A few days before lockdown, when I was about to leave for my evening walk with Baba, I looked at my parents as they were drinking their tea and said, “Perhaps we shouldn’t go for these walks for a few weeks. There is too much exposure, it just does not feel safe.” “But we don’t talk to anyone there,” said Baba. But he does, he meets his friends, shakes their hands and pats their backs. When I pointed it out, he refused point blank. “I don’t do that, I just mind my own business.” I didn’t see any point in arguing further.
Since COVID-19 was recognised as a global pandemic, my friends and I, in India and in countries around the world, are being forced to parent our parents. A friend in locked-down Spain says her only worry is for her parents in India. If things go out of hand, who will take care of them? Another friend, who lives in the US, was glad that his father was with him, but his visa is about to expire and he needs to look into that. Overnight, we have had to become the responsible ones — researching all the ways in which the virus spreads, regularly washing hands and enforcing social distancing. And then there are our parents, who just don’t seem to be taking this seriously enough, choosing ignorance over anxiety.
Our grandparents who lived through the Partition, our parents who saw several wars in the ’60s, ’70s and in ’99, who have lived through the Emergency, are of the firm belief that they have seen a lot, and come out of it alive. Some of them haven’t been able to adjust to the idea of ageing all that well. My mother colours her hair, uses too many creams to hide signs of ageing. If our parents haven’t accepted ageing yet, it will be hard for them to accept parenting from their kids, because if they are still young, we are still children.
My mother works at the Life Insurance Corporation of India and was still going in to work before the nationwide lockdown was announced. “It’s March, financial closing month, I can’t take leave,” she insisted. This, I suppose, is life coming full circle: we disrespected our parents, didn’t think much before disregarding their advice on things, and now the tables have turned. And it is frustrating. There are people at Aai’s workplace who didn’t cancel their holidays even though it was increasingly becoming clear that COVID-19 was a pandemic. Now, before you judge them, the reason why they couldn’t cancel their holiday despite the corona scare was that their travel company, a well-known one, offers these holiday packages that can only be availed within a certain time period. Money is precious, especially when you don’t have a lot of it. But is it more valuable than our lives? That is something I find a lot of middle-class families around me are struggling with.
For my Aai to think that the financial year closing is more important than getting her cough checked is baffling to me but normal to her. When I open my mouth to respond, she tells me that I need to stop overreacting; her blood pressure is high as it is. She looks at me and says, “All your corona talk is making me hypertensive.” Now that I have been blamed for her high BP, I better not say anything about COVID-19 for a few days!
Recently, in his essay in The New Yorker, Michael Schulman wrote about his parents. When he asked them to not go to restaurants or work and to sit at home and watch TV, his mother responded to his texts with a sarcastic “Thanks, Mom”. Much like the global pandemic we are in, the Baby Boomer reaction to the situation also has a global feel to it.
COVID-19 is teaching me the salient points of parenting: your children are not always going to listen to you, so you have to keep repeating yourself. Sometimes, you have to be the bad guy in the house to save them from themselves. If you aren’t one of those obnoxious people on Twitter calling COVID-19 “Boomer Remover”, I hope you are relentlessly talking to your parents even if they don’t listen. Vigilance, kindness, solidarity, responsibility and love are the only ways we can try to beat this epidemic.
Yesterday, when my mother told me she is making me some haldi doodh, I told her I will drink it only if she makes it for everyone. Baba laughed loudly when he heard me and reminded me of how, as a child, I used to dismiss their pleas about milk. I laughed with him and said yes, things have changed. Now drink your milk and go to bed.
(Manjiri Indurkar is a freelance writer and poet based in Jabalpur)
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