No Country For Old Malayalis

The old lady with short-cropped white hair walked up to me as I was wiping one of the tables.

“My son said you were a great volunteer last week, young man!” Beth said sweetly, beaming as she nodded her head.

I was flattered, but also a little curious. “Your son?” I asked. I didn’t remember seeing any guys my age at the soup kitchen last week.

“The fellow with the beard and glasses?”

A second later my jaw fell open as it all clicked. No, that…that can’t be possible!

I knew exactly who she was talking about. John. The DRT bus driver.

No. The retired bus driver.

He was 62 years old.

A part of me wanted to cry out in surprise. “Oh my god! You are like – what, 80 years old? What the hell are you doing volunteering in a soup kitchen for three hours at a stretch, lifting trays, wiping tables, carrying plates!”

*

After almost two months in Canada, it’s perhaps the most pressing question on my mind. Why are older Canadians so much more active than older Indians?

Now that statement is very vague, extremely generalized and possibly completely wrong. So I decided to dig a bit deeper.

What made me form such an opinion? Well, to put it simply, I’ve seen a lot of elderly Canadians out and about in the city I’m currently living in. And I did not see even half as many elderly Indians back home, in Thrissur, Kerala. So the question is, are people over the age of 60 more active in Canada than in India? Or am I just living in Canada’s version of Florida?

Granted, where you live plays a big part in how often you interact with old people. You’d see more elderly folks at your village than, say, the hippest street in Cochin. But conversely, where you live plays a big part in how active old people around you are as well, right? If you were jogging in a park in the heart of Bangalore, you might witness 80-year-old grandfathers passing you by. And we’ve all been to neighbourhoods where the air itself seems to suffer from arthritis. Places play a part in the kind of old people you meet. And places can shape how the elderly live.

Twenty minutes later, I passed by Beth as she was piling mashed potatoes and vegetables onto several plates on a tray. “Hey Beth, how long have you been volunteering here?” I asked, trying to understand why I was in a soup kitchen manned by geriatric volunteers with aprons and latex gloves.

“Oh, I’ve been here for…seven years, I think? Margaret used to volunteer here, and one day she asked me if I wanted to come along. I don’t really get involved in Church activities but…”

A few minutes later Margaret told me why she’d volunteered at the soup kitchen. “Well, once I retired, I was looking for something to do, you know? And the hospital had a six-month waiting list I think. So I kept searching, and turned out this soup kitchen needed volunteers!”

Could that be a factor? I tried to think about how things would have unfolded in Kerala. Are there as many soup kitchens, hospitals, retirement centres, church groups, community fairs and public library meetings for the elderly in Kerala as there seems to be in Canada? It’s extremely difficult to analyze such a topic with nothing to go on but anecdotal evidence. Do your grandparents have multiple friends who introduce them to activities and responsibilities they can undertake on a regular basis for years at a time? Because mine don’t.

In my family and friends’ circles, grandparents don’t go out regularly to volunteer at public events. They don’t make plans with other grandparents and decide where and when to meet. They don’t take orders from people who are thirty years younger. I don’t think there are (enough?) institutions and social organizations in Kerala that motivate elderly Malayalis to congregate and engage in activities on their own.

Two days after talking to Beth and Margaret, I went to Toronto with my friend. We went to a small beach where there were about 30 people windsurfing. “Dude, check that out!” My friend whispered, nudging me before pointing in awe.

A man in a full-body swimming suit was carrying a windsurfing board towards the water. Oh, and he could not have been a day younger than 70.

“No way!” I exclaimed. And instinctively I tried to find the eastern counterpart for this bizarre sight. I cycled through my memories, expanding the search parameters from my family to friends and finally even strangers I’ve seen in India and the Middle East. Who in the eastern hemisphere could match this man? Someone had to!

I realized most of my friends’ parents weren’t athletic. Sure, there were a few uncles who still enthusiastically participated in cricket tournaments and occasionally posed alongside younger teammates with a trophy in their hands. Some who pulled up their socks occasionally in preparation for a badminton game. But the majority of them weren’t athletic. Why?

Come to think of it, why is the first and almost always only mode of exercise for our parents, simply walking? I have nothing against walking, but isn’t it strange how almost every conversation at the dinner table about growing bellies and creeping cholesterol levels is concluded with an oath to walk half an hour every day? Are your folks different? Do they organize a basketball game? Or plan cycling routes for the weekend? Maybe go swimming for an hour?

Do they go camping? Trekking up a hill? Sailing a boat or paddling a canoe? Because that’s what many people in Canada seem to be doing. It’s easy to forget just how natural it should be. It’s easy for a guy from India to experience it all and think walking through a thick forest is a privilege he earned through good IELTS scores. But it actually isn’t, right? Forests aren’t indigenous to Canada. Neither are rivers and lakes.

But for reasons that are too numerous, complex and disheartening to detail right now, we in Kerala don’t have the “privilege” to drive twenty minutes from home and camp in a forest. We can’t own canoes and drag them into rivers. We can afford sailboats but not clean rivers to sail them through.

There are environmental and economic reasons for this, of course. Kerala isn’t as wealthy and well off as Canada. But if we can’t have sailboats and canoes and camping on weekends because of lack of money and lack of geographic diversity, what do we do in our free time?

Think of all the activities you did on a weekend or holiday with your parents when growing up in Kerala or the Middle East (Editor’s Note: This seems to be the primary readership of PinkLungi). How many of those activities would you categorize as physically active and beneficial for your long-term health?

Mall walking doesn’t count! Fancy dinners at restaurants definitely don’t help. Neither do plates of mixture and banana chips on coffee tables steadily depleted during evening visits to relatives’ houses.

Did we engage in regular physical activity on weekends and holidays? Did we learn to walk, climb, row, push, pull or pick up till our limbs no longer felt sore? My dear friend Mohit lamented about just how much time we wasted during our summer holidays. (Kids in the Gulf had summer vacation in June and July, like how their Kerala counterparts did in April and May.) “I just sat at home watching T.V. the whole time, man!”

I asked Roberta what she did during her summers. As she loosened the jib or mast or whatever and pulled a cord from the other side of the boat, flipping it around 180 degrees as I held on with an equal mix of fear and joy, I should have known the answer. “For two summers my granddad signed us up for sailing lessons.”

Roberta is 20 years old. Some of her friends worked during summers once they were in high school. Those who could, ended up buying a second-hand car to drive to work, and take to the garage to fix on weekends. They earned money during the week; they learned about cars during weekends.

Yes, we all know how Indian kids study all the time and kids in the west learn more real-world skills during school. But as I sat on a chair that Roberta’s brother made in woodworking class two years ago, watching their family pack the car for the night’s camping trip, I knew this wasn’t just about the education system. This was about something else. And this was all related.

If there’s one word I could use to describe it all, it’d be…

Balance.

When my uncle went to the Gulf to work back in the late 70s, the only thing on his mind was building a better life for his family. The ones he had to tearfully bid goodbye to at Cochin Airport, and the ones he nervously shepherded through the immigration queue at Jeddah. And he did just that. Day after day, month after month, year after year, as hair and sweat fell from his head and the rooms of his home grew larger, my uncle worked. He didn’t have hobbies. Because he didn’t have time for them. He didn’t develop expensive tastes. Because he didn’t have any money left at the end of the month for it.

Is that why he didn’t enrol his children in outdoor activities? Sure, there was cricket and football coaching until 8th Grade. But after that?

Yes, as you could probably guess, his children had to go for extra tuition classes after that. They couldn’t possibly sustain too many hobbies and physical activities. But were their days completely packed? Or is it more accurate to say that whenever they had free time they hung out in malls, shisha parlours, movie theatres and cafes?

Who’s to blame? Nobody right? Or is it everybody? Do you blame me for wasting my time watching Cartoon Network for 60 days a year instead of rowing a boat in the nearby river? Or do you blame my parents for not taking me to the boat because they’ve worked for 300 days and now want to spend two months reconnecting with all the relatives they left behind in Kerala? Or do you blame the Kerala Government for not allowing a boat to exist on the riverbank in the first place, because they permitted property developers to build apartments there which my parents then bought with hard-earned money earned in order to give their children a “better” life?

You can’t simply blame the individual, the family or the society. But maybe you can change all three?

That’s why I got onto a canoe on a cold Sunday morning, wearing a lifejacket because Roberta was wary of me falling into the river. She’s a good friend, but an even better judge of balance. “Just….stay still,” she said sternly as I giggled in excitement.

She wouldn’t understand. About how I’d lived in the same world as her but somehow occupied another reality. About how everything she saw in real life I saw only on Webshot Desktop wallpapers and episodes of Friends.

Just like my elders back home wouldn’t understand, if I told them they should start a new social activity. “Why?” They’d ask, completely perplexed. Don’t we socialize enough at weddings, funerals and birthday parties? “Yes,” I’d say in exasperation. “But don’t you want to experience new things and meet new people? Will going for a wedding once every two weeks be enough to engage your mind and muscles, stave off mental atrophy and medical illnesses? Don’t you want –”

“Balance!” Roberta yelled as I began to lean perilously towards one side. “Dude, this is no joke! The water is freezing right now!”

She was right, it was no joke. What happens when our parents enter old age devoid of a community structure that’ll help them engage in activities, without bodies that have engaged in consistent physical activities or minds that have cultivated enthusiasm and excitement for continued learning after retirement? Do they become shells of their former selves? Ghosts tethered to a favourite chair in the house, palms cupped reverentially beneath mobile phones that deliver the latest round of ridiculous fake news they’ll then talk about over dinner with the same seven people to whom they’ll reiterate it over the course of the week?

Is it too late for our parents’ generation? Are they simply martyrs who carved better lives for us through hard work, dedication and caution, only to suffer the symptoms of inactivity after retirement the way coal miners suffer from black lung?

I hope not. I hope I can see the elders in my family be as active as Beth and Margaret. As full of life, joy and curiosity. I hope they have vibrant social lives and stubborn bodies that don’t give in to the eroding effects of time without a fight.

But for that to happen, I need to change myself. I need to unlearn all the caution and conformity I crammed into my cranium over countless remedial and tuition classes. And instead learn a lot of new skills, hobbies and interests that’ll fuel my body and mind for as long as is possible. So that I have a productive professional life but just as much peace and progress in my private hours, weekends, holidays and retirement years.

As I paddled the canoe safely back to shore, Roberta was relieved and slightly surprised.

“I thought for sure you’d tip over!” She muttered.

“I know,” I grinned. “But I think I’m getting the hang of it. It’s…all about balance, right?” 

Check this space every Tuesday for more articles from Marwan Razzaq.

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