May issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Published 15 years ago

Mr and Mrs Iqbal’s impeccable and tastefully furnished house in KDA reflects the love and time they invested in making their home a house of dreams. The couple moved into a smaller bungalow recently, after the wife suffered a stroke and subsequent deterioration of health. The home in which their two children grew up was now too big and too empty for Mrs Iqbal to maintain since the children had moved out.

Age has caught up with her and her husband and the effects of the stroke have further complicated her case. Slowing down of brain signals have made her powers of recognition blurry, leaving her at a loss for words during a conversation. Her osteoporosis has left her toes curled one over the other like withered petals. She was a vibrant and gregarious friend of my mother’s when I was young, sharp in observation, graceful and always on her feet. Now she walks slowly, dragging them. Her husband is swiftly on his toes to help, as soon as she makes a movement. Mr Iqbal is lanky, with a mass of snow for hair, patience emanates from his diffident, benign eyes peering from round-framed spectacles, which always come to rest on his wife.

Their daughter moved to San Francisco in 1998, when she married. The son left in 2003, when he acquired Canadian citizenship. The upstairs portion of their new house, furnished for their son and his wife, was never occupied. Mr Iqbal speaks with pride of his daughter, who comes to visit occasionally and was by her mother’s side both times she fell ill. He thinks his wife suffered a second stroke because loneliness really got to her, and her longing for her children has grown acute over time. When it comes to his son, though, he impassively states that they have always waited for him to return but he never did.

Now every cup, vase and table in their house is up for sale, as the Iqbals are wrapping up life here to move to the US, where their daughter lives. It is exacting now for Mr Iqbal to take care of his wife on his own, especially when she is ill. Their decision to pack up life here has been made with a heavy heart; they are torn between surviving alone in a land they call home, and having the support of their children in a land which is alien to them.

They are not alone in straddling two worlds in their greying days. Many families have departed from the institution of joint families with the onslaught of migration in Pakistan. Armed with an I-20, a green card or marriage papers, a large number of the younger generation have flocked to foreign borders — increasingly over the past two to three decades. Most have left behind parents who raised them, financed their foreign education or married them off in order to provide them with a secure future. Some of these parents enjoy the facility of living independently and visiting their children in a different country every year or so, while others wish their children had returned.

Aside from brain drain, the conventional family unit has fallen apart in many homes. Perhaps this is a reason why family soaps on Star Plus have increasing viewership in our society, as they reflect the one-big-happy household that most Pakistani parents look forward to. For, as Mr Iqbal reflects, “Jab humara beta gaya, tou samjho humari life phir gayi … We can’t force the children to return either. We have to go visit them if we want to see them. And there is no charm in that. Abroad everyone is always busy and everyone runs in their own circle of life.”

Mr and Mrs Syed feel similarly tied down, when they visit their children in the US. All five of their children have left in phases, as each kept reaching college-going age. “Everything is formal there,” says Mr Syed, “there is no spontaneity in life. It is all concrete.” The state regulations and formalities involved in every aspect of daily activity there is exhausting for both of them. “I can’t tell you how dear I hold my country, Pakistan,” says Mr Syed. “I feel like a first-class citizen here. But it is not the same in America.” They return to their house on Khayaban-e-Bahria from every foreign trip with a feeling of coming back to “home, sweet home.”

The parents’ expectations of their children settled abroad differ: some hope to see their children return to take care of them in old age, others have come to terms with the fact that their offspring will never return.

The Syeds, for instance, are content to live on their own here in Karachi. “Fortunately, life has been good to us,” they say. Their expectations do not surmount their pride in their children’s accomplishments. They feel they have guided their children to their utmost ability and now the children are mature and sensible enough to make something of their own lives.

In fact, Mrs Syed prefers the comfort and freedom of living in her own house, planning her day according to her fancy, unlike the restrictions she has to mull over when visiting her children. “I enjoy the financial independence here. I am at ease knowing I can call upon my driver at even 11:00 p.m., if I need him to get something from the market. And I rest easy at night knowing that if I were to have any sort of health problem, I can run to the doctor without worring about medical insurance and paying through my nose in American dollars …”

They don’t require the children’s help yet, though they do miss a “full house.” Mr Syed reminisces about all the Ramadans they spent together with the dining table fully occupied with his kids and the bustle of Eid festivities his wife and daughters would create. Now Eid is no different than any other day.

The Jameels’ household is similarly empty of festivities since the children went to the UK for studies. The parents try to visit the children when Eid comes around or have one of the children fly over to keep the tradition of a family holiday somewhat alive. But now that the youngest daughter has also left for college, they are keen that their children return home after they are finished with academics. Mrs Jameel admits, after warding off prickly questions about spending time alone at home, that she misses her children at all times and is perpetually aware of the various errands the children could run for them. Her husband claims, “A lot has to be sacrificed to gain a little.” He is certain that his son will return whenever he is asked to. And his wife does not entertain the thought of their children marrying and settling in the UK. She feels it would be a betrayal of the trust that she has sent them away with.

Slightly more accepting of change, Mr and Mrs Khan are resigned to fate and what the future may bring. They are aware that the children have a better future abroad, simply because they have more options in terms of career than they do here, but they would like to also believe that the kids will return soon. As they age, Mrs Khan expresses her wish that her husband be helped in little chores like bank runs, grocery shopping or picking and dropping her off to wherever she needs to go. She also misses her daughter’s presence when she falls ill or is tired and needs a hand. She finds solace in the fact that even though her kids are not here, they are still interested in how her life is getting on by making daily phone calls and is delighted to find that their traditional values have not changed.

Mr Iqbal is crowded with fears that making the move to the US will be as difficult as his present situation. He is apprehensive about how his convalescent wife will survive the long flight and that once she reaches America, she won’t be able to fit in and will yearn to go back again. The Syeds are willing to invest in a house in the US, so that they don’t feel like a burden when they go to seek their children’s company and are hopeful that it will provide the right balance of living on their own, yet having the children close by. The Khans and the Jameels await their children’s return. They are hopeful that they will not be left in an empty house in the winter of their life.

All four families are privileged enough to sustain themselves financially. But would loneliness drive them to seek a place where they will be cared for by others, if not their children?

Our society holds the institution of family as sacrosanct. Auxiliary support, outside this institution, is not easily accepted in those who belong to the well-to-do strata of society. But two women residing in the widows’ lodge at the Holy Trinity Church, Karachi, think outside the box. Pamela and Charlotte have been living at the widows’ lodge for 18 and 28 years, respectively. Neither of them perceived dependence on children as a way of life that would be satisfying. Charlotte considers both herself and her friend to be among the “fortunate ones,” as their families are only a phone call away. Charlotte’s daughter lives in Defence with her own family, and she can visit them whenever, and for however long, she pleases. But after a longer stay of a month or two, she is ready to return to her own little home. She relishes her independence.

Pamela decided to move out and live on her own when her only son got married. She thought it only fair to leave the newly-married couple to share a space of their own and enjoy their freedom. Pamela’s Sundays are always booked; her son comes to pick her up so she can spend the weekend with his family. The rest of the week, the two ladies enjoy spending time on their own, reading, watching TV and meeting each other for tea at 4:00 p.m., “a tradition we carry out in class,” says Charlotte cheerfully.

Though the women manage on their own, they are comforted by having their loved ones close by. Similarly, most parents bank upon the moral and financial support of their children when they reach old age. Emotional attachment to their family translates into physical closeness for them. Upon reaching a stage of frailty and inability — due to health problems that inevitably afflict old age, or after their youth is spent and the yearning for a future changes to a need for restful days — isolation can sometimes be the greatest fear. Being admitted to an old home or shelter is usually a fate all parents would be horrified at. Despite the care and nursing old people’s homes render, the thought of being left at the mercy of strangers makes people cringe. Old people’s homes are like shelters for the homeless, for the orphans, those who are born into ill-fated circumstances. Turning towards institutions outside the nuclear family is tantamount to being abandoned.

The lack of facilities for senior citizens in our country is proof enough that the welfare for this age bracket of the population is the duty of their children. Each of the couples interviewed in this article missed most the company of their children, at all times of the day. The joy of having their children around is for them, a feeling irreplaceable.