Sometimes people start believing the fiction they create about themselves. Having written two books on journalism I pretended to be an author. It did not matter that the books were rejected by all journalists, including those I trained (not one was ready to read and those who did refused to give even a few lines of feedback) I decided not to ever write about journalism. How the books proved to be duds is another story, for another blog – or several
But the itch to write is more than 58 years old. And old habits die hard. So I remembered that ‘Coming of Age in Samoa’ by Margaret Mead is one of the most famous books of anthropology. Also that I have not come across any book on aging in India. The outrage following Aamir Khan’s TV episode ‘Satyameva Jayate‘ about how the aged were being ceremoniously put to (eternal) sleep after a ceremonial head bath in one district of Tamil Nadu made me think of writing one.
‘THE OUTHOUSE ON THE FIRST FLOOR — Coming of (Old)Age in India‘ was the title I thought of, still unable to discard the notion that a good title attracts readers, even after the failure of my last book titled ‘A TOWN CALLED PENURY – the Changing Culture of Indian Journalism‘. Most did not know what ‘penury’ meant.
The head of a chain of commercial lending-libraries, after taking three copies of my book (free of course ) said “no one reads non-fiction these days.” Should I make it a fiction then? That is a genre I am not familiar with and reading in that field also stopped years ago.
“They live in the outhouse of their son’s four-level villa — a sick woman in her 60s and her husband, over a decade older (yes, in their days such an age-gap was normal, while today wives are almost of the same age as husbands, or even a little older). Being her round-the-clock medical attendant for years kept him active. And being active wards off senility –to some extent,” I began.
“No, no. Don’t get it wrong. They are not forced to live in the servant quarters at the back of their son’s villa. The outhouse is on the first floor; the son, daughter-in-law and their single child live on the second floor.
“The ground floor with kitchen, dining room and hall are the domain of the servants, except for the few minutes when the ‘saheb and memsaab’ or the old couple come down to see TV. The ‘baba’ is sent down to switch off the serials the old couple watch on the gigantic TV in the hall, as the boy wants to watch the cartoon channels and cannot do so on the equally big TV in the upstairs entertainment lounge; his parents watch some X rated movie there and want the child out of the way.
“No. The old parents are NOT treated as servants. Servants can quit and leave when it is made clear that their death is eagerly awaited. The parents cannot. Servants cannot be ignored and made to feel unwanted as the bosses need them at every step. Parents can be.
“They are not needed any more.”
Here my fiction-writing skills, out of use after publishing five short stories in popular weeklies at the age of 16-17, ended. The problem was to fictionalise facts gathered = that, despite all the WhatsApp posts against placing aged parents in old age homes, many of the inmates prefer it to living with no one to talk to and that may of those in Tamil Nadu custom of the (last) ‘head bath’ preferred such an end to their lives.
Truth, it has been said before, is stranger than fiction.
The research about problems of the aged – the medical and psychological issues they face, the legal aspects like writing of a will and the law that empowers them to file a case against their own son or daughter for maintenance in old age, information about old age homes and interviews with some of their inmates went on. A large amount of data was collected.
But the dilemma about how to weave it into a book — a fiction backed by a lot or data, or a book of non-fiction — continued. So I asked some of my very few friends, the one who helped me bring out the earlier two books and another who helped shape the earlier book, for advice; others would not give even that.
Their advice was brief, “Don’t write”. Publishers would take years to even reject it. Then more years would would go into rewriting it as they want. The old not read it for many reasons – failing sight, indisposition, inability to afford the luxury of buying books etc. And the young would not buy (with a little over the book’s price, they can get a pizza or more pegs) as they never think they would ever grow old. Others may, but not they.
And, with typical Indian fatalism, they think they would cross that bridge when they come to it.