I don’t know what it is about old people – but I’ve always felt my heart stumble when I’ve seen a white haired man or woman out in the young world. I must’ve been all of six when I discovered this vulnerability of mine.
Our family of four had just flown into Delhi for our annual visit to India. Those were the days when Indian public service wasn’t streamlined. After waiting an hour in the immigration queue at the one immigration counter, (the other one being ‘closed, please use the next counter’ – only the words ‘please’ and 'the' are my addition) - the next queue for ‘Customs’ snaked halfway across the hall. We didn’t have anything to ‘declare’ but as travellers from Dubai we were swooped upon by Customs officials – because of course we must have something in there that we could pay some sort of tax on. It consistently bewildered the Customs people that we didn’t carry gold or alcohol on our bi-annual visits to the motherland. But I digress.
Exhausted with the journey (I was six! And Delhi airport had zero seating in those days) I stood quietly next to my little brother, watching, observing people ahead of us. (Unlike most kids, we tended to go silent when we were tired.)
We were almost at the counter when I turned back and spotted him. He was alone, about 6 feet tall in a faded white kurta and shalvar. He wore a white turban on his head that I now realise was more Afghani or Pakistani than Indian. He clutched at the one suitcase beside him and his body was lean and bony – a body made of hard labour in the merciless Dubai sun.
My heart stumbled.
So quickly, that a sob rose in my throat. I pulled at Mom’s dupatta and nodded towards the old man with my chin. “We have to help him, mamma.” I whispered. My mother – equally tired – half turned to look at the ‘him.’
I could see she’d understood what I meant, because I felt her heart stumble too.
She looked around for any possible travelmates or family the old man might have had. But there were none. I’d already figured that out.
The more I stared at the old man, the more my heart melted. His berry brown skin was weathered and he had that ‘helpless’ look of the ‘old in a new world.’ He did carry himself with dignity despite his dusty, chapped slipper-clad feet - but noticing those feet, made me shudder in sympathy.
Scrutinizing him with my child eyes, I felt his anxiety. Or perhaps it was my own. I looked at the hawk like Customs officials just ahead and then looked back at the old man. I knew – as surely as a six year old knows things – he was ready prey for them. They would talk down to him, they would chuck his stuff around - he would be humiliated.
I pulled on Dad’s arm and announced. ‘We’re helping the old gentleman.’ My Dad nodded, but the counter was looming close and I realised that we’d be out of the airport before the old man’s turn came.
Dad would probably have figured something out if I’d given him a chance – but I was desperate. My heart was crying and it spilled over into real tears. I began sobbing, embarrassingly loudly – just like that. I declared that I wouldn’t budge from that spot until Dad went over, brought the old man to the Customs counter, and helped him through before us. People turned, stared. I didn’t care. That old man was going to be beaten black and blue by those slimy officials and I wasn’t going to let that happen.
To Dad’s credit, he did exactly what I asked him to – not because I asked it, but because that’s the sort of man he is and the heart-stumbling syndrome I have is probably a genetic hand-me-down from him.
Every move that the old man made, made me sob even louder. The way he nodded in gratitude to Dad, the way he picked up his suitcase with ease, the way he patiently waited while Dad surrounded him with his protective presence. The way he waved to us and thanked us as he walked out the airport doors.
I cried for a long time after that – much to my brother’s perplexity. He held my hand in his tiny 5 year old one and said gently, ‘But its okay! We got him through! You can stop crying now.’ But I couldn’t.
When my heart stumbles, the tears don’t stop.
Today, when I’m driving and I see an old gentleman break into a tottering run to catch a bus that’s departing the bus stop, I feel the sob in my throat. Every day, I pass an old couple on my evening walk – the wife paralysed, and the husband holding her hand, helping her walk slowly - the tears spring to my eyes. Hell - when my 59 year old father takes an auto-rickshaw so that I can use the car (and be safe on Delhi streets), I am ridden with guilt and tenderness and a million other emotions that ridiculously overwork my heart.
These are the same people and their established traditions that we rebel against. I’m a big rebel, but my heart can’t deal with the fragility that surrounds the old. What strange conundrum is this – that we are born to break out of the boundaries of the previous generation, yet their vulnerable agedness holds our hearts ransom?
I still search for the balance between my need to grow and my desire to make the transition through human evolution as painless as possible for my elders. It’s a tough call – especially when things are changing in nanoseconds today. I’m not sure if the older generation actually realises the burden of responsibility upon us. We must grow – there is only one way we can move – and that is forward, breaking through more and more unseen fetters – yet, we must carry the wise old along with us – gently, compassionately.
I will never forget the old man at Delhi airport who got my heart stumbling in this direction. I doubt he’s alive, but he’s certainly left one little girl a little more loveful than she might’ve turned out if it weren’t for that chance encounter.