Organizer and Chair: Pauline M. Kolenda, University of Houston
Discussant: Marty Chen, Harvard University
The studies reported here treat the aged in India, attempting to go beyond the familiar ideal of the elderly couple, served and cared for by a married son and his wife and children, a stereotype sometimes accepted even by social scientists as the dominant cultural and statistical pattern for India. A variety of approaches are taken in the papers-demographic, historical, cultural-psychological, discursive and symbolic-in order to widen our understanding of a stage of life as experienced by Indians in four different regions of India (Uttar Pradesh, Hyderabad, Tamilnadu and Bengal). Represented are old people who belong to three different religious communities (Hindu, Muslim, and Christian) and both high and low castes. A variety of kinds of evidence is utilized.
The Familial Body of Old Age and the Imagining of Colonial Modernity
Lawrence Cohen, University of California, Berkeley
This essay examines why figures of old women and to a lesser extent old men have been critical signs in local and national debates on crisis and stability in Indian society, focusing on three particular sites: a brief millenarian movement in 1865 near Varanasi, the anti-babu discourse of urban Calcuttan popular culture, and the representation of contemporary electoral politics in north India. To develop a set of analytic tools, the essay turns to the author's ethnographic work in contemporary Varanasi and specifically to the ways in which the body of an old person is engaged and his or her voice heard by others inside and outside the boundaries of a household. The idea of a "familial body" is developed, and used to link the micropolitics of households over time to the imagination of the community or nation as a body in crisis.
Aging, Past and Present, in an Indian Muslim Family
Sylvia Jane Vatuk, University of Illinois, Chicago
In the discourse generated by the current concern among demographers and social scientists in India and Pakistan about the social and economic consequences of the now rapid aging of their contemporary population, one sometimes loses sight of the fact that old people have always been a noticeable presence in Indian communities and families. The frequent quotation of extremely low life expectancies in pre-Independence South Asia supports the widespread impression that human life in the subcontinent was, for almost everyone, until very recently, "brutish and short." Therefore, what place could there be for an investigation of the history of old age in this part of the world?
In fact, of course, once past the dangers of infancy and early childhood, many South Asian men and women have lived into ripe old age. But we know little in detail about how they lived and what kinds of roles they played in their families and communities. Based on genealogical and biographical data from eight generations of an elite south Indian Muslim family living in Madras and Hyderabad, this paper will explore such questions, giving particular attention to gender and to factors of family demographics and household composition in accounting for variations in the aging experience in the past and in the present.
Old Age in a Low-Caste in Tamilnadu
Pauline M. Kolenda, University of Houston
Considered in this paper are the old people in a close-to-totally enumerated endogamous caste (jaadam), the Nattatti Nadars of southern Tamilnadu, part of the major Tamil caste-complex of Nadars. Originally low-caste "toddy-tappers" and cultivators of land, the jaadam now includes many people with middle-class occupations and higher education. The variety of arrangements made by and for old people are described.
Aging in a Net of Ties: Self and Gender in West Bengal
Sarah Lamb, Brandeis University
One of the principal themes in sociocultural studies of South Asia over the past several decades has been that of South Asian notions of what a "person" or "self" is. This work, however, has been largely age-frozen and non-gendered.
In this paper, I explore aging and gender as crucial dimensions of personhood in West Bengal, India. Drawing on case studies and life stories of women and men in a rural community, I look first at aging and self. The people I knew perceived a kind of tragedy in the life course: While the bodily-emotional ties making up persons are in general likely to increase in number and intensity as life goes on, it is also in later life when these same ties must be loosened, as part of preparing for the myriad leave-takings of death.
I next look at gender. Here I consider how if persons are thought to be constituted of networks of relations, then women are in a peculiar position because their connections are broken and then re-made over the life course, while men's ties are extended and enduring. This, it turns out, informs why the majority of Bengali women must live such peculiar lives as widows as the last phase of their lives.
The paper is based on research conducted during two and a half years spent in West Bengal, India, in 1985-86 and 1989-90.