The Parents Are Not Alright: I Can’t Stop Worrying About My Ageing Folks in This Pandemic

Modern Family

The Parents Are Not Alright: I Can’t Stop Worrying About My Ageing Folks in This Pandemic

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

Late in June, while in Delhi NCR I made the snap decision to travel back home to Himachal. It was an impulse born mostly out of concern for myself and the deteriorating situation in the capital region that further compounded my sense of dread. I had already witnessed, over the phone, my parents deny or reject the seriousness of a pandemic that has ravaged the world. The news stories forwarded on WhatsApp went unread or unacknowledged, while alarms I regularly raised about social protocol were overlooked. I begged them to stop visiting relatives or at least avoid crowded places.

In exchange, I had only been offered vague aphoristic claims about the immunity of the average Indian, or random unproven facts that my parents probably read off of unverified sources. All this while, my family’s reluctance and staunch denial of an ongoing worldly crisis, I registered under the euphemism of “things are bad”. That is, until I reached back home. Things were, in fact, worse.

Second-generation Indians, like my parents, were born at the cusp of both opportunity and responsibility. They have accrued more than I can ever imagine, and they have sacrificed a lot more than I ever could. Their battle-hardened psyche, thus, allows them the privilege to manipulate emotion and in some cases, even facts. This Teflon exterior, that rarely perforates with self-expression, or a sign of weakness, though, has come at a cost.

My parents deny or reject the seriousness of a pandemic that has ravaged the world.

India’s real WhatsApp generation

It has repressed the one crucial part of human pathology that accounts for rationale – doubt. Second-generation Indians exude confidence in lies, unproven and unverified information like no one else. Their sense of news and knowledge now comes from WhatsApps, forwarded messages, gossip chains and random videos on YouTube. One popular theory claims that those who eat vegetarian food are likely to be safer than others.

Like all South Asian parents, they too believe they know better than everyone else. Over time, their curiosity and ability to question is at a palpable end.

When I reached home in the second week of July, after having spent 20 days in a room after entering the state border, I was appalled by the lack of precautionary measures that had become part of life back in NCR. Nothing that came from the market was sanitised, washed or at least kept in a corner of the house. Masks were has-been entities, people regularly invited and socialised with. There was a single 50ml sanitiser bottle under one roof, and by the looks of it, it hadn’t even been used.

There were, however, a surfeit of conspiracy theories, each more ludicrous than the other. The general consensus in the family and among the neighbours was that the virus was a medical weapon unleashed on the US, that India had just been caught in the crossfire. We would anyway survive given that we survive worse things on a regular basis. The village, was especially safe, because clean air, sunlight etc etc. All of this, despite the virus having reached Ladakh and tribal regions of Himachal Pradesh. All of this despite having two octogenarians, my grandparents, in the house.

Educating your parents in cultural and technological advancements is hard enough. Getting them to take a worldwide health crisis seriously is even more difficult. From bat-eating Chinese people to the virus being air-dropped into the US by a bomb, my family has discussed absurd possibilities without adequately preparing to deal with any of its consequences. There is visible evidence of the crisis unfolding, yet the laxity continues.

Thankfully, cases haven’t exploded in the state yet but that is largely down to caution that HP has employed. Public transport is still restricted, outsiders entering the state are sternly monitored, and zones are regularly marked to be contained – two of them not too far from our house. Despite this fog of floating dread and risk, my parents continue to function as old, criminally dismissing the possibility that they could also fall sick, or worse.

I never thought I’d have to quarrel with my parents over the value and tenderness of life itself.

How to talk to mum and dad

Living away from parents so I can hold down a regular paycheck makes it impossible to monitor their lifestyle. Not that I would interfere but their deteriorating health and incapacity to move with a world that changes faster than they blink has always worried me. The pandemic, when it began to spread further aggravated that sense of helplessness. My coming back home ought to have eased some of that guilt and alleviated some concerns. But my parents’ lack of concern for their own health, and of others around them has only left me feeling powerless and frustrated.

My father still insists on going to the bustling local markets, often for low-priority tasks like getting himself an extra chappal or bringing home jalebi. My mother still won’t wash her hands after returning from homes she frequents in her social circle. And you know what’s worse? Their behaviour has had more of an impact on me, than the other way round.

I regularly disagree with my parents on a lot of things, ranging from social issues to political ideologies. But I never thought I’d have to quarrel with them over the value and tenderness of life itself. I’m often dumbfounded, at other times enraged by their lack of care and caution.

They have, like me, routinely heard stories of someone or the other having been infected. They watch the news, they get updates on their phones but somehow, the next morning they wake up, their memory of yesterday erased; all that angry education and learning faded, a false and clearly piffle sense of security having taken hold inside them again. Where, I wonder, do their minds go to unlearn all that is sensible and warranted, especially in times like these?

I have of course like a good old Indian household tried to come up with some homemade remedies to this homemade problem. Because my parents mostly listen to them, I consistently bring up my concerns in front of their peers. Some good old social shaming (from their own book) has reaped some results. The other tactic is to, of course threaten to return unless they call your bluff. There is, of course, the rather morbid route of acquainting them with horrifying stories, or even making some up. With a mixed rate of success, I have employed all – but a semblance of consistency is yet to emerge. There are lapses, still. Lapses I make sure I call out, because no one else will.