February 26, 2012

INDIA: Life for my new Grandma is hard

NEW DELHI / India Today / Columnists / February 26, 2012

By Palash Krishna Mehrotra

Leaving old people with a fulltime nurse is simply not enough
Almost two years ago, I wrote a column in this paper about living with my grandmother in Dehradun. I was working on my book The Butterfly Generation, and ensconced in my study twenty four seven. The only breaks I took were to have lunch and dinner with granny. Later, she would joke with the family that during that period she became my best friend, girlfriend and companion. It was a time which brought us closer to each other. I'd always been close to her; as a child I'd sneak into her quilt and curl up like a puppy, slip into dreamless sleep smelling in her coconut oil. As it turned out, that column was one of the more popular ones I wrote. For months afterwards, readers would send me messages on Facebook, telling me stories about their own grandmothers.

Then, this January, a few days after we celebrated her eighty-fifth birthday, she fell. Atul Gawande has written that falling is the biggest enemy of old age, the fall is what tips the scales in the end. When she fell in the veranda, I was upstairs writing to a deadline. She called me and told me that she had fallen, that I shouldn't bother, that whenever I was done, I should come down and see her.
I wasn't thinking very clearly, or rather, my mind was focussed completely on the job at hand-sending the piece to the editor by seven in the evening. Besides, there had been times when my grandmother would call me downstairs, claiming a medical emergency, but on rushing down I'd find her sitting in front of the TV, watching 'Balika Vadhu', happily nibbling on an orange. There was nothing wrong with her; all she wanted was some attention, someone to chat to, for she is an inveterate chatterbox. Sometimes, when there was no one around, no servants, no friends, I'd go downstairs to find her walking around the house, talking loudly to herself.
That day, I didn't go down till dinnertime. Meanwhile, she'd had the defining Gawande fall. She broke several bones but, more importantly, this was the fall that would break her spirit (she had fallen and broken her nose a few months earlier; she'd recovered from that, and joked that her Punjabi nose was too big anyway). I didn't go downstairs for more than two hours after she called. Guilt still haunts me.
The next few days were a blur. The first doctor we saw failed to diagnose the main fracture, which was her femur. As it progressively became difficult and painful for her to walk, one realised that the problem was deeper, and more serious. Her spirit was still intact. When her right knee gave way, she threatened the errant knee with dire consequences if it didn't behave: "Isko main dande maar ke utahungi." While undergoing surgery (under spinal anaesthesia) she joked nonstop with the doctors. She said they were like carpenters, hammering nails and plates into her body.
Two days earlier, when I'd gotten her admitted to hospital, the doctor had jabbered on with me. It was the only spell of comic relief in a very grim week. He recognised me from pictures in the local papers as a true Son of Doon. "So you're writer?" he asked, while bandaging her shattered ulna and radius. "Tell me why Indian writer not at level of American writer. See, I understand why we are not equal to them in sports. Our physique inferior to white man. Not our fault. So they better than us. But why so in writing?"
In my short career as a writer, I have answered several stupid questions, but this one took the cake. He gave his flunky instructions, then turned to me with a further insight: "My friend, doctor in Saharanpur. He breaking this Indian-American jinx. He written book about laparoscopy. Big hit in America. Selling more than laparoscopy books by American writer. You should meet him sometime. He can tell you how to make it big in USA."
As it turned out, Granny never fully recovered from her surgery. I realised how bad things were when I was rushing her around in an ambulance, getting tests done. The driver drove like a maniac on the twisting narrow streets of Dehradun. As the ambulance flew over potholes, she began to throw up, there was thick yellow lava spewing from her mouth - and, as I kept wiping it with the only rag available in the ambulance, it came home to me that she was in a serious condition. One also realised how terrible the infrastructure in our cities and towns is to deal with medical emergencies.
There is little connection with her now. She has the odd short-lived moment of lucidity but remains mute otherwise. The once fiercely independent woman is now completely dependent on rough semi-trained attendants and family members. I've seen my grandparents on my mother's side slip away as well. I'm not unfamiliar with the indignities of old age, the slow painful withering away of the human body and spirit. Except that in their case, the dying was a gradual process. One had time to get used to it. In my Dadi's case, it was sudden. One minute she was okay, doing her usual stuff-attending a satsang or a kitty party, going to the bank, making a nuisance of herself with the servants. The fall changed everything, reminding me of Joan Didion's lines about when her husband dies of a heart attack, while she's in the kitchen fixing dinner, about life changing in an instant.
With both sets of grandparents, I have seen the effect it has on the rest of the family. Old people need round-the-7 clock attention. Leaving them with a fulltime nurse is simply not enough. Sacrifices have to be made. One's life is pretty much on hold. There is little time to do anything else. There are arguments about how to share responsibility.
I also realised how fragile things are. Once she was down, the cook started to bitch about her. This I thought was in exceptionally bad taste. And because everyone was in hospital, and the house was left unsupervised with the servants, things began to disappear. It started with the apples and bananas, spreading soon to the cutlery and crockery and linen. Old loyal retainers had turned thieves in an instant. Human nature is brittle and self-serving. The veneer of civility vanished overnight; what one was left with was the familiar Indian feeling of being surrounded by cutthroat desperation.
Thoughts cross one's mind. Is euthanasia necessarily a bad thing? Sometimes the thoughts are counterintuitive: shouldn't one live fast and burn out rather than prolong one's life, only to die in agony? I haven't seen granny in over a month now.
The last thing she told me when she was lucid was to stay out of trouble and always be home by eleven. She tried to give me a Punjabi slap but failed because her hand was broken. She'd forgotten that. Nowadays, she lies propped up in bed, staring blankly at the TV. She can hobble a bit helped by two people and a walker. Her memory plays tricks on her. Sometimes she thinks she's a little girl, and asks where her mummy and daddy are. One doesn't know what the right answer to that question is.
- The writer's new book The Butterfly Generation has just been released.
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