PHOTOS

A long and painful goodbye to my dying grandparents

Quartz india
Quartz india

In July, I made my annual pilgrimage to Kottayam in the southern Indian state of Kerala to see my ageing grandparents.

They have aged dramatically since I had seen them last. It wasn’t just creaking bones, white hair and ill-fitted dentures. Their will to live had nearly depleted in the time I had been away.

They live in a town where everyone still waves at each other, but my grandparents don’t ask for help. They are strong-willed people, with a reluctance to rely on other people.

To me, they have become the image of an old couple living alone and still trying to come to terms with the loss of their way of life. Being told to swallow pills, to stop driving their cars, by people who they feel have no business telling them anything.

Their lonely lives are also a departure from a traditional joint Indian family where children and grandchildren take care of their elders till their final days. My mother and her four sisters have a scheduled rotation of visits, but it’s not quite the same as actually being there all the time.

I’m one of their nine grandchildren, and our lives don’t revolve around summers in their huge garden anymore. We’ve all moved to different parts of the world, more distant than ever before. Phone calls don’t quite suffice.

Their loneliness is jarring.

Unlike a lot of their contemporaries—65% of India’s elderly to be precise—they still have economic independence, and parts of their old lifestyle have been preserved.

I decided to document how my grandparents live and how their mundane lives have become a daily struggle. It has become a series of Instagram posts that evolved into a healing process for my cousins and me.

It has become the beginning of a long goodbye.

I recently visited my grandparents, and decided to document their lives, especially the side that as grandchildren we often ignore. A lot of these portraits were painful and difficult to capture, but it has become my own way of dealing with their mortality. This picture is in their TV/living room. Our summer evenings usually ended up here. Today was no different.
I recently visited my grandparents, and decided to document their lives, especially the side that as grandchildren we often ignore. A lot of these portraits were painful and difficult to capture, but it has become my own way of dealing with their mortality. This picture is in their TV/living room. Our summer evenings usually ended up here. Today was no different. (Anand Katakam)
Days can be mundane and often governed by routine. My grandfather switches the TV on everyday at 6.30pm to watch the evening news. He pays little attention to anything.
Days can be mundane and often governed by routine. My grandfather switches on the TV every day at 6.30 pm to watch the evening news. He pays little attention to anything. (Anand Katakam)
My grandmother loves to cook and most of her day is spent in the kitchen and the pantry. She picks up the phone to needlessly gossip. As far as I can remember she would always be standing and multitasking. Today, that picture looks very different.
My grandmother loves to cook and most of her day is spent in the kitchen and the pantry. She picks up the phone to gossip. As far as I can remember, she would always be standing and multitasking. Today, that picture looks very different. (Anand Katakam)
"It is not death that the very old tell me they fear. It is what happens short of death—losing their hearing, their memory, their best friends, their way of life."
This walking stick has been left in the corner of my grandparent's bedroom for the past two years. It's barely been used. Time hasn't been kind to their knees and they might need to pull the walking stick out of its corner.
This walking stick has been left in the corner of my grandparents’ bedroom for the past two years. It’s barely been used. Time hasn’t been kind to their knees and they might need to pull the walking stick out of its corner. (Anand Katakam)
My grandmother has a hard time breathing and uses an inhaler spacer to ingest her medication. She only has to do it once a day, but the process is tiring and she needs to rest for at least half an hour after she finishes. She's ready now, but this phone call can't wait.
My grandmother has a hard time breathing and uses an inhaler spacer to ingest her medication. She only has to do it once a day, but the process is tiring and she needs to rest for at least half an hour after she finishes. She’s ready now, but this phone call can’t wait. (Anand Katakam)
Evening drink. He has a small whiskey nearly everyday. This is a Malayalee habit.
Evening drink. He has a small peg of whiskey nearly everyday. This is a Malayalee habit. (Anand Katakam)
Days begin and end here. They've shared this bed since 1957.
Days begin and end here. They’ve shared this bed since 1957. (Anand Katakam)
She needs to lie down every once in a while. Any kind of exertion takes a toll on her lungs. She's in a lot of pain and I can see her willing her body to fight through it, but her strength is diminishing. A day after I took this, the doctor recommended that she start using an oxygen cylinder to supplement her breathing. For her, it's becoming a continuous series of losses. 
I debated for a long time whether to publish this one, but I felt it was integral to understanding old age.
She needs to lie down every once in a while. Any kind of exertion takes a toll on her lungs. She’s in a lot of pain and I can see her willing her body to fight through it, but her strength is diminishing. A day after I took this, the doctor recommended that she should start using an oxygen cylinder to supplement her breathing. For her, it’s becoming a continuous series of losses. I debated for a long time whether to publish this one, but I felt it was integral to understanding old age. (Anand Katakam)
An analog life in a digital world. Every email they receive is printed out and delivered to them. They can't quite grasp the power of the Internet and they probably never will.
An analog life in a digital world. Every email they receive is printed out and delivered to them. They can’t quite grasp the power of the internet and they probably never will. (Anand Katakam)
Back in the TV room, my grandmother has an electric heating pack to soothe her back pain. Although she's feeling better, she doesn't really want to get up.
Back in the TV room, my grandmother has an electric heating pack to soothe her back pain. Although she’s feeling better, she doesn’t really want to get up. (Anand Katakam)
Mornings with the grandfather. He has glaucoma and has to use eye drops to control the intraocular pressure.
Mornings with my grandfather. He has glaucoma and has to use eye drops to control the intraocular pressure. (Anand Katakam)
A meal at my grandparent's house is usually the most fulfilling meal of the year. They've become very basic and it doesn't taste quite the same. My grandmother is clearing out the chicken bones from our meal.
A meal at my grandparent’s house used to be the most fulfilling meal of the year. They’ve become very basic and it doesn’t taste quite the same. My grandmother is clearing out the chicken bones from our meal. (Anand Katakam)
Finishing his bath. It's by far one of the toughest things for him to do. He sits on a chair and bathes himself. Then he grabs his munde (sarong) and slowly gets dressed.
Finishing his bath. It’s by far one of the toughest things for him to do. He sits on a chair and bathes himself. Then he grabs his munde (sarong) and slowly gets dressed. (Anand Katakam)
The daily closet. My grandfather's jubba (collarless shirt) and munde (sarong) on the right and my grandmother's saris.
The daily closet. My grandfather’s jubba (collarless shirt) and munde (sarong) on the right and my grandmother’s saris. (Anand Katakam)
"Courage is strength in the face of knowledge of what is to be feared or hoped. Wisdom is prudent strength." This is the beginning of the long goodbye.
They put on brave faces everyday and maintain a sense of normalcy, but even the ravages of time can’t hide their sadness. This is the beginning of the long goodbye. (Anand Katakam)

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