There are limitless tragic tales in India and each time I come here, there are a whole new set to hear. This week has been full of deeply disturbing, stories, due to the changing dynamics around me. I think perhaps being a returning visitor who spends more than a few days, who is associated with foreign funds and who displays a sense of personal freedom becomes a lodestar for people who feel helpless and impotent.
The most extraordinary story wasn't told to me directly, in fact, but by a friend who witnessed it. It gives an amazing insight into why the elderly are such an ignored group within society.
One of the RUHSA staff, a man who is involved with the elderly welfare project and works in a truly dedicated manner to improve the lives of the poor people in the areas around RUHSA., invited this friend of mine to dinner.
During dinner, a bent old man came to the door, wearing only a ragged dhoti and leaning on a stick. He was invited in to have some food but refused and sat on the steps outside the house. During dinner, the younger man went out several times with things to eat, tea, snacks. Each time the man refused to come in. The wife, neither encouraged nor discouraged the old man. After he had his meagre sustenance, he laid down on the concrete outside and slept with no mattress, pillow, cover, walls or roof. It was only when my friend was leaving after dinner, that she learnt that the old man was the young man's father. There is so much unsaid here. The refusal of the man, the lack of encouragement fo the wife, the passive acceptance of the son. Who is ashamed of who. But it does give an idea about the collective sense of worth for the elderly whether it is their own sense or that of others.
In the village, I have been struggling with an increasing difficulty in understanding the nature of how the community centre has helped the elderly. It clearly is of some benefit and the elderly themselves are keen that it continues, but with no real idea of what it should become or how it should evolve. I have an increasing sense of "drop-in-the-oceanness". Of course, compared to last year they are better off. Not only do they have an extra meal a day, but they have had a lot of attention, which for an ignored section of society is a rare gift. But what is the result? They do not seem to be fatter, they do not seem to have a greater sense of self-worth; in some ways I fear that all that has happened is that their difficult and tragic lives have been highlighted in a way that they were ignorant of before. They have moved from unconscious hardship to awareness of how miserable their lifes were and, apart from a few changes, essentially, still are. This makes one wonder about the ethics of embarking upon a project like this. Of course, there is so much which can be done to make their lives better, but when is enough, enough? In a Huxley-like debate, is it better to leave them as they were or give them a little and make them realise how little they have?
Interestingly, their focus has moved from their empty bellies to their impoverished living conditions. One man, who during the medical check up I did, complained of back pain and other generalised aches and pains. He went on to say that he has nowhere to sleep, no house, no family and so sleeps where he can on the floor. Of course he's got bloody back ache. I've got backache despite 2 mattresses at RUHSA. Another man has no roof to his house - in a climate like India, it's mostly OK, but in the rainy season it's disastrous. These issues, moving up the pyramid of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, are still only on the second rung. There are a good few to go before full potential is acquired.
So, it is very interesting to see how things have evolved here, there are some many positive improvements, the most telling of which is that they have definitely found their voice, which is wonderful. Just yet, however, they still feel too disempowered to project it far. That must be the next stage of the project.