They sit in the verandah as dusk falls, their cordless phone between them - forlorn and full of memories. Memories of little voices raised in laughter and the patter of tiny feet. A vehicle approaches their gate, slowing down for some oncoming traffic and their eyes light up in hope, but no car turns into their drive and no phone rings - only shadows lengthen into darkness as another long night assails them. The old man turns to his life’s partner of more than four decades and sees a pair of eyes, once sparkling with joy, but now brimming with tears.

His mind wanders to a scene many decades ago, to a chilling wintry night when nature appeared to be unleashing its fury upon the land. He distinctly remembers the small listless form burning with fever as it was carried out to the car, with its mother shielding it from pelting rain, oblivious that in the urgency to take the child to hospital she was herself lightly dressed, wet and shivering with cold.

The scene changes to a building with a boundary wall and lots of children. The man sees himself standing outside the school gate with a small child. He watches silently as a teacher lifts the young boy and two small arms stretch out to him imploringly. The man stands outside the gate for hours under the scorching summer sun, waiting for his son’s first school day to end, so he can carry him home and give him the promised treat on the way.

A series of pictures now flash across the old man’s misty eyes - a picture where an angry young man towers above his parents demanding that they give him ‘space’. Then another picture emerges showing a scene of revelry and joy with the same angry young man dressed in silk sitting on a stage with a stunningly pretty young woman. The scene changes again to show the man and woman in our story, their hair now amply streaked with white, standing in the porch, as their son places the last of his belongings in the car and bids them goodbye in search for his ‘space’.

The above story is not a work of fiction, but a chapter from the life of a couple who like many others of their kind have been left at the mercy of a lonely existence by their offspring at a time when they needed them to be around, if for nothing else, then only for companionship. It is, indeed, ironic that while families living in the West have begun to realise the advantages of a joint family system after encouraging its flipside for more than four decades, people in our part of the world are leaving their parents in search of space and unfettered pursuit of social life.

On a trip to Europe, I was asked to have dinner at a friend's house on Christmas Eve. On arrival, I was greeted with great warmth and was a little surprised to find that no other guests had been invited. As we chatted, the discussion turned to family values and systems and I soon found myself confronted with the embarrassing spectacle of the hostess breaking out in tears, as she recounted how her three children had left home with their respective families and how they had not met their grandchildren for more than a year. My host was openly envious of the joint family system prevalent in Pakistan and could not believe me when I told him that things were changing from where I came thanks to the West - and more and more grown up children were leaving home, particularly after their marriage. The old goras response left me pensive - "it is, indeed, a sad day, if what you say is true. Do you know why old people prefer life in rest homes - for companionship my friend; for companionship!" I returned to my hotel in a chaotic state of mind and as I walked through the lobby, the full import of what my host had said impacted upon me.

As I unlocked my room and entered, I suddenly remembered an old couple as they sat in the verandah in falling dusk, waiting for a telephone call that never came and a car that never turned into their drive. I saw them rise with bowed heads and enter their spacious home, lovingly built for their coming generations, but now silent and cold like an empty nest.

  The writer is a freelance columnist.