Monday, 20 August 2012

The price of being old

Dr. Sushma Dixit

Editor, Cleanmediatoday

The price of being old

An Old Woman by Arun Kolatkar, primarily appears to be about an old woman beggar begging for alms near a shrine situated at hills. Her wrinkled face and hazy eyes look out wistfully at passersby as she sits on the dusty pavement.  Draped in rags she raises her palm to earn her living through beggary. The old beggar woman sits hobbles or grabs hold of passers – by to keep her moving. Her cloudy eyes search for a loving face and a companion in this fast moving world. The old women abandoned by her personal relations symbolises social deterioration.

The comparison of an old woman to a ‘burr’ is apt as she clings to the poet and continues to hobble around him, thereby depicting the real behaviour of beggars. The metaphor ‘button holes’ for her eyes is equally remarkable as it carries unlimited unanswerable questions.

The old woman here represents our culture, our heritage and our natural beauty.  At first she is a little adamant when he refuses to give her any money. While hobbling around him she offers to act as a tourist guide as she does not want to resolve to beggary.  It seems as if she has suffered in her past and that has made her stronger and she is ready to fend for herself.

The poem is highly symbolic and very common placed in its subject matter. "An Old Woman" is a graphic picture of a beggar woman.  “What else can an old woman do, on hills as wretched as these” compels the poet to stop for a moment and ponder upon the wretchedness of her condition. This thought provoking question gives the poem a serious and sombre tone. Without using many words, the old woman forces the narrator to look at her from closed quarters. It is then that he realizes the hypocrisy of society and the decadence of the social system that has ruined the old woman to a beggar. He finds that the social fabric is destroyed, architectural features go into ruins. Human values are forgotten. The old woman's condition reduces the narrator to a small status when he feels as insignificant as that small coin in her hand.

This poem humbles us to remember our responsibility to society. It reveals the callousness, a failure on our part to take care of the elderly, protect our heritage and preserve our values. In the rush of materialism and the desire to achieve, one takes all that one can from society, but giving the same back is largely forgotten. So the cracking hills, crumbling temples, crumbling of social order is directly a result of our negligence, our failure to act responsibly. Somewhere, the materialistic world has made man selfish, trapping him in a race to accumulate. When society has to face this onslaught, cracks appear, but selfish man forgets to repair the cracks, forgets to salvage lost values, thereby creating a dilapidated social fabric.

Social decay is the process of decay of civilized society. Beggary is also one of the by-products of social decay.  Damage of society's physical health, increases the burden on law and order and creates a culture of escapism from reality. Widespread and growing lack of honesty within society is evidence of a ‘dog eats dog’ society. The growing passion for materialism in youths is the major cause of decay of social fabric. The decaying societal morals and values have perhaps forced the elderly woman to beg in order to earn her living.  Imbalances within the economic system, exploding social divisions, worldwide ecological crises and a biogenetic revolution can be termed as other larger causes of social decay.

On the other hand, a lack of honesty in relationships decreases our collective strength and faith in the community. The religion of being human expects a high regard for elderly people and the long cultural tradition expects us to take care of elderly people.  For us Mother is next to God but ‘her cracks’ “old as hills” reflects the callousness and hollowness of our tradition and culture. The negligence from children and from society exposes the hypocrisy of our system.

Begging is the solicitation of money or food, especially in the street. There is a close relationship between begging and homelessness. People who beg are among the most vulnerable in society, often trapped in poverty and deprivation, and it is regarded as a risky and demeaning activity. Had she been taken care of by family and society she would not have forced herself to adapt to this demeaned activity which she has herself realised, “She says she will take you to the horseshoe shrine”, an attempt to change her profession of begging into a profession of tourist guide, a much respectable job to make both ends meet.

The poem is also ironical in nature because this hapless unfortunate woman begs at the Horseshoe shrine supposed to bring good luck to the people. Circumstances have made her stubborn but nothing in the world could break her. She has already been exposed to harsh realities of life. She represents any old, abandoned, helpless woman left by society and family to fend herself. She is representative of all that is decadent and rotten in society and religion. Thus she faces the penalty of being old and abandoned woman. She has been penalized for no wrong of her but has become the victim of disintegrating traditions, culture and religious beliefs of society of which we are very proud of.


  1. This is the case with most of the old women of the society.Every men pays the price of being old due to degradation of social fabric.

  2. What is the status of the society? What do we feel about the senior citizens of the country!

  3. Is it the world, we want to see?