On common ground...

We need to connect — to listen, and to share, writes Swati Kakodkar
Last Updated 25 January 2020, 20:15 IST

Stories are the common ground that allow people to connect, despite all our defences and all our differences.” – Kate Forsyth

I see an elderly gentleman sitting by himself on the bench in the park. As I look to my left, another gentleman walks along. The two men look at each other. They don’t greet each other, they don’t talk. They perhaps, just manage a smile. This routine has been going on for the past several months as I have observed from my apartment balcony.

In everyday life in the city of Bengaluru, one can see several senior citizens like these, literally living in silos — most of them have migrated from their far-flung hometowns to Bengaluru to provide support to their children and grandchildren. They of course have a sense of security and comfort being with their families. But being retired, and having left their extended families and friends behind, what is their daily routine like — while the younger members of the family are grappling with their busy schedules during weekdays and weekends? Do senior citizens find new friends? Are they able to make the effort to develop new relationships? Well some do, but many don’t. Do they need a small push, a little nudge or some platform that will help connect?

I was fortunate to get answers to these questions at the story sessions I conduct with senior citizens. The first session was at a senior citizens residential community where about 25 participants joined me. They were enthusiastic and curious. As each story unfolded, their participation grew. They now wanted to share their stories, memories and experiences. At the end of the session, a gentleman observed — “We have all been living in this community for several years, we talk to each other and we exchange mails and messages on the phone, but never before have we shared and talked to each other in this way. We need to share our experiences with each other more often.” And that’s when I realised that the connect had happened.

The stories had enabled that connection. This experience reminded me of the story of a television salesman who went about selling TVs. He reached a village where people would unfailingly gather around a banyan tree every evening and share their stories with each other. Well this savvy salesman saw his target audience and convinced every household that the television would tell them the best of stories. His smooth salesmanship worked and every household bought a TV. In a few months’ time, the salesman happened to pass by the same village and thought of getting feedback from the people. When he reached the village, it was evening and every single home was empty. Where are all the people, wondered the salesman?

And then he remembered the gathering around the banyan tree. He rushed there. Lo and behold, the people yet again were sitting around the tree. What’s more, the television sets were stacked one on top of the other like a tower, collecting dust. “Whatever happened,” enquired the salesman? “I thought you people loved listening to stories. Why then are these TV sets lying here?”

An elderly woman stood up and said — “You know in the beginning, all of us were so happy to listen to the television. It really told us some wonderful stories. But then it continued to talk and talk, it did not listen to us. It did not allow us to share our stories.” That’s what we need to connect — to listen, and to share.

Some interesting connections happened a few weeks ago at the “Grand” story sessions — a special session that I do for grandchildren and grandparents. It’s a time that the two generations spend an hour listening to and sharing stories, sing songs and happily indulge in together-to-do-activities.

As one parent shared after the session — “My parents and children had such a great time together. It made me realise that we are all so busy that the senior citizens get side-lined. I must get my children more involved with their grandparents.” This was very heartening to know. This has been a good day I thought. But things got only better, because as I was winding up, and the grandchildren were leaving for their homes, a couple of senior citizens were huddled together.

They remarked that they had seen each other in their apartment elevators, in parks, while dropping grandchildren to the school bus, but they had not connected with each other. And here they were, chatting like old friends, laughing, inviting each other to their homes. I was wrong.

This was not just a good day; it was the best day. Stories once again demonstrated that they had the power to transform, to inspire, connect and heal.

(Published 25 January 2020, 19:49 IST)

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