Overseas Indian oftentimes leave behind aging parents, many of who suffer the pangs of loneliness and abandonment.
Every year, hundreds of parents of Non Resident Indians die from sudden heart attacks, old age, or other ailments with only friends at their bedside. Many others nurse life-threatening diseases, old age and loneliness in their sunset years. Some wallow in self- pity and depression, while others struggle with what psychologists call the empty nest syndrome when their last child leaves home. While the problem is growing all over India as joint families disintegrate, it is especially acute among the parents of NRIs, as access to their children is harder and infrequent.
P. K. Kelkar, an 80-year-old father of three NRI children in Pune, was taking an evening walk when a reckless motorcycle rider knocked him down. The impact rendered him unconscious. His friends rushed him to a hospital where doctors tried to revive him, but he breathed his last around midnight. Two of his three daughters were abroad, one in Australia and another in the United States, while the third lived in Bangalore. But when he needed them most in his sunset years, he only had friends, who were sailing in the same boat. They were all parents of NRI children who had settled abroad. His friends informed his daughters, two of whom managed to rush to Pune to perform the last rites. One daughter had difficulty securing a visa and couldn’t make it. His friends held his body in a morgue to prevent it from decomposing until his daughters arrived for the cremation.
In the absence of close family, friends are often the first line of support for aging parents. Usha Rairikar is one such parent, who lives alone in Pune. She lost her husband several years ago and her daughter lives in the United States. Two years ago, at age 88, Ririkar faced a medical emergency. Since she was alone, friends rushed her to hospital where she was operated upon. Her daughter rushed back from the United States and nursed her back to health. Now 90, she leads a lonely life. She is happy that her daughter is doing well in the United States, but says she misses her terribly.
For some, the loneliness can be so suffocating that it is life threatening. On May 15, 2011, an elderly couple committed suicide at their residence in Jivraj Park in Ahmedabad. The couple, natives of Maharashtra, left behind a suicide note citing loneliness for taking their life. Dattatray Giri, a former principal of Akhandanand Ayurvedic College, and his wife Bhavana poured kerosene and immolated themselves. Of their two sons, one is a doctor settled in the United States and another a lecturer in Nagpur.
Many NRIs strive to support their parents by sending money and gifts home. Often though, the parents are reasonably well off and aren’t really pressed for financial support. What they hunger for instead is emotional support and love.
In recent years, both to beat the loneliness as well as to handle emergencies, many parents of NRIs have joined associations to lend support to each other. In Pune, the late N. L. Abhyankar founded the Non Resident Indians’ Parents’ Organisation (NRIPO). NRIPO was established in 1994 as a support group for aging parents of NRIs and to provide them emotional comfort and support in their twilight years. NRIPO claims a membership of 1,000 parents. Similar support groups have emerged in other cities, such as the Non Resident Indian’s Parents Association in Bangalore, the Association of Parents of Indian Residents Overseas and NRIPA Gujarat. Nandkumar Swadi, current president of NRIPO, says: “The primary objective of NRIPO is to give physical and emotional support to the parents of children who live thousands of miles away. We make sure our members stay in comfort and are in good hands in a case of emergency.”
According to Swadi, the single biggest problem for NRI parents is the empty nest syndrome, a gnawing emotional problem which they experience once their children leave home and go abroad to further their careers. The elderly parents who are left alone feel the pangs of depression, loneliness, lack of identity and physical and mental insecurity.
Swadi says: “The house which used to reverberate with children’s laughter and happiness suddenly appears to become gloomy. The parents who once nursed their kids, who went to work abroad now suffer from sudden loss of identity. They have enough time at their disposal, but nothing much to do, which causes emotional turmoil. Adding to these woes is their fluctuating health, which makes them vulnerable to all sorts of ailments and diseases. They want to be with their children, but cannot because of circumstances and this creates emotional turmoil.”
Ranganath Sangam, managing trustee of NRIPO, adds: “The health of the NRI parents is a big concern which fluctuates due to age. It is neither easy for the children to take the parents to the foreign country, nor is life easy for them in India where they have to battle loneliness and depression. The problem becomes more acute when they suddenly expire and we have to call the children in the foreign countries. Often it takes more than two to three days and till then we have to ensure that the body is kept in the morgue before it is handed over to them. I have myself done the running around to hospitals asking the doctors to keep the bodies in the morgue.”
Sangam has two children, both of whom are settled in the United States. He keeps in touch with them on his laptop and his smartphone. Tech-savvy parents are able to maintain connections with their NRI children online; others have to be content with occasional telephones calls.
The NRI parents are tormented by catastrophes, such as earthquake, tsunamis, terrorist or racial attacks, in foreign countries where their children are resident. Swadi said, “During 9/11 we made calls to around 90 families living in USA and enquired about their safety. Since it was difficult to contact the dear ones residing there we used our network to get in touch with each of the concerned families.”
Subhash Kelkar, 69, has a son and a daughter, both of whom reside in the United States. During Hurricane Katrina, several parents of NRIs worried about the safety of their overseas children. Kelkar assured them that in case of any emergency his son’s house in Dallas was open to them for shelter. He said, “Though none of the NRIs that we knew were trapped in the hurricane, but it gave the parents of the NRIs a solace that they have someone who can look after their sons and daughters in case of emergency.”
To beat the loneliness, some parents become involved in social service activities. Nilima Bapat, a cancer survivor, whose only son works as a software consultant in Viriginia, has been volunteering at the schizophrenic society of India for the past several years.
Did she wish her son returned to India? She says: “I don’t feel that way. I am glad that he has got his dream job overseas and satisfied to see him happy. But my husband is very emotional and at times he does feel that he should be with us in India as this country also now has enough opportunities in the IT and other sectors.”
Her sentiments are echoed by Minanath Sao, father of a 35-year-old NRI Vaishali Gawankar: “Though we miss our daughter very much we are happy to know that she is doing very well in US. Her husband, who is working as a senior petro physicist in a company in Houston, is very well off and they have three lovely children — two sons and a daughter. We interact with them telephonically almost on a daily basis. But we do not put any pressure of expectation that they should return to India.”
Their daughter is fond of Ratnagiri mango, so every year Sao, who retired as electrical engineer in Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai, ships her crates of the fruit. “Our grandchildren are also very fond of mangoes and we feel very happy to know that they are relishing them.”
Vinayak Jagdale, 82, who retired as a human resource consultant, lives with his wife. One son has been living in the United States since 1993 and his other son lives elsewhere in India. He says: “The only panacea to tackle the empty nest syndrome is first acceptance of the fact that your children have now grown wings and they have a right to fly of in whichever direction they want to. Unless you accept this fact wholeheartedly you can never be at peace with yourself. You will always be living in the illusory world that sooner or later they will return and this craving can be very tormenting. But once you accept this fact, then the pain of ENS starts subsiding.”
Does he miss his son who lives abroad? “Of course we do. My son was very fond of Beatles music when he was in India. Whenever we listen to Beatles music, I and my wife remember him, even though now even my son might have outgrown the liking for Beatles. But we do not remember him with sadness or self-pity, but rather with positivity.”