Tired Hands, Christmas message by Eshla

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?

8 thoughts on “Tired Hands, Christmas message by Eshla

  1. I think the question “Can we not build a more people-friendly marketplace?” should be the question for every youngster who is diving into the corporate world and the search for its answer is the way forward…..thank you for sharing this article Sir

  2. You offered her the presence of someone who was willing to listen and acknowledge her, that has turned into a luxary lately.
    Blessings to this beautiful soul who continues to be…

  3. Somewhere down the line, we have lost our way. The purpose of society as it originally evolved was to protect the aged, the sick, the children and of course women who are expecting or just delivered. These were need based concessions that society as a whole accepted and we took it for granted.
    There was no way parents would not see their children through schools and colleges or settled in life otherwise. By the same logic we also took it for granted that children would take care of their parents in their old age and the society as a whole will respect and care for the aged, the mothers and mothers to be.
    In the process we got so over organized that now we expect the state to do everything for us while we have a ‘good time’ and ‘have fun’ instead of living a satisfying and purposeful life.
    It is time that we realize that at the root of civics is the family. We are increasingly allowing the state to control anything and everything, be is free meals at school or old age pensions or the medical and health benefits or free food.
    The unfortunate situation we are in is that while members the society are driven by greed based activities instead of need based activities, we expect the state to meet the needs of individuals that at left behind in the race.
    I think we should roll back from the state sponsored food coupons in the US and the free or subsidised many things in India, and assign more active role for the families, extended families, communities, neighbourhoods, and what we call beradari back home.
    We also need to note that arts and sports originated from and survives on surpluses generated by economic activities of the society and cannot exceed the economic surplus that the society generates.
    I remember my grandfather was often addressed as ‘streepart’ amongst the relatives and friends. He was a lawyer, besides attending to his agric activities on a regular basis. During the festive seasons the community organised stage shows and he was in demand for any female role. Women were not allowed to appear on stage performances though in most houses all women were trained in classical dance forms and they did dance in their own homes. Thus we had unmonitized entertainment activities where the performers and the on lookers both derived pleasure out of it. Ditto for sports where the player as well as viewer, both enjoyed.
    While politics created its own zombies, the wrongly called sports and entertainment industry also are pits in the economic activities of the society that drain the resources increasingly leaving less and less to the society which eats into the life of the people starting from the lowest ranks.
    I wonder whether we can make the sports and entertainment less expensive if not free, where both parties, the performers and the viewers, derive pleasure equally.

  4. Thank you for recognising that if she does not work, she does not eat.

    The social fabric is fraying at the edges, the family nuclear and with its own priorities, in this particular situation, her sons also possibly just make enough to get by.

    Objectively- if at all that is possible in this instance– I keep returning to Darwin, to survive you’d better have the resources to keep family interested enough in your well being into old age. This opinion is perhaps shaped by my recent issues with some pf money I have to disburse at my discretion as nominee, you should see how grasping some well bred people are.

  5. Eshla,

    You query, Can we not build a more people-friendly marketplace? … why not share the riches more equitably? Why make exhausted hands work longer – that too to just feed themselves?”

    These are not naive thoughts. By marketplace, you mean society. Social anthropologists research these issues. Although you refer to elderly people, your article also applies to unemployed, underprivileged, handicapped, etc.

    In the abovementioned comments from Kris, he/she suggests biradri (brotherhood/extended-family) should take care of the underprivileged, rather than the state. I say, hmm, yes and no. Biradri can help with a personal touch, also with food. Biradri’s help can be tremendous mental support when a person is down and out.

    However, the state should provide the “roti. kapda, makaan”(food shelter clothing) support. The state can also provide mental support by way of counsellors. But, since counsellors are on the state’s payroll, the receiver may not trust them completely, hence biradri’s support may be welcome and desired.

    So, in an ideal society, the state collects enough taxes to support the poor. The question then is, “will the citizens become careless and produce unlimited number of children, and expect the state to take care of the children?” I say, the state’s counsellors could step in and explain that too many children would just get the basic roti,kapda, makaan from the state, not much, and they should focus on giving each of their children the means so that one day the child could have a palatial life.

    In other words, glorify material life, but at the same time, take care of the underprivileged. Remember, “riches to rags” is also a reality.

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