Last month, a sweet old lady hugged a sweet old man. He kissed her back. They were “two old people reaching out”, she said later. But let me complete the picture for you: the setting for this display of camaraderie was a courtroom. The sweet old woman was Eva Mozes Kor, a holocaust survivor and the sweet old man was Oskar Groening, one of her Nazi tormentors at Auschwitz. Since then, the press has been waxing eloquent about the humanity of Nazis and so on, but the fact remains that the former Auschwitz “book keeper” (or rather, money launderer) remains on trial in Germany for the crimes he committed in the youth, and rightly so even though it is hard not to feel compassion for his frailty and watery eyes. Regardless, his current age is no excuse for what he did.
Now, let’s head to a drawing room in Gurgaon for a moment. I was visiting some relatives along with my husband and 15-month-old daughter. It was a congenial, feet-up sort of evening – the wine was flowing, there were toys on the floor. One of the guests there was chatting happily enough with the rest of us. She cooed and smiled at the child, got some coos and smiles in return. But at some point her mood seemed to sour.
She gazed at the child appraisingly and turned back to me. “Your daughter is very thin,” she said. I agreed, “Yes, she is on the slim side but the doctor is very happy with how she is growing.” It’s as if this lady never heard me. She said loud enough for most of the people in the room to hear, “You’ve obviously not been feeding her properly and instead have grown so fat yourself.”
I was not quite as stunned as I might have been, because she’d said similar things before– at my engagement party (“the girl is pretty enough but she is fat and better lose weight before the wedding”), during my mehendi, after the weight had been lost (a stage whisper: “What is that awful thing this girl is wearing?”) and when my baby was born (“What a weak-looking child and what a large nose she has”). And, of course now — when I am fat again and no longer a trophy for the family to show off.
All kinds of retorts lingered on the tip of my tongue, as they had many times before. We all cannot be Miss Universe like you Ammaji or perhaps I’m fat but you’re a nasty person or even a simple and polite Wow that was a very unkind thing to say. I itched to get up and just leave as I had many times before. So far, though, all I had managed to do was block her number temporarily in a passive aggressive fit of rage.
But this time, as I had every other time, I sat still with a fixed smile. I met familiar, sympathetic eyes all around me. My mother-in-law gave my hand a squeeze. She understood my anger, but her message was the same as everybody else’s: Let it go. She is an old lady. And with decades of cultural conditioning having taught me that particularly Indian self-destructive brand of submissiveness I let it go.
I now wish I hadn’t. This woman had been cruel about my mothering, and had viciously tied her criticism in with my changed appearance. Her aim was to embarrass and humiliate me. She has had a history of such behaviour with certain sections of her family for decades. She gets away with it every time. At most, people will avoid her or act coldly towards her but they will never call her out. We need to question why older people get a free pass to act like assholes just because they managed to live to a certain age. Respect your elders, we are taught when we are still in our diapers. But to what extent? Our reverence for matriarchs and patriarchs should never come before our self-respect.
Let’s face it, the older generation in the name of preserving “tradition” has perpetuated all types of cultural tyranny. At one end of the spectrum you have the village elders in a khap panchayat dictate dress codes for women and on the other you have an educated dowager in a drawing room spewing venom at anyone (other than her favoured female relatives) who doesn’t look the part of a “fair, slim, homely” wife. Then there are “elders” who throw a fit if “the girl’s side” doesn’t bring enough dowry or if a son isn’t produced within the first few years of marriage. And those who have different sets of rules for their daughters and their daughters-in-law. No one dares question them and this needs to change.
This old lady’s repeated rudeness is unacceptable and if there is a next time I’m going to tell her so. People meet her and gush about how lucid and active she is (which she is) but they should compliment her for another aspect of her youth that she has preserved so lovingly – being a playground bully. As is said often enough, growing old, even to 100, is not the same as growing up.
I think courtesy and respect are due to everybody but if others, including the elderly, are discourteous and disrespectful we owe it to ourselves and to society to not take it lying down. Much as we now question those who think housework is women’s work or dynasts who talk about suit-boot ki sarkar, we need to question older people who think their advanced years give them a free pass to say and do whatever they like without consequence.