Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Old age, new issues

The current debate on the ageing population of Singapore and elderly care is quite timely. Between 1980 and last year, the number of people aged above 65 more than doubled to 291,000 here. By 2020, their number will be 575,000.

This problem is not limited to Singapore. Look at some of the statistics. By 2050, there will be two billion elderly people in the world — compared with 600 million today.

Singapore, which in a way is banking on the growth of Asia's two biggest economies, China and India, also needs to take into account the profile of the ageing population in these two countries. China's ageing population is the largest in the world. China will have 174 million senior citizens aged over 60 in 2010, and the number will peak in 2030 when the national population hits 1.5 billion. Similarly, about 80 million Indians — more than the entire population of Britain — are over 60 at present. This figure is projected to touch 100 million by 2013 and 198 million by 2030.

What do these figures tell us about the future of Asia? And how are these countries dealing with it?

Old age was never a problem in India. Old people always commanded respect in Indian society. Old-age homes were alien concepts and elder abuse was considered a Western problem.

Not any more. Over the years, as life expectancy increased from 41 years in 1951 to 64 years today, and after more than 1,000 old-age homes sprang up in India, neglect of parents has become an issue, so much so that the Indian government is considering making it a legal obligation for children to take care of their aged parents.

Unlike Singapore, most of India's senior citizens do not have any social security. Over 40 per cent of them live below the poverty line. On top of that, India does not offer any healthcare support system for the aged.

Add to that the sudden rise of the 300-million-strong post-liberalisation middle class. It has compounded the problem, as young people get uprooted from villages and small towns to the gleaming industrial parts of the metros, aided by an increasingly prevalent consumerist value system, lack of space in urban homes, the rise of the nuclear family and the rising cost of living in cities.

Neglect and financial and health insecurity are only a part of senior citizens' problems. Another, less talked-about, aspect is aged parents abused mentally and physically by their children. Since such abuse is not well defined in Indian society, they are hardly reported. In Mumbai alone, according to a newspaper report, there were 192 crimes against senior citizens in 2002, many resulting in death. That is, one suspects, just the tip of the iceberg.

The Indian government did not wake up to this new "old" reality until 1999 when it introduced the National Policy for Older persons. But many experts feel the policy failed to take off due to its lax implementation.

Realising the enormity of the problem, the Indian Government is considering a Parents and Senior Citizens (Welfare and Maintenance) Bill that will make it obligatory for children to care for their parents and grandparents, with a penalty to be paid if they default in their duties.

The Indian government is also planning to set up old-age homes for the destitute in each district, and will have beds reserved for them in district hospitals.

Likewise, China is also said to be creating welfare schemes for its soaring numbers of elderly.

For a country like India, Singapore is a good model, with its Maintenance of Parents Act and a Tripartite Committee on Employability of Older Workers, along with its four pillars of social security.

Some argue that legislation will not work especially in a country like India where the rule of law is not as strong as it is in Singapore. Legislation may not eliminate the problem, but is surely a major part of the solution.

As the number of "Dinks" (families with double income, no kids) rises in today's globalised economies, there is a need to create more social awareness about this problem. The Singapore debate on the elderly, therefore, becomes important as whatever steps Singapore takes in this regard will be keenly watched, and even emulated, by other Asian countries.

Singapore, too, will have to watch the Asian senior citizens scene as their ranks will swell to 705 million by 2025, fuelling a multi-billion-dollar boom in businesses catering to the elderly, such as healthcare, travel, leisure, learning and assistive technology.


Friday, March 09, 2007

In Pursuit of Happiness

Today I want to talk about a few films that I've seen in the past few weeks and months. In fact, I have been wanting to write on these movies, right after watching them, so that the immediacy of the impact could be captured which tends to get dimmer with the passage of time. I guess everyone expriences this diminishing effect. And for a person like me, until I have poured it all out, the residues of the remembered images keep blocking the arteries of my fresh observation. So, let me put out some of these embers of memory, these flashes of images, these bits of sound for good.

Interestinly, all the main characters in the films I'm going to talk about are mainly pursuing happiness and the conflict arises out of the challenging circumstances that come in the way of their pursuit.

In Babel, for example, Richard and Susan (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) are holidaying in Morocco, hoping to revitalise their relationship, when it all turns into a tragic experience. Their Mexican maid, back in the US, defying her employer's order, goes to her son's wedding in Mexico, triggering a sequence of heart-rendering events. In Japan, a deaf-mute girl looks for bodily pleasure but to no avail, turning the human basic instinct into a wail for a human being's basic right to happiness.

In Hannibal Rising, Hannibal seeks happiness by avenging his sister's killers, by seeking to exorcise the ghosts of his haunting memories, that might help him overcome the guilt of not being able to save his sister.

In The Pursuit of Happyness, Chris (Will Smith) struggles to achieve happiness by winning over his dehumanising poverty. In Guru, Guru (Abhishek Bachchan) is pursuing happiness by creating wealth, and in the process, clashing with the establishment.

In Rocky Balboa, Rocky (Stallone) wants happiness of heart and soul by redeeming his lost honor, in his own memory, and in the memory of his dead wife, and when the authorities refuse to give him a boxing licence, he invokes the principle of pursuit of happiness, guaranteed in the American Bill of Rights.

But happiness often comes with a twist. That's why it's spelled as "Happyness" in the Will Smith movie. We will see how happiness has a twisted tail.

I will start with Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel. I watched it before the Oscars and so was quite aroused by the media buzz surrounding this film, especially focussing on Brad Pitt's acting. Initially, I was a little apprehensive about the film packaging several stories together, which has been done so many times now, so much so that even in Bollywood, filmmakers like Ram Gopal Varma (Darna Mana Hai) and Mani Ratnam (Yuva, apparently inspired by Gonzalez's Amores perros) have done it in recent years. Even last year's Oscar winner Crash had a multiple narrative structure.

I will not go into the details of the movie here. Through its stories, connecting the strands to emphasize globalism, one thing leading to another, affecting lives across borders, the film seemed to make a grave point: neglecting the voice of the weak can have disastrous consquences, and sometimes, innocent and reckless acts can blow into humungous problems. That's why when the Mexican maid Amelia (Adriana Barraza) is denied permission to attend her son's wedding, she takes matters into her own hands, setting loose a sequences of terrible events leading to her own deportation from a carefully built life in America. That' why Cheiko (played by Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi) takes off all her clothes before a stranger when no one hears the cries of her body. I agree that Brad Pitt has given a restrained performance, full of grace and maturity, but I guess Rinko leaves the strongest impact with her deaf mute character.

There are a few points in the narative that baffled me in terms of their relevance. For example, wWhat was the point of showing the incest angle for the Moroccan boy in Babel? What was the point of showing him masturbate before the shooting sequence? Was it to point out his machoness, a boy trying to become a man, handling of his manhood as a precursor to handling a gun? Or was it to signify a point of sexual potency (for the boy who shoots from a gun) to a counterpoint of sexual deprivation (for the Japanese girl whose father's gun is used to shoot those bullets)? And why does Santiago (Gael García Bernal) is never discussed again? What happens to him? Does he escape from the police or does he die?

The same issue of incest also intrigued me in Hannibal Rising. When Hannibal reaches France and begins to live with his aunt (Gong Li), who teaches her oriental fighting techniques, he begins to fall for her. The first crime he commits there is related to his aunt, and after kiling the butcher who had made sexual and racist remarks against his aunt, he calls it a crime of passion. I didn't see the point of this incest theme here. Do violence and incest go together? Or was it to justfy the first crime by Hannibal, giving him an immediate motive--the birth of passion along side the birth of violent tendencies in a young man.

Now coming to The Pursuit of Happyness and Guru, I found a lot of similarities between these two different films. You might say comparing these two films is pointless, I will say, let me do it. I have a point here.
Both these films are about men who want to succeed in life, break through their ranks of poverty, and make tons of money. In a way, both the films, despite a similarity in their theme, reflect the two different milieus they belong to. In The Pursuit of Happyness, the story of a man's struggle in an individualistic society, shows no back story of the main character. As he wakes up one day, we enter his life. All his struggles are personal. Like Guru, he also sometimes crosses the limits of law (not paying the cabbie, jumping the gantries in the metro, sleeping in metro public toilets, minor crimes) but these are foibles born out of his poverty. What redeems his character is the love for his son. That relationship adds another dimension to this movie, which is so endearing.

Guru starts in a much better way. Guru remembers his father telling him not to see dreams. But he did and he made them come true. From the opening scene, we know the daemonic trigger behind Guru's character and what is it that pushes him. His nature to defy authority, be it a father figure or the establishment, is established from this first scene. Guru is a powerful film; only its songs and dances interrupt the vivid and continuous dream weaved by Ratnam.

Coming to the last movie, Rocky Balboa, I loved it for its simplicity, and how cleverly Stallone has weaved together characters that the studios favour most: retired old men, unemployed people, a middle aged lady, Mexican workers, two young boys, and even a pet dog. It is a perfect cast of characters. The movie has a beautiful pace, not too slow not too fast. It is a typical feel good movie, and a fitting end to a series.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Novel writing and the Myth of Sisyphus

Two novels that I'm looking forward to read are Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Amitava Kumar's Home Products.

Professor Kumar, who is soon going to start his book promoting pilgrimage to Delhi and Bombay, has already set the ball (talking about the creative process behind his first novel) rolling with his article in The Hindu, How to Write a Novel.

Being an accomplished writer of creative non-fiction, his take on his own struggles, both internal and external, in the process of writing his novel is extremely instructive and entertaining. Entertaining because that is his art. But the piece is not just about how he came to write the novel but also how unfinished the work seemed to him each time he made an attempt to change things, to improve things:

For the next few months, I didn't write anything new. And then I returned to write two quick drafts by the following summer. It must have been around this time that I pasted in my journal a portion of a review by James Wood: the critic had narrated a story by Chekhov about an actress, Katya, who has discovered that she has no talent. She asks an older family friend for help and advice: "Tell me, what am I to do?" The man tells her he doesn't know what to do. And then, he says at last, "Let us have lunch, Katya."

Beneath the pasted note, I have made a note about endings, and how one shouldn't insist on "closure". But isn't it probable that my eye had snagged on the heroine's confession of failure at the only thing she most wants to do?

And yet, I remember being happy every time I wrote a new draft. Each time I would think that the job had been done. But it wasn't. It would never be. It is possible I wouldn't have been able to write the book if I had known this from the beginning. My diligent editor cut out more than twenty thousand words; in the months that followed, I wrote new opening and closing chapters. I felt that things were coming together nicely.

But another year would pass, and I'd go through half a dozen more drafts, before the editor and I were happy with what we had. I had never worked harder on a book before, and still a book as a finished object remains an elusive thing for me. Full of mystery and beauty, and the result of extraordinary luck.

A book as a finished object remains an elusive thing for me, he says. That is very honest, and that reminds me of the myth of Sisyphus, which for Camus, through his philosophical essay of the same title, represented man's futile search for meaning, unity and clarity in the face of an unintelligible world. Can't the situation of the absurdity of a writer's struggles be seen akin to the situation of Sisyphus, "a figure of Greek mythology who was condemned to forever repeat the same meaningless task of pushing a rock up a mountain, only to see it roll down again."

Professor Kumar describes how he had to rewrite and rewrite and redraft the manuscript over and over again. Hard work. So did Kiran Desai and Vikram Chandra. Each took seven years to finish their second novel.

Perhaps Prof Kumar is right when he says that each book is "the result of extraordinary luck". But what is most honorable in a writer is the struggle, the toil, he puts in to achieve that thing of beauty. In his essay's conclusion, Camus said: "The struggle itself is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy." I imagine all writers happy, including Kiran, Vikram and Kumar, practising their craft day after day, in their studies, in hotel rooms, in cafes, in libraries, and wherever else.