Vijayawada has pride of place in Andhra Pradesh’s political and economic landscape. The commercial hub of south India is also home to a huge population of old people abandoned by their families. Perhaps the largest congregation of helpless elders can be found in the thriving city by the Krishna River.
They are so helpless that they go without a square meal a day or a change of dress. They may have been poor laborers or rich landowners but here, all of them are doomed to a solitary death and an unmarked grave.
The steps leading to the river presents a serene picture at daybreak. As the scene lights up, you can see a mass of frail bodies curling up into the shreds of blankets. These are the miserable people fighting for survival in the sweltering days and shivering nights of Vijayawada.
There are thousands of abandoned elders in Vijayawada alone.
Those who can manage to walk around go in search of food once the day is comfortably warm around 11 am. They loiter around places of worship, bus stands, railway stations and wherever there are people who might show them mercy.
Those who are too weak to walk stay put by the river. They jostle for spots where they may be noticed by the volunteers and NGO workers who come with food packets around noon.
At the nerve center
Vijayawada owes its prominence to its location. The city is easily accessible from anywhere in the undivided Andhra Pradesh.
The city is the destination for dozens of families who have bought a one-way ticket for their elders. The elders would have left home with their children who told them they were on a pilgrimage to Tirupati or some other holy place. In most of the cases, they know what is about to happen.
A drama follows in the crowd. Here and there, families raise an alarm. A father or mother go missing. The relatives performs a reluctant search. Women briefly lament over the lost parent or even pass out for a while. Then they go back to their homes.
The lost elders quietly proceed to the banks of the Krishna, swelling the mass of unfortunate parents abandoned like them.
This motley crowd is ever changing. Many of them succumb to diseases, hunger or the harsh weather. New entrants take their place.
No country for old men
The inhuman practice resembles the infamous Thalai Koonthal as reported from some hamlets in Tamil Nadu, where families conduct an elaborate ritual that leads to the slow deaths of the elders who have crossed 80.
They are woken up early in the morning and taken for an elaborate oil massage and bathing ceremony that lasts hours. They die of high fever in a couple of days.
The traditional way of killing has been replaced by novel methods including lethal injections. They may be given poison or fed with milk through their noses.
Surveys have suggested that 33 percent of the perpetrators were the sons of the victims and 22 percent the sons-in law. Daughters-in-law take matters into their hands in 17 percent of cases and daughters themselves are responsible in 10 percent of the cases.
Many of the aged people are also subjected to this socially sanctioned killings by their grandchildren, relatives, neighbors or well-wishers.
If the aged people are forced to suffer for two days before they die in rural Tamil Nadu, they are left to die a slow and painful death in Vijayawada. They starve their way to a dirty death.
They may have had a decent job or had a large farm. But once they were old, their children thought of them as an unnecessary burden.
Why was Vijayawada chosen as a dump yard for aged people among all the places in the undivided Andhra Pradesh?
The Krishna River plays a major role. In the stretch that flows through the city, the river is flanked by long steps that provide a resting place for the homeless. The vast sand banks provide enough space to erect a shack. The many temples in the vicinity provide a support system.
More than the geography of the city, it may be the charity of its people that is supporting the helpless people. The denizens of Vijayawada have proved their humanitarian concerns by feeding the hungry multitude. The city is an island of hope for the desolate in the vast expanse of Andhra Pradesh.
The city has a good share of Good Samaritans. Merchants’ associations and youngsters’ collectives are busy collecting excess food from restaurants across the city to feed the hapless elders. The abandoned people are so resigned to their fate that they no longer dream of a home. They are happy to find a meal a day.
I look at my fellow passengers on a train crossing the Krishna River in Vijayawada. Most of them keep busy to themselves. They suddenly look into a newspaper or a magazine the moment the train reaches the river. Some of them shut their eyes and pretend to sleep. None of them dares to look out the window.
Maybe there is a mother or grandmother languishing on the sand bank.