From time to time, I bring to your attention to books that hit chords with the global trends and local challenges. Deborah Moggach’s book, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” brings together a fictional tale that addresses the conundrum of aging in a globalized economy.
In Bangalore, India’s Marigold Hotel plays host to about 2 dozen English senior citizens. Part of the larger trend towards cheaper foreign living, these elders have abandoned (or more accurately, been abandoned by) the society of their birth in order to afford to live in dignity during the waning years. The author goes into the stories of mismanaged retirement funds, of ghettofication of inner cities, and the loss of significant others as reasons for these traveling grandmas. But underneath almost all these stories is the dearth of assistance from their children. It makes you wonder about the role of the extended family in the West, especially when compared to the very connected Indian characters’. Admittedly, the sad stories get a bit melodramatic, but I have no reason to believe that such stories are unrealistic.
Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the book is Moggach’s ability to give voice to the elderly and the dying process. On the one hand, the hotel is part of, in the words of one of the Indian characters, the beginning of a new Indian economic boom: human beings. Now, humans are willingly turned into commodities in search of that dream of retirement. What a concept! In supposed welfare states, elderly individuals don’t have enough to retire.
It really brings home the way that the elderly in America are in even worse shape. Think of all the baby boomers who are delaying retirement or forced back into the workforce due to the recession’s very negative effect of defined contribution pensions (401k, IRAs, etc.). While social security and medicare are a great help, the number of LINK recipients I run into on any weekday at Aldi show a more unfortunately version of aging. Plus, the recent shutdown is starting to threatened Meals on Wheels – one of the most pivotal programs in protecting the dignity of the elderly. What, if anything, do we owe, our elders? It is an important question to ask since most people my age and younger are very hesitant to expect much of anything. Whether this is unwarranted cynicism or pragmatism is unclear.
On a more positive note, Moggach also manages to give true depth to the customers of the Marigold hotel. Even as these seniors are commodified, their visions of themselves, their needs, and their desires come alive in throughout the novel. At one point, Indian call center employees visit the hotel to learn more about their “home”, England. The whole experience shows a strong desire to not only reminisce on an England that appears to only exist in their little hotel but to interact, teach, and learn from others. The complexities of the elderly is definitely a sphere that is too often overlooked in literature – falling into simple-minded grandmas and altruistic mentors.
Finally, I think one element of the story that we must be cognizant of is the geographic components. First, all the major characters are either Indian from near Bangalore or from England. Bangalore, once the “Garden City” is now a technology center of the country and is highly central to the renaissance of India internationally. In addition, England of course is the part of Great Britain where London is located. However, this part of the country has changed the most in recent decades. While other regions’ (Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland) devolutions of political power and renaissance of cultures have led to regional pride, English pride has been largely limited to soccer holigans and racist groups. England is home to both massive economic success in parts of London and widespread economic recession in other areas of the region.