. I can sense it from the way they serve me food or wash up for me."
Hussein is quick to blame his daughters-in-law for "creating a rift between us (him and his sons). They have no respect for me or our relatives a majority of whom have stopped coming to our place."
Hussein himself was the youngest scion of the family. "After the death of my own brothers and sisters, my position in the family has further weakened."
He sounds bitter when talking about the changing attitude of the society towards the old people. "We used to have a very warm family environment thirty years ago. All the cousins were considered members of the same family and the old people were the most important and the most respected. Their decisions were taken as the last word while the youngsters were not allowed to oppose them.
"Today, old people are treated as a liability."
That is why, Hussein says, he likes to spend most of his time outside of the house.
He and many of other old people from surrounding Deras, majority of who are his cousins or friends, have a daily gathering on any of the Dera which they retire to in the afternoon. "We sit together, talk of good old days and compare the times gone by with our present.
"We smoke 'huqqa' and discuss issues including international, national and local politics, and our family affairs. We can relate with each other very well."
The interesting part is they all put up a cheerful front, and say all good things about their children and grandchildren.
"For me this is the best time of the day.
"As a routine, I also pay a visit to my cousins and nephews every evening. But for the past few years, things have changed drastically. Our new generation is fond of TV and shuns us old people's company like plague."
When I was growing up, I was taught that having grandparents around was a blessing. As time passed by, this belief of mine was strengthened. I have never been able to understand the problem that families usually have with their old folks. Some claim that they are demanding and annoying and even intriguing at times. But what do these old members of the society feel when they become dependent on their children and, in most cases, are let down by them, too? Naheed Jamal's tale is no different.
On one of those morning walks when I usually run into her, I wanted to ask her about her innermost feelings. I was glad that she had no reservations.
"I believe that happiness depends on one's outlook on life," she says, "I have seen people with all the support system; even they aren't the happiest of the lot."
So, is she happy with her life?
Naheed gives a half-hearted smile, "Having led a vibrant life, it is actually quite difficult to suddenly become dependent on someone for little, little things."
Presently 76, Naheed has been a housewife all her life, "Now I feel my daughter-in-law doesn't like to see me around. So I just try to keep away."
But isn't this about the change in attitude that we as a society are going through?
"Yes, that is why I don't interfere in her activities. But what I'm trying to say is that I have always looked after the house. I have been part of all nitty-gritty tasks. Now how can she just ignore me in the decision making?" she asks.
"Anyway, if she doesn't, then it's her loss! I am not bothered," her tone becomes harsh and she turns to quickly switch on her high-end mobile-cum-FM-radio.
So how is Naheed coping with these changes? What are her favourite pastimes?
"After the death of my husband, Jamal, I became very lonely. We have two children -- a son and a daughter. My daughter lives in Dubai and I live with my son here. I have devised new ways to keep myself busy. I come here for a walk every morning. Then we have this whole Anjuman-e-Khawateen, in which we discuss all sorts of issues ranging from socio- political to community service.
"I'm also a complete TV buff," she says laughingly, "I like to make phone calls to a local match-making show and give suggestions to the young couples. Meray ghar mein kisi ko inn suggestions ki zaroorat nahi!"
But then, again, Naheed says her grandson always butts in and forces her to change the channel on TV. "If not that, then he wants me to turn down the volume."
Like all mothers, Naheed's biggest complaint against her son, Naurez, is that he does not spend time with her. "He never takes me to the doctor; in fact, I hardly get to see him. Pata nahin ainan nay innay paisay kama kay kithay jana aey!"