Of Mom, and a story about dutiful worlds

Centuries ago (okay, around fourteen years ago), after my father’s death, my mother was convinced that my sole task in life should now be keeping her happy. She wanted company. All the time. She would allow me toilet and meal breaks and meal-cooking breaks, and I could take off time when she was resting, but if I dared say I had to go out for work, I’d be subjected to a lecture on duty towards her, and on my greed to want to work.

This was back when no neurologist we consulted had bothered to tell us about dementia or even cognitive decline, though my mother had complained to them about memory loss. We had no idea that she was having problems staying oriented and in understanding things, let alone changing her way of thinking. We have no idea that she probably wanted familiar faces around her all the time because of those (unstated) problems.

Possibily because she grew up in a rather well-to-do family, my mother had always believed that anyone who worked for money was greedy. That people who worked in jobs did so only for money, which was a filthy thing to do. She had a phrase she often used to express the “greed” of persons who worked hard in paying jobs: निन्यानबे का फेर (ninyaanbe ka pher, OR, the trap of ninety-nine).

It’s an interesting concept. Basically, someone who has 99 rupees will want to earn one more rupee to make it a round 100, and that wanting a bit more to round it off neatly will keep the person on the grind. A bit like Tolstoy’s How much land does a man need.

After my father’s death, my mother began commenting on my being in the निन्यानबे का फेर trap very frequently.

Being told day in and day out that I was greedy because I was going off for a business meeting was bugging, to say the least. My mood would not improve when I returned home tired and found her standing there, hands on hips, face stern, talking about how greed can only result in fatigue and that I deserved this fatigue. She just wouldn’t understand that people worked because they must, and that there was also nothing wrong about earning money.

I did not think she would ever understand that money had to be earned for a living, but I did manage to tell her a story about greed and duty, and in spite of her (obvious in hindsight) early dementia, she understood the story so well she never brought up the word “greed” again.

This is what I did. My mother was talking about the family doctor and how she’d like him to visit for some problem, and I asked her if she thought he was a dutiful son. (The doctor’s family lived in our neighborhood). My mother nodded. I then asked her whether the doctor shouldn’t be spending more time with his mother, and Mom nodded. I then pointed out that in such a case, he may stop practicing because he wanted to be a dutiful son. He may therefore not make the house-call she wanted.

“How can he do that!” my mother said. “He’s a doctor. It is his duty to come.”

“Maybe he is not greedy for money,” I said.

“But he’s a doctor!”

“He’s also a son,” I pointed out. “He has a duty to give his mother company, and he may not be greedy enough for this निन्यानबे का फेर.”

“No, no, that does not apply to doctors.”

“Okay, so what about the chemist? Do you think he’s greedy to run a shop? You know these shopkeepers, always wanting money and profits instead of doing seva for their parents…”

“People just can’t stop working just like that to sit with their mothers,” she said. “What will we do then?”

“It’s the same for me,” I said. “The work I do is important and I can’t just stop it.”

She started laughing. “The work you do is not important. All you do is sit at your computer all day. That’s not real work. Doctors and hospitals must continue to work.”

Okay, so real work was hard labor, farming, and so on.

“What about people who work in offices and banks? Are they greedy? Shouldn’t they give up work and do seva for their parents instead? I’m sure many of them have old parents who want company.”

“Maybe,” said my mother, but I could see she was getting uncomfortable.

“And school teachers can also stop teaching and focus on their own children instead,” I said, pushing for the advantage (my mother had often complained that I was not spending enough time with my son).

“Maybe,” she said.

“And of course, there’s our milkman, and you know his mother does not keep well,” I asked. “He should he stop being greedy and supplying us milk.”

“Yes, someone else can do it,” she said, though she did not look confident.

“I don’t know about that. Everyone has parents or other elders in the family. I’m not sure we can find someone who doesn’t have any duty to his or her elders…”

I let the conversation stop there, giving it time to percolate, and I hinted at this once again after a few days.

Given that she was already facing cognitive impairment, the fact that she stopped her निन्यानबे का फेर complaint after this was quite a remarkable transformation 🙂 (She did continue to complain I was not spending enough time with her, mainly because she would forget that I had spent time with her).

I remember this story sometimes when I encounter persons who assume that family members should naturally surrender their careers if there is an elder at home who needs help, especially if that family member is a female (howsoever well qualified and expert she is in her professional field) and the family is not downright poor.

I have tried, on occasion, to make people imagine a world where everyone gives up their career to take care of an elder at home out of love and respect for the fact that this elder was the one who brought them up. No doctors, no surgeons, no medicines. Empty emergency room, and anyway the ambulance driver is at home, looking after his uncle. We suddenly realize that even sabjiwalas have parents, and so does the bai who cleans the vessels and the tuition teacher who is helping the grandchildren prepare for the CA exam. Even Prime Ministers, policemen, judges and telephone linesmen have elderly relatives or spouses. And we don’t want them to be so greedy as to continue a career when they could be at home holding the hands of an ailing spouse. We want our country led by people with better values, don’t we? Only, which house will we be living in? Even building contractors and architects have parents.

There’s a limit to how much the world can function just based on work done by orphans, you know 🙂

Or perhaps we should accept that duty comes in multiple shades, and our parents are not the only ones we have a duty towards. We have a duty towards many other things, including our chosen professions.

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About Swapna Kishore
I'm a writer, blogger, and resource person for dementia/ caregiving in India, and deeply concerned about dementia care in India. On this blog I share my own caregiving journey, my experiences as a resource person for dementia care, and musings on life, aging, dementia in India, and such sundries. More about me and the work I do for dementia care in this set of pages: https://swapnawrites.wordpress.com/about-contact/

4 Responses to Of Mom, and a story about dutiful worlds

  1. You write well Swapna and from the heart.


  2. austere says:

    I will not tell you how many times I have pressurised myself along similar lines.
    yes, I am strange.

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