Godhūlikāla: India’s Forgotten Elders

Photographer Carly Clarke spent months documenting how a nation views its elderly in Northern India.

Children are turning abusers. Elder abandonment and neglect in India…is a subject often pushed under the carpet. Most elders become silent sufferers and don’t talk about it, as it becomes a matter of family honour for them, due to fear of retaliation. The problem needs to be dealt with at its root. The degeneration of our value system has heightened this problem.
Mathew Cherian, CEO HelpAge India.

The title of this project “Godhūlikāla”, in the ancient Sanskrit language, directly translates as ‘cow dust time’, referring to twilight or evening time when cows returning from a day’s grazing would cause a cloud of dust to rise up from the ground; so are these elderly members of their communities in the twilight of their lives.

I set out to investigate this distressing trend of abandonment and abuse over the course of several months and travelled through many villages in northern India. Not all of the stories in my project relate to elder abuse or abandonment. In my search for such cases, many of the people who I spoke to and photographed were positive cases where elders were being supported by their children and families but who were suffering with illness and poverty issues. The project widened as a result of these contrasting stories and became more about how societies treat their elderly members in a place where healthcare is not free. It is also part of a wider study into understanding how caring for elders is changing in India as a result of society becoming more westernized, and moving away from the traditional way of life.

Some of what I found was extremely alarming. Stories of elders being ill-treated at home or turned out by their children were numerous. Such elders are forced to tolerate abuse for the sake of ‘family honour’ and live on the street or, if they are fortunate, enter a ‘poor house’ or ‘old people’s home’. Many elders who live in government care homes are without activities or purpose in their lives and become severely depressed. At one village, the local residents led me to a government-run home for the aged. The conditions there were appalling. Sadly, instead of seeking to remedy the situation in that home, it appears that vested interests with a stake in maintaining the status quo had managed to conceal it. I did, however, succeed in interviewing some of the residents and record some of their heart-rending stories both in still photographs and video clips.

My preliminary research indicates that abuse and neglect of the elderly in India is a phenomenon that is, sadly, widespread across the nation. According to HelpAge India, the premier elder rights advocate in the country, 50% of elderly people experience abuse from their own children in some form during their lives. Of these, 52% are women and 48% are men.

I wanted to investigate this pernicious practice and, by documenting victims’ stories, shed more light on the inherent causes with the aim of initiating a discussion, creating awareness, bringing about change and helping those who need help the most. I want to show that those elders who are victims of abuse or abandonment are not being given adequate support. As a result of their situations they are falling into depression and living the final years of their lives unhappy, unhealthy, and lonely.

The issue of elder abuse and abandonment was first brought to my attention by my friend Siddhartha Krishna, a Hindu monk and teacher at Omkarananda Ashram. One afternoon whilst I was visiting him and his father in Rishikesh, he told me about the abandoned elderly. He said he had witnessed elderly people dying by the river Ganges, while citizens and even family members turned a blind eye. I was horrified to hear about this and started researching online. This resulted in discussions with like-minded people such as Gautam Trivedi, an architect, artist and teacher with experience of care-giving. He knew a great deal about the subject and pointed me in the direction of the NGO HelpAge India who were helpful with my initial research. I asked Gautam as an Indian citizen what he thinks needs to happen in order for the government to wake up and take care of India’s elders:

“There is some awareness in the Government about the seriousness of the issue and the need to help elders rebuild their lives, take charge of their own future, restore self worth and confidence. Lawmakers have brought in experts such as HelpAge and others to help frame laws and policies such as the National Policy on Older Persons and the Maintenance & Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act (2007). Work in the pipeline includes the addition of age care to the school curriculum, provision of old age pensions (some states have introduced this scheme but it is not adequate), reverse mortgage scheme and setting up a helpline for distress calls (HelpAge has a helpline operational). More needs to be done, however, and I am not sure the Government alone can handle this problem. It is not exactly a top priority for the Government and the same holds true for the people. Also I think the Government and its bureaucracy tend to act as stumbling blocks rather than facilitators, with the result that citizens who do want to take action hesitate to do so. The entire nation needs to wake up and do some serious introspection about the direction we are heading in. That is where creative, compassionate and concerned people such as you, Siddharthaji and others can help by increasing awareness and provoking more discussion.”

In India, it seemed to me that older people are now seen more as an impediment to their children’s and grandchildren’s enjoyment of life, rather than a repository of wisdom and life experience which should be revered. However, if they own land they can also be seen as a resource. I recently heard a very interesting programme ‘Crossing Continents: India’s Living Dead’ on BBC Radio 4, regarding people in India who had been declared dead by their own family to release property and money. The Kafka-esque nature of some Indian bureaucracy meant that by the time the victims had proved they were still alive, all of the value in their property had been spent. There is a wider point to all of this and it is that a social media obsessed society places a very low value on old age and the elderly.

Lambra Devi and grandchild Lambra Devi, 100, was born in 1912 and she sits outside with her great, great grandchild of two years old. She has spent her entire life in Zia village where she continues to live now. She married young and then lost her husband, Rupi Ram very young as well. She used to be a local traditional singer as part of the Ghaddi tribe. She is an expert hiker and trekker of the Himalayan region, like many others in the area. She lives with her son and daughter-in-law and their two year old son. She told me how food used to be used as a medicine instead of drugs and how all diseases and problems were treated to aid recovery with healthy foods and plants. She told me she doesn’t want anybody’s help because she is content with her life and has everything that she needs. 

Gujaro Devi Gujaro Devi, 87, lived with her adult son who recently died unexpectedly. Now Gujaro is looking after her son’s two children. Gujaro’s husband had a good government job so she receives a widow’s pension ‘But it’s still not enough’ she said ‘Especially since now my son is not here to provide’.

Nikki Devi and Nukul Nukul, 66, and his wife Nikki, 55, live together on their farm and their daughter in-law lives with them. Nukul is unwell a lot of the time as for the past 13 or so years he has been suffering with severe back pain, a serious hand injury and severe depression which has left him mostly disabled and at home. As a result, he barely works and therefore Nikki does a lot of hard work in the rice fields to provide for them both, as this is the only income they have. He does receive a pension of 500 rupees per month but he emphasised that it is not enough. He cannot afford to get medical treatment for his hand from his accident and it is now infected. He also talked about needing relief for his severe pain which he also cannot afford. I asked him if he thinks the government should be doing more to help and he said ‘Yes of course!’ When I asked him what would be a reasonable amount from the government to help poor families he said ‘At least 5,000 rupees per month. If somebody could help it would be great but we have nothing like that here in this village’.

Bhagwan Das Bhagwan lives with his wife in a remote part of the Himalayas. He told me he gets no pension at all and he has applied twice but his application was not approved. He told me he doesn’t know the reason for this because he is very poor – ‘I am disappointed because my son is working very far from here, but he is not getting a good salary at all. I think the welfare office is stopping me from getting my pension because they believe my son is helping me. How can he? He has his own family to support and look after’. As a result of this, his wife works in the rice fields, and although he is unable to work, he looks after their cows.

Brickmo Devi Brickmo Devi, 80, has a son and a daughter, who are both married, and three grandchildren, one of whom she lives with after her husband died a few years ago. Many children in her village like her because she has a good personality and is fun to be around. She informs me that her son is providing for his family and helps her too. He works in a hard labour job but has to in order to afford to pay for his children’s education. She told me she loves to make blankets from wool and said ‘being happy is the best thing because once you leave this world it’s the only thing you can take with you’. I asked the children why they love to spend so much time with her and they said she’s never angry with them, she plays with them and has a positive energy.

Brijlal Brijlal, 75, lives with his wife Nadtu Devi, 73. They told me they are struggling to afford the medicine that Brijlal needs and that their family had abandoned them. He said he needs an operation for a kidney problem and a stomach ulcer but they cannot afford it. ‘My wife is the only one working, she supports us’ he said. ‘Our families do not care about us. One son is too busy to help us. They don’t care.’

Ratto Devi Ratto is 65 and she is still working but is limited to working about 100 days per year on the days when she is not taking care of Mankhu. She receives about 100 rupees per day for her work. She even has difficulty looking after herself because of the time she spends looking after her husband. He receives a pension of 500 rupees per month but otherwise has no other income.

Mankhu Mankhu, 75, has health issues such as arthritis in both of his hands and his feet, which stops him walking properly. He lives with his wife. They said that although there is treatment for the arthritis, they can’t afford it so he just has to suffer with it and has suffered with it now for about 30 years. When I asked them if they think the government could do more to help they said ‘I think they should. If somebody could help us it would be very, very good for us’. They then asked me if I have any medicines for them.

Hari Ram, Bimlo and Indu Hari Ram is the husband of Rukamani and the father of Bimlo and Indu. They are a family struggling for money as there are a total of eight people living together and one of their daughters (Bimlo) has polio and is handicapped which brings many difficulties. They rely on local labour work to keep the money coming in as they are not quite old enough to receive pensions yet. 
Gita Devi Gita Devi, 96, is known to be the oldest person in the village and despite her age, suffers with very few health problems other than the usual aches and pains. She lives with her son Ashok and does not work anymore having retired from farming about ten years ago. Her son looks after her and they have a very good relationship. He has a business in the village selling binoculars, mostly for tourists visiting the area for trekking and hiking in the mountains.

Ivy Phewali Ivy Phewali is in her 70’s and she grew up in central India. She has a son Irvin Watson, who lives in Florida and a daughter Anne Lyn, who is living in Dubai. She is planning to move there soon to be with her daughter but is awaiting paperwork. She went to a convent school in her younger years and her mother taught her English. She loves the English language and poetry and writes about the seasons and will soon have some of her poetry published in Delhi. She grew up a protestant and is now a Jehovah’s Witness. She told me, ‘I have a happy heart and I believe we should be good and faithful to all we meet in life’.

Chanchonto Devi Chanchonto Devi begged me to take her away from the government home where she lives in Northern India. She told me that when her husband died, she had to go and live with her son and daughter-in-law. ‘They locked me up outside in the cow shed for a long time and fed me through the window’. Chanchonto’s caregivers told me the police found her locked up in the shed when investigating her daughter-in-law’s alleged suicide. A death for which her son was later found guilty.

Gulabi Devi Gulabi, 70, is a widow who lives in a government-run care home. She had two sons and one daughter but they died. She was left with her two brothers but gets no help and has no communication with either of them now. After her husband died her husband’s family took her house, her land and everything that she had. She receives a government pension of 500 rupees per month and this is her only income. She suffers with some health problems so this isn’t enough to support her.

Hari Har Giri Hari Har Giri is in his fifties and is known as a ‘Babaji’. He works as a freelance journalist for a Hindu newspaper and he tells me ‘I don’t think about money, it is not my subject. When I run out, I look in my bag and think to myself, I just need a bit more money. Every day, it doesn’t matter what is the day or the month, I do my rituals’. He is not married and has no children or family. He is always meditating, practicing Japa Tapa and Sadhana techniques and trekking in the Himalayas. He started his baba life about 35 years ago. He was born in Kullu and studied in the Kullu area. I asked him why he decided to take on this way of life, ‘God connection… I am very happy to not have family life because it is a very difficult life’. He said ‘I spend most of my time meditating, feeling, listening and being still. Baba life is yogi. It is our job, it used to be free before, but now money is the exchange. Everything is yoga in life. It is yoga that you and I met right now. The connection we have with God is yoga’.

Koshlaya Devi Koshlaya lives on her own in a secluded area that is only accessible by trekking – you have to cross rivers and woodland to get to this part of the village. She is very happy being alone and loves to work a lot. She was a farmer in her younger years. She told me how much she loves her life. The local girls had dyed her hair with henna. She said she’s not bored with old age, she still likes to be fashionable and learn from the youngsters.
Kesari Devi Kesari is 83 years old and lives with her two sons who are both married. They are taking good care of her. One of them works in a labour job and the other in PWD. They are struggling but have no problems to supply food. She tells me about her husband who died about 4 years ago, who used to work in the slate mines but the government stopped that now. She wanted to tell me about the earthquake that happened in 1947. She said there were a lot of Muslim’s there who were sent to Pakistan. They were hidden in a temple nearby here she recalls while people’s houses and surroundings were falling down. 

Roshan Roshan, 79, told me he has one daughter who is married. He is a beggar and asks people for money and usually receives 1-2 rupees per person, which amounts to about 100 rupees per day. He walks miles to gather this money, sometimes as much as 25 kilometres per day. He told me it is usually the same people that help him every day.

Kenemlam Kenemlam, 68, told me his wife left him after his leg was amputated. ‘She did it when she knew I was unable to move and could not stop her from leaving me. She took everything with her including one kilogram of gold and silver. I have seen enough bad days in my life and now I am waiting for my death’. He lost his leg due to a bone infection in his knee, which turned to gangrene so he needed it to be removed. This happened 14 years ago, prior to this he worked mainly in construction.

Laxman Ram Laxman Ram is 60 years old and suffers from depression and has been taking medication for about 15 years now. From a young age he started smoking and drinking alcohol. Anil who is Laxman’s son believes the depression could possibly have developed from this problem. When he’s on medication he behaves better, but if not taking it then he doesn’t sleep well and can be quite aggressive. He’s not very good when he is drinking and when Anil was growing up he said it was quite a difficult time. He doesn’t eat properly, and small things hurt him emotionally, so sometimes people aren’t able to share things with him in case he reacts badly. He is very old fashioned and doesn’t watch TV, use the phone or even read newspapers. He is not a very happy person, but everybody tries to take care of him. He was a slate mine contractor before he became unwell. The sisters-in-law are really great; they run the house really well. Laxman is often kept separate from family involvement because his mind is very different now.

Punnu Ram Punnu is 80 years old and his wife, 65, live together and own some farm land for cultivation but they have no children, although his cousin’s grandsons visit regularly because they live close by. He was a soldier in the Indian Army in his younger years and retired about 35 years ago. He receives a pension of about 8,000 rupees per month. He told me he is fit and healthy and has a very happy life. He offered some advice on living a good life in India saying ‘Be busy with your work, don’t be a street boy, if you get health issues you can’t do anything or even work, so it’s important to always be active.’

Prem Chand and Ratto Devi Prem Chand is 85 years old and his wife Ratto Devi is 75 years old. They have three sons who live locally, one of whom is building his own home next door. They have farmland so they work in cultivation and have cows. Their sons help with the farm work. Prem Chand told me what makes him happy in life: ‘Lots of hard work, lots of working is the most important thing in life for us and others and avoiding bad company around me, such as people with addictions. I very much respect old people. I have a good timetable in life and stick to it”. Ratto told me about how they had an arranged marriage; they had not even seen each other before the wedding day. She told me it’s so different in the modern world because people get to know each other first.  She said “He has never had to cook for himself a day in his life!” They have a very happy marriage and family.


The photographer

Carly Clarke

Carly Clarke is a social documentary photographer. Her work mainly focuses on social and political issues that otherwise might go unnoticed. She primarily shoots with medium format film for long-term projects. Storytelling through the voices of people she photographs is key to her work.

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