Us Indians are very patronising towards elderly people, especially women, who want to have a good time. When we see elderly (or sometimes even middle-aged) people at an amusement park or a bar, for example, the natural reaction is one of derision, wondering why that person is “out there having fun”. It is rather sad that we question the right of people to have a good time for themselves, but this is possibly borne out of the life stages as prescribed in some ancient Indian texts – which describe a stage of “vaanaprastha” when one enters middle age – where you leave your family and other worldly pleasures and retire to the forest.
Given this background, we Indians are conditioned to look with wonder at people beyond a certain age who are actually living it up. And when we come abroad we marvel at the “foreign uncles and aunties” who seem to be living very differently from the uncles and aunties at home. It is sad, but it is simply a function of the upbringing and conditioning. For example, you can see such biases in Indian popular media also.
Anyway, I was having lunch at this bar in Barcelona last week, when I saw an elderly woman approach. She walked up to the menu board outside the bar with another elderly woman, and surveyed the menu. Presently she asked for a table for one and sat down, while the other lady moved on. Presently a beer appeared, and in due course it appeared she was having a three course meal. Alone.
Not too long later, an elderly man appeared. He was from an era where he had clipped on shades to his glasses (like Shah Rukh Khan in Baazigar). He didn’t bother with the menu and took his place at a table, for one. And proceeded to have his meal.
On Sunday we were at another bar close to home for coffee. The bar was reasonably full – there were about 20 other customers. And we seems to be the only people this side of 60. Some people had come alone, some in pairs and some in groups. They were all drinking beer, or coffee, or sangria, and were generally hanging out at the bar. This is life among the elderly in Barcelona, and perhaps in all of Spain.
It wasn’t always like this. General Francisco Franco ran a rather repressive dictatorship for most of his 40 years or so in charge. It was a right wing, and possibly hence, religious (Catholic) dictatorship, and Spanish society at the time was rather conservative. Sid Lowe, in his excellent book Fear and Loathing in La Liga writes:
“This was a regime that had painted vests on to boxers’ naked torsos and dubbed Hollywood lovers into brothers and sisters. Sonia Weinberg recalls arriving in Madrid in 1954, a city of ‘great poverty’, with her husband – the Real Madrid player Héctor Rial – and being stopped on Gran Vía by a Civil Guard officer who took offence at her low-cut top. That was just one challenge; by the late 1960s there were thousands of them and by the 1970s it was irresistible. The Bishop of the Canary Islands declared the bikini a ‘symbol of the delinquency and degeneration of today’s women’ and much has been made of the image of Civil Guards patrolling beaches, ordering topless bathers from abroad to cover up.”
And then Franco died in 1976. And suddenly an entire nation which had stood repressed for 40 years was “able to breathe” and quickly broke the shackles. Going back to Lowe:
“Repression was followed almost inevitably by excess and nowhere more so than in Madrid. Solo se vive una vez ran its unofficial motto – a slogan that eventually became song, one whose chorus is still belted out at discos with a collective defiance that’s almost evangelical. You only live once. Spain’s equivalent of the Swinging Sixties, an outpouring of creativity and imagination, arrived in Madrid in the 1980s. It was an explosion in music, in literature, in film, in art.”
You might recognise “you only live once” as a youth anthem that is still popular and does the rounds. It has its origins in post-Franco Madrid, and was the slogan that led Spanish society to liberalise and modernise, to an extent that it is known to be among the more culturally liberal societies today.
Going back to the topic we started this post with, today’s 70 year olds were around 30 years old at the time of Franco’s death, and that being the time of YOLO, they are likely to have participated actively in the “excess” that followed. Thus, in the matter of a generation we see that Spain has moved from a society where women wearing low-cut tops being stopped by police to one where elderly people live life as it should be led, without much accordance to any social customs (or it can be argued that hanging out at bars is a social custom).
The question thus arises if the Spanish example is a one-off (thanks to the years of extreme repression under Franco), or if it can be replicable elsewhere. India, for example, has been undergoing a societal “evolution” for a few decades now, and each generation is more socially liberal than the generation a few years older. Yet, the movement so far has been rather glacial, and it is hard to imagine, especially looking at today’s youth, that there will be a dramatic change in society in the course of a generation.
Thus, we need to ask ourselves what it is that can lead to a revolution in terms of social norms, and what leads societies to change. Apart from Spain, though, some examples we have are in the other direction – nowadays photos float around on the internet showing a “liberal” society in Kabul or Tehran in the 1970s, and this is contrasted by the rather heavily conservative Islam that is practiced in those societies nowadays. The question arises, though, in terms of how representative those photos from the 1970s were – for it is hard to imagine that a people which is mostly socially liberal would tolerate a socially repressive regime, however oppressive, for too long.
Does it take a long period of repression for societal norms to change massively? Or can it happen “organically” without having a negative event as a trigger (change, though, will surely cause some disruption and conflict, for there will be people loathe to change). Does rapid urbanisation help? Or exposure to global media? One data point (you might think there are several data points since India is such a large and diverse country), however, is that in India we’ve had significant globalisation and economic liberalisation and urbanisation and exposure to media, yet the changes in societal norms have only been gradual.