‘When I am old and when I need some help, there is none in sight’


Despite flaws, the joint family system was a clear winner vis-à-vis old age

I am now 75. My health is normal, except for age-related issues like slow pace in walking, difficulty in climbing the staircase, and so on. However, since by nature and temperament I am a positive person, I do not allow such difficulties to trespass into my overall sense of well-being.

Nevertheless, when I reflect upon my earlier days, and compare it with my present status, the irony of old age looms large. Perhaps, the paradox even provokes a sad and sarcastic smile on my face.

Maybe, this needs a little explanation. I was a professional manager in industry for more than 40 years. My career was quite successful. When I retired, I was at the apex level as the director of a group of companies.

When I was 45, my strength and stamina were such that physically and metaphysically I was capable of doing my personal work as well as my professional work — all by myself. But on account of the official perquisites available as appendage to the positions that I occupied, I did not have to do any such work.

The chauffeur drove my car, the doorman opened the door, and the secretary took care of all the non-executive chores — both personal and professional. In other words, when I could have done everything by myself, I did not; or rather the perquisites and privileges of the professional environment forbade me from indulging in them.

Now, when I am old and decrepit, when I need some help even to get up from the chair, there is none in sight. Living in a metropolis like Chennai, I have to perform quite a bit of physical work day in and day out — bank work and payment of electricity bill/telephone bill/property tax/water tax, etc. Purchase of grocery items, vegetables, fruits, etc., is another source of burden.

On top of all these, household appliances sometimes go wrong; electrical and plumbing gadgets fail. The law of life is that if things can go wrong, then they will go wrong. When such things happen, the task of locating a competent trouble shooter and getting the job done within a reasonable time and budget is nothing short of a nightmare.

Another problem is procuring a loyal and long-standing domestic help. Two decades ago, families could employ a servant maid, or a man Friday, without any hassle, and such helpers usually stayed on for years.

The story is quite different today. Good helpers are hard to come by; and when it does happen, they stay, at the most, for one or two years. Servants switch jobs so often and with every move they get better terms — particularly with the young employers, who are themselves working as well-paid executives, and whose dependence on the domestic help is deep and desperate.

The advent of the nuclear family has an echo in this scenario. In the joint family system, there was a harmonious division of labour, and a silent apportionment of responsibilities among the members of the family, based on the age and ability of the people to perform.

The principle of reciprocity was very much in evidence. Parents looked after their children, when the latter needed such protection. Children looked after their parents, when they needed such protection. Care and concern were a mutual responsibility of any two successive generations.

Not that the joint family system did not have any flaws or shortcomings. But in respect of the old age, it was a clear winner. In the present circumstances, it is futile and foolhardy to expect a rollback to the joint family system.

What can perhaps happen, nay must happen, is the realisation by the younger generation of the irony of the old age; and, to the extent possible, depending upon individual circumstances, there must be a better manifestation of care and concern for the old.