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Preface This book uses aging as a lens to examine and reflect upon profound processes of social change under way in India and the world today. It focuses on older middle-class Indians and their communities in both India and the United States, concentrating on the proliferation of old age homes (a startlingly new phenomenon in India), the growing prevalence of living alone, and the transnational dispersal of families amidst global labor markets . Based on intensive ethnographic fieldwork in several U.S. and Indian cities extending over nearly fifteen years, the book investigates the unique and complex ways that older persons themselves are actively involved in the making and remaking of a society. The book’s epigraph comprises the final lines from “On the shore of endless worlds,” a prose poem of the beloved Bengali author and Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore, from his 1913 collection, Gitanjali, or “Song Offerings.” The poem depicts children meeting on “the seashore of endless worlds,” unaware that death is abroad in the vast deep as they frolic delightedly in the waves. Three of my older Bengali informants— one couple and one single man—invoked the poem to me when reflecting on how their children, and the Indian public at large, are frolicking exultantly in the new opportunities of the present, unaware of the angst and sacrifice involved in entering these new worlds. But the older couple was not so terribly pessimistic, offering that this is a beautiful poem, and that perhaps we all are delightedly playing on the shore. Here is the poem in Tagore’s own English translation: On the seashore of endless worlds children meet. The infinite sky is motionless overhead and the restless water is boisterous. On the seashore of endless worlds the children meet with shouts and dances. They build their houses with sand and they play with empty shells. With withered leaves they weave their boats and smilingly float them on the vast deep. Children have their play on the seashore of worlds. They know not how to swim, they know not how to cast nets. Pearl fishers dive for pearls, merchants sail in their ships, while children gather pebbles and scatter them again. They seek not for hidden treasures, they know not how to cast nets. The sea surges up with laughter and pale gleams the smile of the sea beach. Death-dealing waves sing meaningless ballads to the 1-LAMB_pages_i-132.indd 9 5/12/09 3:46:54 PM x Preface children, even as a mother while rocking her baby’s cradle. The sea plays with children, and pale gleams the smile of the sea beach. On the seashore of endless worlds children meet. Tempest roams in the pathless sky, ships get wrecked in the trackless water, death is abroad and children play. On the seashore of endless worlds is the great meeting of children. (Tagore 1913: poem #60, pp. 54–55) As poems do, this one has many possible meanings, and not all readers interpret it as I have here. One other interpretation I have heard Bengalis offer is that it is about how people are ignorant of God’s presence. Another is that human existence is inherently ephemeral (in contrast to the endlessness of the divine), although at the same time alluring and wonderful. The image of standing on the shore also brings to mind the experience of aging itself, as a life phase of many transitions. I have chosen the poem’s lines as an epigraph because they evoke several of the book’s core themes: the sense of being on the shore of unknown new worlds during a period of striking social change; the ephemerality of the human condition itself, which is highlighted (Bengalis say) in old age; and the paradoxical mixture of delight and angst, promise and sacrifice that many elder Indians, and their families and communities, experience as they negotiate the new social-cultural worlds of the present. One of my central arguments is that the significance of aging is not limited to the customary question of how to care for increasing numbers of dependent elderly as the world faces dramatic population maturation. Rather, beliefs and practices surrounding aging illuminate much broader social-cultural phenomena, including global cultural and economic flows; the relationship between persons, families, and states; the nature of gender ; and compelling moral visions of how best to live. Further, the book maintains that older persons are not best thought of as devoid of agency (as prevailing popular...


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