Godhūlikāla: A Visual Documentation of India’s Forgotten Elders is an ongoing project and the result of two month’s travel around Northern India in 2014. I interviewed and met with many elders in an attempt to document this phenomenon. My portraits of the older generations who have suffered from this abuse or health issues and poverty are accompanied by interviews. In my search for such cases, I also found family units with stories of strong traditional Indian values. This resulted in a contrasting vision of old and new family traditions and values that are changing rapidly.
“Such elders are forced to tolerate the abuse for the sake of ‘family honour’, or live on the street or, if they are fortunate, enter a ‘poor house’ or ‘old people’s home’. At one village, the local residents led me to a government-run home for the aged. The conditions there were appallingly dirty, people could not get to toilets and the hallways were pitch black, without lighting. Some residents were angry telling me they were living with mentally ill adults and how they shouldn’t be living together in the same establishment. The management’s response to this resident was “he is crazy and shouldn’t be listened to”. 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.”
“The title of this project 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 too are these members of their communities in the twilight or evening of their own lives.”
I did, however, succeed in interviewing some of the inmates and record some of their heart rending stories both in still photographs and video clips. At one point a disabled old lady grabbed hold of me and wept, “Take me away from here!” I learnt from interviewing her that she had endured many years of abuse at the hands of her own son who would lock her up in the cow shed along with the cows and pass food to her through the window. I met elders who are unable to afford healthcare and suffering immensely as a result. In many cases they have children who are employed but the money they make is not enough for them to help their elders. As a consequence they resort to neglecting them. Many elders who live in government care homes are idle and unemployed. Lacking hope and a clear purpose in life, they are severely depressed. One such elder, Kenemlam, told me his wife had left him after his leg was amputated, “She did it when she knew I was unable to move and I 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.”
Brijal,75 lives with his wife Nadtu Devi, 73. They told me they are struggling to afford the medicine Brijal 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 family do not care about us. One son is too busy to help us. They don’t care.”
“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 of HelpAge India in the report Beaten in Mind, Body and Spirit