Elderly Burdens?

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Invariably the elder brothers in most of the families contribute significantly in bringing up and educating the younger siblings besides expanding the family businesses. By the time youngsters grow up and earn, the elders are exhausted and uneconomic members of the family, sometimes at the cost of their own children. For helping younger siblings grow, some brave-hearts opted not to marry ever. But in most of the cases, they end up broke and neglected wrecks who curse their stars, reports Saima Bhat

A mother with her kids moving in a deserted Lal Chowk in early 2020. KL Image Bilal Bahadur

An alley within an alley leads to the double-storey house of Muzzafar Ahmad Malik, a banker, in Nowhatta, one of Kashmir’s medieval era capitals. Narrow and intertwined like the strands of the spider web, the lanes are busy with mourners walking down to condole the death of Muhammad Rajab Malik, Muzaffar’s 80-year-old father.

Rajab, an erstwhile famous businessman of the area, is survived by five children; three sons and two daughters. His wife, Fatima and one daughter, Sabina passed away in 2013 and 2016, respectively.

Once affluent, Rajab spent his last few years in utter helplessness. Among three sons, his only support was Muzaffar, the eldest one. The other two, Mujeeb Malik, 43, an engineer, and Murtaza Ahmad, 40, a doctor are living at two different places in Hyderpora. The two surviving daughters are married to two brothers and are living in Saudi Arabia.

The family of eight was living happily until the early 1990s. With the onset of militancy, Rajab had difficulty in managing his business. Many times, his family says he was kidnapped away both by militants and government forces. Living in volatile Nowhatta, he was easy prey for militants to seek shelter and donations, says Muzaffar and then, BSF used to come searching for militants. 

Finally, Rajab, one day suffered the stroke and was bedridden for many years. The family slipped into penury and Muzaffar, the only earning hand emerged as the support for the family. 

Appointed in 1986, Muzaffar took the mantle after his father became indisposed, while his siblings were in colleges or in schools. He did not let them feel the difficulties. Fulfilling the desires of his father to see his two sons as doctor and engineer, Muzaffar did not leave any stone unturned to ensure they get proper education and finally, one landed in GMC Srinagar and other in Regional Engineering College, Srinagar. Besides supporting his brothers, Muzaffar also had his hand over his sisters and ensured they post-graduate, at least.

Happy to see his siblings at better places, Muzaffar took a decision to avail consumption loan to purchase the property from his two uncles in the name of his father so they have space to live peacefully. With the addition of rooms, the family started to think about the marriages. And being the eldest in the family, Muzaffar was supposed to be the first to be married. But he preferred his two younger sisters over him. Within one year, he ensured his sisters are married and settled.

By the time his brothers started to earn, he and his third sister were married. The only criteria he had set for his marriage was not a working lady. The reason was to manage the home properly.

Within a few years, his brothers too were married, both had working partners – teachers. They were already on their well-settled career path.

As all the siblings had their own small families living jointly, their mother, Fatima, developed certain complications. It was 2010. The valley was face to face with summer unrest and Malik’s were seeking consultations from different doctors, one being at home. After a series of investigations were conducted, Fatima finally was diagnosed with acute renal failure.

Initially, it was a collective responsibility for all. With the passage of time, her daughters had their own homes to manage. Mujeeb and Murtaza citing the reason of old city being volatile and not favourable for the upbringing of their children decided to move and started living in uptown. They purchased land in Hyderpora, near to the place of their in-laws and started constructing their houses.

As their days were consumed in work and construction, Muzaffar had the responsibility of taking his mother for dialysis. He had to take privilege leave from the bank while his two daughters and son were also left unattended because of the circumstances. This continued for a couple of years and in November 2013, Fatima lost the battle of her life in SKIMS, Soura. Before her demise, Mujeeb and Murtaza had shifted to their new houses and came for mourning to Nowhatta.

After the completion of customary mourning of four days, everybody left.  Muzaffar joined his duties back; Rajab was recuperating from his ailment. The routine was resumed. 

There was a reunion on the 40th day of the deceased. It was Sunday. Before leaving, Murtaza and Mujeeb in front of their father asked Muzaffar to settle down the property issue and asked for their share. Agreed to their demand, what shocked Muzaffar was when the duo asked to divide the entire property without giving a thought about the huge loan he had availed to buy the rest of the property. “They insisted that the property was purchased when we were living jointly so it belongs to all of us,” says Muzaffar and laments “They did not think even once the money I spent on them and sisters.” 

Managing the brewing crisis, Muzaffar’s wife, Mumtaz, asked her husband to divide the property equally and in the next one month, Muzaffar had to take another loan to pay them off. However, the sisters did not ask for their share, knowing his contribution to their lives.

But before he could have settled again, there was another tragedy in store. Sabina, his third sister, married to a local shopkeeper was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Not able to manage the expenses of surgery and other medical treatment, her husband asked Muzaffar to help. He could not say no and was again on the forefront to help his sister, both with time and money. 

The battle did not last long. In 2016, a month after the killing of Burhan Wani, she passed away and was given a silent burial amid volatile situation and eighteen months after, his father too passed away in February 2018.

Muzaffar is back to his work. With only four years of service left, he has huge loan liability and his children are yet to take off in their careers. “Being the eldest and having an indisposed father, I had the responsibility of taking care of my siblings. I am happy. I did that,” he said. “What my brothers did, I leave it to their conscience.”

An unknown work of installation art depicting frustration.

In outskirts of Srinagar’s Rawalpora area, Mohammad Yousuf Bhat and Naseema are having a difficult time to manage their life. Starting from scratch again, the struggle of Younis dates back to the year 1976 when his mother passed away. Eldest among the seven siblings, six brothers, and one sister, Younis, then 20, decided to quit studies and help his siblings at home.

Despite a generous aunt, who used to cook for them, Younis had a tough time to manage the two youngest brothers, two years old and another just six months old. His only sister too left her studies and the duo started to manage the affairs of the home, while their father was out to work.

Their widowed father, Abdul Razak Bhat was suggested by his friends to remarry so that his new wife could manage their house but none of his children agreed. It continued for almost six years until Bhat found a different solution to their problems. He decided to marry Younis.

In 1982, Younis was married to Naseema. The bride within days understood the situation and started to give motherly love to all the siblings of Younis. With Naseema managing home, Younis joined his father.

Over the years Younis and Naseema gave birth to three children, one son, and two daughters. With most of the decisions taken by Naseema, the family lived happily. After a few years, Younis’s brother and sister were married as well. Till then the family was living in their ancestral house which after property distribution was given to Bhat’s other brother and the family started building the new house at the different place in the same area.

Once the house was built, Bhat decided to quit his work and stay home as Younis was doing well in running the affairs of the business. The family expenses were the responsibility of Younis and he did not seek any contribution from his other working brother, knowing that the family is living jointly.

Wherever the Bhat family had to invest, it was from Younis’s earnings: be it buying more land or investing more in business. Besides, it was his suggestion that his youngest two brothers should go to Bangalore to complete their studies, engineering and rest of the two graduated in Kashmir who joined businesses started by Younis. “It used to give me immense happiness to buy new land or start a new business and with all my sincerity I used to transfer the property deal on my father’s name.”

After a few more years, he married off all his siblings. Besides managing the lavish feasts on their marriage, he spent lakhs of rupees on buying jewellery and other related items. Each marriage of his sibling cost him around a million. “My father asked me once why I don’t ask my other brothers to bear the expenses but I remember replying him that it is getting saved for the whole family. Let me spend so that their earnings get saved for the future.” 

He did not relax until the moment he expanded his family business and ensured that every one of his brothers own a reasonable source of income. Once done with the mission, when he shifted his focus to his family, he found his own daughter reached marriageable age.  

As he decided to go for the marriage of his eldest daughter, the shock was nobody among his brothers was on his side to share the burden, essentially finances.

“I had the notion that I have five sons in five brothers, but did not know I am alone in my battle,” He said.

His other crisis was that at that time his business was running low and he had to borrow some money from his friends. And soon after the marriage, his brothers started accusing him of spending lavishly on his daughter’s marriage. 

Disappointed, Younis had one question for himself: “When the same brothers were happy to see their weddings going on lavishly, why they objected when I married my daughter modestly.”

With a few more confrontations, once a family of many people got estranged.  Not in favour of making things complex, Younis decided to move out.

Starting from ground zero again, he found it difficult to manage this time. “I am almost 60 now. I don’t have the strength to start it again. We had built a house when we were a joint family but it was not completed so with the permission of my father I shifted to this house,” Younis said with tears in his eyes. “I never asked the property I bought or built belongs to me only, even if only I brought up all of them but still my brothers have started accusing me of theft! They say the property was brought when the family was joint so they too own it equally but I never said I won’t give them their share. Right now, the whole property lies in dispute.”

In 2018, Younis is not feeling quite well. His increasing size of prostate and hypertension are giving him a tough time. His only priority has become to marry off his second daughter and it is giving him and his wife Naseema sleepless nights. He has a son as well but he is struggling to get a job.

A few kilometres away, Basharat Ahmad, 63, a retired teacher, is living his life all alone. With his life limited to one room and dependent on his pension, he has nobody to look after now. A few years ago he too had a big family including his mother, three brothers, and three sisters. 

In 1970 when Basharat’s father passed away, he became the de facto head of his family. With most of his expenses spent on the education of his siblings and daily needs, he barely managed to save money for building a new house.

Residents of Chattabal area, their house was an old structure shared by Basharat’s family and two of his uncles. “It took us around a decade to build a two-storey house. And it became possible only after I sought a loan from a bank,” he said. Any memory of those days still brings a smile on Basharat’s face. But then his eyes suddenly turn low when he reminds his present living. 

Basharat was a teacher himself and hence he knew the importance of education. This made him pressurise all his siblings to study up to postgraduate levels. Once done with their studies, all of his siblings got settled in the government sector and by that time they were of marriageable age. He first married off his sisters and then his brothers. In a thrust to keep his siblings up to date with the world, he forgot himself and did not marry. “When I was comparatively free I was around 45 years old and I couldn’t get a good match. So I decided to live the rest of my life serving my mother, who was by then quite weak.” And later, she passed away in 2005.  

Presently, Basharat’s other three brothers are living separately in the same house but he himself remains restricted to his one room only. “All of my sisters-in-law are nice, but once I am not around they talk bad. Their kids too visit me often.” He adds, “I have become a hindrance to my brothers whom I grew as my own children. Alas, there was a time when they used to say they will take my care in old age as a father and see how lone I have become.”

From his daily groceries to his medicines, he has to take care of himself. Even he has to cook for himself as well!

Octogenarian Abdul Salam Buch, a resident of Bemina says, elders have responsibilities as they are first in the family to earn, to see the world, to have the exposure. But Buch laments the elders are taken for granted.

“What would I tell you, I am the victim myself,” he said. Father of five, Buch feels almighty gave him enough to compensate for the losses he suffered due to his siblings.

“What is the option that you are earning and your younger brother or sister has needs to be fulfilled? How can you say no,” he asks. Though he did not divulge what his siblings had done to him, he insisted, “Almighty takes care of everything. Keep on doing good work.”

Kashmir’s almost every locality has witnessed instances in which the younger siblings turn away from extending any kind of support to the elders who brought them up and nurtured them.

The first crisis, Mehmood Ahmad says is when the elder brother gets married. A resident of Natipora and eldest in the family, he says, “When you get married and your wife is seen as the first foreign element. The younger ones are still bachelors and enjoy proximity with parents and relatives.” But he says the elder has to contribute financially.

Once the youngsters get married, by that time, Mehmood says elders already had almost spent the major portion of both age and money in stabilizing the home. But at last, everything is seen as “father’s property” and elders don’t have anything in hand.

Elder siblings father the family as the parents get into old age. Once the younger grow up, they usually see them as usurpers. Art Work: Kaisar A Malik

Seconding the views of Mehmood, his neighbour Suhail Ahmad says elders earn early and participate in different activities. This he says is the time when “younger ones are busy in studies.” But as they start earning, the family starts falling apart. “See I did everything for my family from constructing the house to sending parents for holy pilgrimage and managing marriages, but today my wife curses me for not having anything substantial in hand for our own kids.” She accuses me of “ruining her life and the future of our children.”

Raheem is a teacher who helped his family moved from a two-room inheritance to a 4-story home by working 18-hours a day in school and tuition shops. Later, he married three of his sisters – one of them twice, and a brother. One of the sisters was widowed and returned with a kid.

His wife was uncomfortable with the joint family and after a prolonged dispute was given two rooms to live separately. “The house will be now divided and I will get my share of maybe one room more,” Raheem said. “My crisis is that my kids are asking me – when will we have our own house? I am 54 already and I do not know how will I manage the second house for my family.”

The tragedy in Kashmir, especially in Srinagar is that while one home should have sufficed for at least two generations, every member is seeking “my own home”. For elders like Raheem, it is practically impossible to create a new home for his family after he gave his entire life to the family of his father.

 (All the names in the story have been changed to protect their identities.)

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