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    Volume 5 Issue 119 | November 10, 2006 |

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The Reality of Ageing

S D Khan

If I am to rely upon my memories of childhood, travelling in those days to "Bilat" was a matter only for the learned people who very boldly undertook to cross the seven seas to seek higher knowledge. Although to the Muslims it is a religious imperative to go even to China in pursuit of knowledge, but to the orthodox Hindus it has been a religious taboo to cross the seas! So, among the Muslims, though going abroad wasn't a bar by any religious sanction as such, it was a rare occasion because of lack of high education. They deigned to cross the seas only for performing pilgrimage. The Hindus on the other hand shunned entirely the crossing of seas. Only a very few reformed and western-minded Hindu families approved of overseas voyage. The word Bilat or Vilayet has a very strange connotation with the lives of our former British colonial rulers. The word Vilayet is a Turkish word meaning province or country home. Colonial English rulers living in India used to go home once a year on vacation. This annual trip of the English master to his native home was known to his 'Khansama' or cook as going to 'vilayet'. From then on, going to Britain or London by anyone came to be known as going to Vilayet or commonly, 'Bilat'. Thus, in the pre-partition days going abroad (mostly to Bilat or London) was limited among the very learned and the very rich only. The only purpose of overseas journey was for higher education.

There was no such thing as a 'pleasure-trip' to foreign countries in those days as now. Staying back abroad after attaining the desired higher education was never the aim of a student. His duty was to serve the country and its people. It was mostly the rich parents whose sons or daughters of extraordinary merit used to be sent abroad to fetch the highest degrees and who, upon return would open up their practice in their respective profession. Whether it was in the field of law, or medicine or engineering or even in the liberal arts, one who had acquired a higher foreign degree didn't have to worry about flourishing in one's own country. Competition was very rare in those days because only a handful of people had the opportunity to go for higher education and further study abroad. Parents were confident
that their wards would, after their studies abroad, return home and step in their particular career to live permanently with them. Thus at least three generations of a family would live under the same roof. After the partition, when India and Pakistan came into being, this practice continued but with a growing number of children of well-to-do families now going abroad for higher studies.

With the advance of time, during the sixties, there was a growing tendency among students to seek jobs in Europe and the UK in particular. The allure of a better life style and prosperity prompted meritorious students, on the one hand, to seek (legally) good jobs abroad and on the other, the dropouts, to sneak in as illegal immigrants and taking up illegal jobs for survival. From here began to appear the crack in our family monolith. Our social values came to be reassessed under new standards. Gone were the attractions of living with parents and family members in one's own homeland.

During the eighties, the magnetic pull of the petro-dollar in the Middle East, resulted in a huge overseas employment of skilled, semi-skilled and even unskilled labourers. This human export continued considerably up to the late nineties, bringing in great prosperity to our country as a whole and to numerous erstwhile poor families. As the country's population boom continued unabated, job opportunities within our country for the higher educated youth grew scantier. Employment opportunities in the ME too, having reached a saturation point, the search for jobs as well as higher (graduate and postgraduate) education now was focused on the USA mainly, and also on the UK and Europe. Students with bright academic records mostly got scholarships from various US universities for higher studies. Others with good academic results and coming from rich families secured admissions into American universities paying very high tuition fees. After completing, these young students took up internships, which at times gave them some scope for earning too.

All these stages of career building take up a considerable number of years and the student, meanwhile, even without knowing it becomes inextricably infatuated with the American way of life. He then becomes desperate to obtain permanent residency in the USA. This elusive charm works upon him like magic. Undergoing all odds and disregarding all hardships he stands his ground for as long as it may require to secure his immigration or the Green Card. It is a trial of supreme patience! Meanwhile back home, the ageing parents of such students grow older and older. In most cases such parents have two or three children only. The sons are all outside the country and the daughter, if any, is married and lives away. The old folks are thus left to themselves, their health failing with the advance of years. Looking after domestic chores and managing civil and tax matters gradually get beyond their ability. Now they are confronted with a strange dilemma! They are to choose between the option of continuing to live in their own country all by themselves or to shift their residence permanently to the foreign country where their children have taken new citizenship. A hard and harsh choice indeed.

The first option does not involve any new kind of undertaking. The second one requires the old parents to go through many tough and expensive procedures of immigration that last for several years. Once the parents decide, out of patriotism or by the desire to be laid to eternal rest in the homeland, the die is cast. They will be at the mercy of near relatives and friends if any. The last days and the final hours of their life will be very tragic. In case they suffer from any protracted illness, the torment is more harrowing. With no one to look after and do the nursing they will meet a very pitiful, uncared for end. Their children living in the remotest corners of the globe will hardly be able to disengage themselves from their jobs to attend to the ailing parents or even be present by their side when they will be breathing their last breath. But are those who have chosen to live with their children abroad, any better off? An old colleague of mine around 80, had decided to live with his sons in the US. This time when I visited my son in the US, I called him over the phone to inquire about his health. At the end of our conversation I enquired if he would like to be in Bangladesh for his last days. A very despairing sigh came out of him with the reply, "no brother, that won't be possible anymore...!" I understand, despite the desire to see the land of his birth before he dies and above all, to be laid to rest in his own motherland, his present state of health wasn't permitting him to fulfill these desires. He has meanwhile forfeited that opportunity. That is the ultimate price one, perhaps has to pay for a better fortune abroad.


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