Indian parents hit by empty-nest syndrome

Posted in India | 31-Oct-06 | Author: Amelia Gentleman| Source: International Herald Tribune

PUNE, India Whenever Kusum Pattil feels a pang of longing for her two sons, both working in the United States, she goes to the kitchen, cooks up some of their favorite south Indian food and puts it in front of her computer Web- camera to show them what they are missing.

It is an eccentric way of confronting loneliness, but it works for her, and it is a tip she likes to pass on to friends at the local support group for elderly parents left behind by children who have emigrated to pursue careers in the West. "I felt very sad when the younger one decided to move. We are only two left here now," Pattil said, nodding at her husband, a retired engineer. "Cooking food for my sons cheers me up, even if they're not here to eat it."

In the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of young, highly educated Indians left their homes to find work in the United States, many of them ending up as software engineers and computer technicians, helping fuel the global revolution in information technology. Large numbers received U.S. green cards, and what started as a temporary job became the shift of a lifetime.

In Pune, a peaceful, green metropolis in southern India, there are thousands of retired couples experiencing the peculiar sensation of being parent-orphans, abandoned by their offspring who left India in search of better lives abroad.

Traditionally, Indian parents have grown old in the home of their eldest son, surrounded by family members. Across India, an aging generation is for the first time facing this period alone, adjusting to a more isolated way of spending their retirement.

To combat the years of solitude stretching ahead, some of them have formed solidarity units - Non-Resident Indian Parents' Organizations - which meet for weekly dinners, monthly cultural activities, lectures on insurance and will-making, and the occasional weekend excursion.

The mission is to replace, in part, the support structure that would have been provided by the extended family network. As members age and grow more vulnerable, the groups offer critical support for people who are hospitalized or need urgent help at home. There are home-cooked foods for the sick and company for the lonely; advice on travel, visas and how to write an e-mail; dance classes, cards and singing lessons.

"Many of us felt there was a void in our lives. We needed a fraternity which would provide emotional comfort and care," Nandkumar Swadi, 65, treasurer of the Pune parents' organization, said as he waited to welcome guests for the club's annual gala dinner.

He joined when both sons were in the United States - one studying for a doctorate in computer science at Princeton University, the other working as a mechanical-design engineer.

The organization's 950 members, aged from 60 to 95, are divided into small groups, with the younger charged with taking care of the older. "That way," Swadi said, "there are always people able to rush and look after the needy, get them admitted to hospital, sit with them and take care of them until their children arrive."

Designed to lift the morale of members, the dinner's highlight event was a rousing speech from Kiran Karnik, the head of India's information technology, or IT, industry trade body. Karnik congratulated the audience - mostly parents of computer engineers and software experts - for the achievements of their progeny, who had done so much to improve global attitudes toward Indians.

A decade ago, he observed, Indians were often treated rudely and dismissively when they traveled abroad. Now, they were greeted with respect and admiration almost everywhere.

"There has been a sea-change in attitudes to Indians globally, brought about by the talent of our IT professionals," he said. "I want to thank you for what you have done for India through your sons and daughters in the IT industry all over the world."

There was enthusiastic applause and for a while a sense of collective pride swept through the audience. But over dinner later, some parents confessed to feeling conflicted in their feelings about the departure of their offspring.

"In illness we remember our children," said Padmakar Purandare, 68, a retired engineer, whose son is a software engineer in Dallas. "We expected that they would look after us in our old age, but it is not possible. My son is a green-card holder now."

His own mother had lived with him until she died at the age of 84. "We gave her every assistance, medical help, emotional support, she saw her grandchildren growing up," he said. "Things are different now. My son feels that he should do more for me, but I don't. I'm happy he is there. The standard of living is much better."

The difficulties faced by families split up by career moves to the West are confined to a small strata of educated, middle-class Indians. But the phenomenon of the isolated elderly parent is becoming common across all levels of modern Indian society, as extended family structures are eroded by job mobility and the rush from the countryside to the city.

"India is becoming a tougher place to be old in, even for couples whose families remain in India," said Mathew Cherian, chief executive of HelpAge, an advocacy group for the elderly. "With increased labor mobility, even if they live in India, the children often live far away in another city." He added: "Since the liberalization of India's economy in the 1990s, people's priorities have changed. When you want more money, parents become secondary to the main pursuit of making more money."

There has been a parallel decline in respect for the elderly, said Gitanjali Prasad, author of the social history, "The Great Indian Family."

"The older generation used to have tyrannical power. Everything went according to their diktat. They could say 'Change your job,' 'Get the surgery done,'" she observed. "Now it's not that they feel unloved. They just feel they are becoming irrelevant, and they find that extremely painful."

The parents of India's diaspora of software engineers do not see themselves as victims, nor do they blame their children for wanting to leave. Many have been invited to join their sons and daughters, but express frank distaste for the United States.

"I'd never go. It's like a five-star jail," Subhash Kelkar said of his son's home in Texas. "There's no public transport, you can't do anything without your children to help you and they're at work all week. For the parents it's terrible. That's when you really feel lonely."

Regret is tempered by satisfaction in the knowledge that their children are doing well. But for many the regret hangs with them, a heavy presence.

Pattil said she was comforted by the knowledge that the tide of emigration is turning, with many of the émigrés beginning to return, attracted by the new opportunities promised by a flourishing economy back home. "I've kept his bedroom ready for him, just as it was," she said. "His model car collection is still on the piano, waiting for him when he comes home."