A memory of my grandfather wafts into the air each time someone passes me, chewing paan. The distinctive aroma of the crushed supari (diced betal nut), sprinkled like crimson gold dust onto the white paste (chuno – lime stone) and spread onto a betal leaf is a vivid sense memory.
My research with Asian elders in care homes began with my grandfather. He had Alzheimer’s disease and towards the end of his life was cared for in a nursing home. Visiting nursing homes when my grandfather was alive left a lasting impression on me, drawing me to search for the ways in which differences can matter and manifest at the end of lives. A few years after my grandfather’s death, I began to research the different types of residential care available to elders for my Masters dissertation, taking photographs of residents. Through the research I discovered Jewish, Irish, Polish, Punjabi, Gujarati-Hindu, Hindu-Punjabi and Ukranian homes throughout England, often concentrated in multicultural areas.
My photographs are an attempt to capture some of the sensual traces of difference in spaces not usually given attention by the media or in critical cultural commentary, except at times of crisis. At the core of my documentary work is a concern with questions of identity. I have always been fascinated by the intricate workings and paradoxes of how identity plays out visually, especially in photography.
When my grandfather reached the later stages of Alzheimer’s disease – where symptoms include loss of memory, mood changes, and problems with communication and reasoning – it was becoming clear that my grandmother was not coping and was unable to give him the full care that he needed. The only option was to place him in a nursing home, which provided 24-hour care. This was the single most difficult decision that we had to make as a family, especially as my grandparents had been married for 55 years and had never spent a day apart. The emotional weight of the decision was intensified by cultural expectations: ‘Asians do not put their elders in care’. The stigmatisation of institutional care in our communities made the decision much more emotional difficult and fraught for all of us.
The urgency of the situation meant that there wasn’t the time to search for the ‘right’ type of place. As my grandparents lived in Bradford, West Yorkshire, we wanted a home that was close to them, close enough so that my grandmother could visit daily, on public transport. As a family we looked at a few places but there was nothing within the close vicinity that one could call ‘home’.
So the time came and my grandfather was taken into a nursing home. I remember the first time I visited him. The smell. The wipe-down, armchairs. The Day Room. The other residents. The food.
I have melancholic memories of my grandmother making daily visits to the care home with her little tiffin, packed with vegetarian Indian food. The food had been blended to a pulp, so that my grandfather could eat it without chocking. My grandmother would leave a burning incense stick propped up against a miniature statue of Lord Ghanesh in my grandfather’s room. Small things, but enough, she hoped, to give my grandfather a sense of home and belonging. He was the only Indian person, Asian person for that matter, in the whole care home. All of the other residents were White.
In his book ‘Black Skin, White Masks’ cultural theorist Frantz Fanon writes:
“I meet a Russian, or a German, who speaks French badly. With gestures, I try to give him the information that he requests, but at the same time I can hardly forget that he has a language of his own, a country, and that perhaps he is a lawyer or an engineer there. In any case, he is foreign to my group and his standards must be different”(p.34)
As Fanon points out there are always rich histories and experiences that are obfuscated or condensed in our encounters with cultural others. In the case of a disease, such as with my grandfather’s Alzheimer’s, one’s own heritage, history and language can also become hazy or forgotten. Underneath that strange exterior shell of Alzheimer’s, was my grandfather somewhere still a Gujarati Hindu Indian man? If it is impossible to know and to document the changes that occur underneath the skin, perhaps there are traces on the skin? In the image ‘Hands’, the traditional tattoos on Mrs Patel, aged 96, denote a ritual cultural practice. This practice developed in a very small part of Northern India as a way of beautifying the self. Unlike tattoos today, people were unaware of their permanency. The indelible tattoos are an apt materialisation of the condition of many of our early generations of migrants who came to the UK in the 1950s and 60s, never expecting to stay, to age and to die here.
The image ‘Waiting for lunch’ is of a man in a care home that had been set up specifically for Gujarati Hindu people, in Leicester. His clothes, a white shirt, buttoned-up cardigan and flat cap are something of a signature uniform for men of his generation and reminded me very much of my grandfather. This generation of men is symbolic of another era. Like an old grandfather clock, they are distinct in appearance, an icon of habit and regularity, refined with age. My grandfather would never leave the house unless his shirt was pressed in the pristine manner that he was accustomed to. A tie – knotted in exactly the same way, each time. Shoes, polished; a tweed flat-cap and a suit jacket, painstakingly de-fluffed prior to any outing to buy a pint of milk or daily newspaper.
‘Mr Latif’ very much appreciated that although he lived away from his family, he could still receive a type of care that recognised some of his needs and preferences. Food that was prepared according to his custom and religion, a mosque across the road and neighbours that shared and understood some of his values.
After visiting different care homes across the country, where for example, the same language was spoken and understood by both carer and patient, or food was prepared according to specific religious prescriptions, I began to understand the importance of these different practices, yet I also know that cultural identities are always ‘in process’ as the cultural theorist Stuart Hall reminded us.
Identities in the contemporary world derive from a multiplicity of sources – from nationality, ethnicity, social class, community, gender and sexuality – which create vibrant and unpredictable mixes. I often question how different I would think and feel if my East African Indian parents had migrated back to India in the early 1960’s or if both sets of my grandparents had never left India in the first place. The language I speak at home is also a hybrid of influences and situated improvisation; a mix of Gujarati with a handful of Swahili words, together with the odd English word (when I can’t think of the Gujarati equivalent straight away!). All of these little idiosyncrasies are very much part of who I am. They define me as much as my rather broad Mancunian accent.
With such inventive cultural mixing in mind, I wonder whether there will be an increase in culture-specific care homes in the future, or whether they are generation-specific?
My photos have never been about essentialising difference, about ‘showing’ an identity through the visual insignia of what we eat or how we dress. My photos are about people and about documenting an increasing, but neglected sphere of postcoloniality.
Much of the work on representing racialised others and peoples outside of the West/North have existed since photography began, as Hall and Sealy (2001) point out. Although the history of photography by those of colour in Britain has been relatively brief, the representation of the racialised ‘Other’ has often been reductive.
The imagined/imaged stereotypes perpetuate racial myths, and in the process, particular ethnic groups and individuals are consigned to a condition of relative invisibility, of never being present in any vital human sense (Hight and Sampson, 2004:7).
As Hall and Sealy have noted the significant shift or breakthrough that occurred in the 1980s, created a ‘moment’ in which many photographers of colour are still working, documenting complex, contradictory and intersectional identities that contest easy stereotypes. Let’s hope that this critical documentation and dialogue will also now provide new insight into the lives of our elders.
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Sangita’s photography is informed by her personal experience of changing cultural environments. Following a number of successful exhibitions in England she completed an MA in Photography at the University of Bolton in 2010.
Her social documentary project ‘Caring for the elderly in a multicultural UK’ has been exhibited at the International Orange Photo Festival in China (2009), at the People’s History Museum, Manchester (2010) and at Look 11 Liverpool International Photography Festival (2011). She is continuing to develop this body of work by examining care provision for the elderly in India.
Sangita’s experiences in the educational field has enabled her to work on many projects with schools and colleges both in the UK and overseas and is currently working for the Manchester Secondary Pupil Referral Unit. Find her on twitter @sangitamistry76 and more of her work at www.sangitamistry.co.uk
This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing curated and edited by Yasmin Gunaratnam. A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.