Showing extraordinary respect to elders always has been something strange for me. I respect people, when I like to and when I think that they deserve it. Due to their deeds. Not because they owe any status by birth as in nationality, caste or family. But slowly I understand the meaning of paying respect based on age.
The hundret years old Indian Woman
Slowly she pushes one feet forward, then the next. Scuff, Scuff, Clock. Two little steps and one with the stick. She pulls herself step by step to her tiny stool in front of the metal bowl with its warming fire inside. It is a dire need in the cold of the winter. I want to strech out my hand to help her, but the others show me with gestures that there is no need. And so she squats down and creaks like an old ship, which defies the world's surges. Finally, her bum touches the tiny seat. It is hardly more than a little frame with a peace of cloth. There are proper chairs around the fire, but she doesn't need anything more. All her life she has lived with the minimal. Again she is groaning. Not because of the exhausting walk to the fireplace, and not because of the cold. It is all the baggage that she collected over the years. Many years. A groaning about life itself. She is a Dalit, an Untouchable, for more than 100 years.
Again, she is talking to herself. I do not understand the words and the others are also looking into the fire. Maybe they understand, maybe not, maybe it is just not interesing. Just I am curiously watching the old woman. The way she sits at the fire, deeply squating, both feet flat on the ground, which is still impossible for me. Every now and then, she puts her feet into the open flame. I almost want to stop her and advice her caution. But who am I to try to compare my experience with fire to the experience of a 100 year old Indian. Again she speaks, again the others watch the fire. I think she talks about everything and nothing, she sums up her whole story, all the baggage of her life in one simple moan. One does not need to understand the words, as the meaning is already clear.
Somehow it is sad. I wish I could seriously converse with the woman. I have tried it many times, but I did not understand the answer. Her voice is to scratchy, exploited from all those years and her language is older than I might become. But still, there is something haunting and a hint of urge in her voice. I have to struggle not to underestimate her. Her eyes, ears and also her mind are still keen. And why the hell should I do that? Underestimate an old woman or even sneer at her. Frequently I do it. Frequently, we do it! Often, people talk to old women like they talk to children. Hospitals and old-age homes are the best examples. "Yes, Mrs. Miller, surely we will do that. Everythings going to be fine. Don't worry, we'll care for you." Mrs. Miller, I will do that. But please do not get involved, because you wont understand anyways. You are too old. Children are to young to understand and elders are too old. Both are helpless and need support. That often makes us forget that old people have quite a record themselves. Usually a longer one than we have.
I am thinking of all the things, which this old lady must have gone through. Her collected experience is out of my imagination. I see it that way: My own spirits have just been quite in shape since about ten years and my synapses have created a quite reliable network since then. I have valid memories of maybe 20 years. And that already seems to be so much. But this old woman has four times more. I think I estimate myself smarter than her, but yet her experience is a treasure, which astonishes me. What more will I see and experience? A lifetime can be so long.
In earlier times, everything was Different?
At my grandma's last birthday, I participated in the old quirky circle of women from the neighborhood. We ate cake and had a little coffee-party. For the first time, I got myself into this situation, without thinking about communication problems. And I found out that these women were less quirky than expected. And that her thoughts were also not very backwards. I listened to nice words like: "No, leave me alone with the AfD (German right-wing populist's party). We had it before with Addi (Hitler). We don't need that bullshit again." My heart is flourishing.
In those conversations, I also realize that in earlier times, things were not as different as expected. These bunch of grandmas also flirted with boys, had affairs and preferred to buy their milk from the handsome farmer, even though he lived further away. While telling these stories, they even giggled like the girls they once were. I listened to these stories with the biggest curiosity, at no point I got bored. We laughed a lot and I think that I am not the only one to be happy that someone has so drastically lowered the average age of this coffee-party.
A Life full of Stories
So what could this old Indian woman possibly tell me. Where did she steal apples as a child? When did she do something prohibited for the first time? What were the jokes that she made with the other girls from the village? I hardly can imagine the life of an Indian woman and it is probably not the most priviledged one. Still I believe that that it does not consist completely of imprisonment and misery. The longer I live here and the more I become part of my host-family, the more little insights I get into the life of Indian women. I realize that the story of the suppressed Indian houswife is just a little chapter of a bigger book. Of course, there is structual suppression. But besides that, there is also power, joy, freedom and many little things that make a life worth living.
I wish so much, I could understand this old lady. I want to listen to her stories. Stories besides the misery, which definitely has been there. Stories about the evanescence of decades, regimes, culture and the life in the "modern world". What does this woman think is really important in life? What does she think about me asking stupid questions? I want to get to know all those unexpected things, because I know that she carries it with herself. But I can't. And yet, she has tought me something important. Just by her moaning and groaning she has showed me that there is something inside of her. A long life full of experience.
What does Respect mean?
Respect means recognition. Not blind obedience due to status, but status itself. I often find status out of place and dispensable. When it is inherited, for example. But respect for elders is right. It is hard-earned. By the duration of a life-time itself. That does not mean that I have to obey or agree with an old person just because of her age. I do not have to like her or him and I am free to disagree. But I show respect to the person. A recognition of a story behind the person, which is beyond that one of a helpless person. From a little smart-allek, who is still wet behind his ears. Even if I have a lot of experience, it is nothing compared to a whole, long life. In India, people touch the feet of elders as a sign of paying respect. I used to find it a little exaggarated. But now it seems less odd to me.