There was a lady, rather frail and aged, who would wipe the floor of the home that I was staying in. She came daily, in the leisurely hours of the afternoon. As others rested, she squatted on her knobbly knees and gently cleaned the tiles, wiping them with patience and thought. Unlike the others, she wasn’t in a hurry. Rather, she did it methodically, beginning at one end of the flat and ending at the other in broad strokes – as broad as her bony arms would allow.
Her hair was always secure in a neat bun. Her sari was always properly wrapped. Though torn at the edges and sullied by years of squatting on dusty floors, it was wrapped with a certain elegance. She had little decoration on her, if any. Just one thin, threadlike chain that graced her freckled neck.
Much of her looked like it had been overused with little left to give. The arms, especially, seemed as though they’d give way any day. Her skin, tarnished by the intense sun, told stories of countless decades of toil.
Yet, even in such old age, her face expressed certainty and desire to live. Her eyes were alive and grateful. Her smile, hesitant but kind. Her expressions were subtle but firm.
But a certain sadness hung over. After all, she had spent a lifetime doing this work, mastering an art that others had negated. And she’d done it with vigor, knowing that it would provide her shelter, comfort, and food.
I approached her one afternoon, out of curiosity and out of respect, wanting to acknowledge her presence. She shared with me tidbits of her life. Her face lifted when she spoke of her children. She’d had two but they’d migrated to other, bigger cities where work was more abundant to see if they make more for the family. She had little to provide for herself; hence, she kept working into her later years. When I asked her about her work, she responded by saying (in hindi), “Ab to bahut din ho gaye hain. Pasand ya na pasand – kya farek? Roti kilye hai ye sab.” (transl: So many days have passed now. Whether I like it or not – what difference does it make? I work to eat.)
I was silent. I couldn’t offer her much.
It always felt a bit odd to me to have someone of my grandmother’s age, sweeping the floor clean under my feet. But I acknowledged that she had work and thus, she would have food to eat. It would have been worse if she were not employed.
Still, it seemed wrong.
But it wasn’t just because she was of a lower class. Rather, I saw a similar scenario play out in more formal, developed economies where those who had toiled their entire lives had to return to work due to the economic situation.
In a grocery store, one of those mega-sized ones, where you’re likely to get lost in an aisle full of pickles, I saw elderly men and women, standing behind tables, handing out samples. They shifted their weight constantly, leaning on the shelves. Their hands moved slowly, very slowly at times. They spoke to the customers softly, directing them around the store. They engaged with the children more so than the adults. And yet, there was a sadness in them as well as they stood for long hours on their aged bodies.
I hadn’t seen them there before. They were a new addition. Later, I was informed that the recession had eaten up the savings of many seniors and they were forced to go back to the marketplace, looking for work. They didn’t have the skills perhaps for our tech-savvy society. So, they took to simpler jobs, ones that didn’t require extensive training.
But you could tell from their demeanor that they had little desire to be there; rather, they had little energy left in them to be there. The social aspect was nice for them, getting to interact with people of all ages but having to again work on the clock, on their feet, and at long lengths wasn’t appealing.
Two extreme opposite scenarios; one passing out tidbits of food to make a living, the other cleaning crumbs and dust off the floor to make a living. But at the core was a loneliness, a struggle, and a sadness. That too at a time in their lives when they should be reaping the benefits of their arduous years. Why was it that we’d forgotten these faces? In a youth-obsessed society, the elderly don’t feature first. But, still, it just didn’t make sense to me – how can we treat those who had given their lifetimes to hard work and their families with such indifference?
It seems as if we just forgot. And yet, that is the most critical time to remember them, to honor them, and to cherish them. That is the time to enjoy their stories, their insights from life, their memories.
And yet, here they were working away, not out of desire, but of need.
Can we not build a more people-friendly marketplace? It is a naive thought, perhaps, considering the complexities of modern economics. But, ultimately, we are here just momentarily. That is what age quickly reminds us of. And most of us realize that there’s little we can take with us. So, why not share the riches more equitably? Why make exhausted hands work longer – that too to just feed themselves?