I think it all starts when we are kids. We feel we are part of a larger community and therefore we don’t feel pressured to assert ourselves in the different stages of lives.
Priya Ramasubban, producer, writer and director and her kids
Priya Ramasubban is an Indian producer, writer and director. She has shot for National Geographic, Discovery and History Channel. Recently, she crowdfunded almost one hundred thousand dollars and then raised more investments to enter into the “boys club of filmmaking” with “Chuskit”, a movie winner of the Amnesty International Award at the last edition of Giffoni Film Festival, in Italy (www.chuskit.com). The movie tells the story of a young girl in a remote Himalayan village rendered paraplegic by an accident. Despite her tradition-bound grandfather and thanks to the help of her peers, the protagonist manages to fight for her dream of going to school.
Before our meeting, Priya had warned me: “I will change your perspective on aging”. I confess that not only she did it, but she also added the most unexpected piece to the puzzle.
Tell us about aging in India…
First of all, aging is not a number, it’s a matter of culture and I notice a lot of differences between aging in India and aging in the West. I come from southern of India, from Tamir Nadul and, for example, when we have dinner, the children and the elderly eat together before all the other family members. This demonstrates our “preference” for both ends of the life spectrum. Although older women are generally part of the group of women preparing and serving food, growing older is seen as a great thing, because it is accompanied by a series of privileges.
What type of advantages do aging women get?
Traditionally, people live in multigenerational and patrilineal joint families and an aging woman becomes the head of the house along with her husband or if she has no husband she is still seen as the nominal head of the household so the physical demands on her decrease and demands on her wisdom increase.
Since the woman’s body is not as objectified as in the West from the beginning, there is no pressure on the look and it is common, especially in the villages, to see older women wearing their sari without blouses and even going with their chest uncovered. The body is desexualized and it’s liberating.
How does this apply to your upbringing?
I grew up in a city context, I travelled a lot, I got in touch with many cultures. In my family, the attention has always been on intellectual quests and we are taught to strive to be the best, so I was not raised considering beauty as a goal. For instance, as a young girl I was an athlete and I felt the need to make my body stronger and I was not concerned with my beauty.
When I moved to the US, I noticed that women were putting themselves through a lot of pain - from waxing to wearing high heels - to look as good as they thought they felt they should. The culture in the West is very individualistic. Where I come from, we feel we are part of a larger community and therefore we don’t feel pressured to assert ourselves in the different stages of lives.
How would you describe your approach to aging?
I’m finding my forties very liberating. I haven’t had many restrictions growing up, my self-esteem has always been self-directed and linked to my goals. During my teens, I wanted to succeed in sports, then I began to think about my education more seriously. In my thirties, I focused on my career and earning capacity.
Now that I’m 46, I feel no pressure, I have my ambitions but I feel more independent. And ironically like the women of my region, I have stopped wearing a bra as I feel comfortable with my body and not concerned about what people think or view me as. I don’t see a difference between living and aging.
That’s a good point: in the West we tend to draw a line between these two….
To me, one of the most puzzling things about the West is when I hear mothers saying: “I look forward to the time when my kids will leave the house”. If I imagine my life twenty years from now, I picture myself living much of the year with my daughter and my son and traveling at other times. As I said, the Western culture is very individualistic, there’s a lot of pressure to become independent, whereas where I come from the accent is on relationships with extended family.
Maybe, the mothers who say so are dealing with all the madness of adolescent kids. How do you cope with this transition in your culture?
There are problems for parents everywhere when kids grow up...when they are teenagers, but generally speaking it’s not that radical where I come from. I can see it in my friends’ families: kids and parents are happier together, there is conflict but it doesn't generally lead to huge problems. There’s more of an ease to intergenerational relationships.
When I lived in the US and we were just married, my parents and in laws would come to visit and they spent as much even six months, each time they visited. We were living in a two bedroom apartment and it was ok. I had friends and colleagues who were freaking out at that idea and they could barely have their parents spend a weekend in their homes.
In my experience, parents can’t stop giving suggestions to their grown ups kids. So, I imagine that’s why there might be frictions when the kids grow up…
My parents give unsolicited advice but we feel that they are on our side and are using their wisdom to guide us. It’s really a close relationship and I can take or leave their advice. I think it all starts when we are kids. While I know there are dozens of books that teach how to make the children sleep through the night (and some go to the extreme of suggesting to leave the child alone to fall asleep), we co-sleep with our kids, the same way our parents did with us. The children perceive the parents as an extension of themselves. My husband and I co-sleep with our two kids. The kids will move to their own rooms whenever they like it.
What about the couple?
The children become an extension of the couple. We are less focused on the idea of 'romance' between the couple and more focussed as partners who share a family together.
I guess it’s because of Freud’s theories of the psychosexual development, but we are brought up with diametrically opposite views about the practice of co-sleeping. Don’t you think there might be problems growing up?
This behavior doesn’t traslate into dependance. I co-slept with my parents till I was 12 when I decided to move into a room with my sister who is four years older. I just don't see why this is a concept that is hard to grasp...as adults we love to have a warm bed to get into and have someone to cuddle next to even if it is not sexual. I and people in my culture got a lot of this warmth all through our childhood instead of being put to bed in a cold bed and left there to be by ourselves.
The result is that we are very close to our parents, they are the first ones we turn to for advice. Even now that my parents are aging and my mother is disabled, when I am with them I take care of her and my kids see that I sometimes feed her, I sometimes give her a bath. I do for her what she did for me when I was little or sick.
Do you think that the lack inter-independence amongst generation plays a part in the contemporary discrimination against aging?
I can't speak to something general like this. I can only say that in my case and in people from my culture I see that respect for the elderly is part of the culture. This is not to say that there are cases where this does not happen. It’s just that I have seen more more fulfilling intergenerational interdependent relationships where I come from.