On a sunny fall morning, I turned into a wooded driveway to find a gentleman waiting with a bright, welcoming smile. After weeks of planning, numerous texts, missed phone calls and several garbled messages, we were finally meeting in person. Both of us are busy grandparents, so finding the convenient time had been a bit challenging. Dr. Madhavan led me to the house; his wife, Lalitha, ushered me into a living room where American suburbia met the strong presence of South India. The next few hours flew by.
An instant connection was established when Madhavan mentioned he had attended Kanpur IIT, where he earned his Ph.D. in physics and then spent over two decades in New Delhi. Both North Indian cities are where I had spent my growing years, so with great ease we transitioned from English to Hindi. Many common threads were discovered, but maybe the strongest was how deeply grandparenting had affected our lives and what a meaningful and important part of our senior years our grandchildren were. Rather than settle for the relaxed life of retirement, far away from their children’s burgeoning families, couples like the Madhavans have chosen to live where their grandchildren are blossoming, even if it means crossing national boundaries at an older age.
Like many Indians post-independence, the Madhavans had sought to raise their children where opportunities awaited. Originally from Tamil Nadu, Madhavan’s family lived in Bangalore, Karnataka. When he married a woman from Chennai, the couple moved to North India, where Madhavan’s career took him to the level of senior corporate executive within Central Electronics Ltd. a public sector organization. In these new surroundings, the cosmopolitan city of New Delhi, Lalitha found a job as an English teacher.
Their daughter, Arti, attended Lady Hardinge, one of India’s premier women’s medical colleges. Like many of her generation, soon after graduation, she decided to explore opportunities in the United States, and she soon found one with the Detroit Medical Center. As her medical career gained pace, Arti began needing help with her daughter, Natasha, and son, Nikhil. Finding childcare to suit a doctor’s hours is not easy, and so her parents presented themselves as the solution by relocating once again.
Their American experience had really started in 1999, when they first visited their daughter’s home. But it was when they came again in 2003 that they realized the need to be present on an ongoing basis. The die had been cast.
Now in the world of their grandchildren, the Madhavans have woven a large and varied social circle, while remaining an integral part of the grandkids’ lives on an everyday basis. Nikhil, now a senior at Cranbrook, walked in just as we were talking about how frequently the Madhavans attended his and Natasha’s programs. He’d had a short break between classes this morning, so it made sense to stop by. Right away, you could see how at home he was with his grandparents and how seamlessly they had woven themselves into this teenager’s life.
One of the advantages Madhavan pointed out was his ability to drive, something so many grandparents visiting from India are unable to do. In suburban America, such mobility can be vital. Additionally, both speak fluent English, another skill that makes communication with the grandchildren and their friends effortless. Lalitha is also an accomplished cook and both the grandchildren have taken a genuine liking for Indian food. She loves music and played the violin, an instrument Natasha learned. (Nikhil took on the saxophone.)
Dance and music is an important interest in many South Indian homes and with Lalitha’s knowledge of the fine arts, it was natural that Natasha would take Bharatanatyam training from a very accomplished teacher, Roopa Shyamasundara. Now a sophomore at Northwestern University, Natasha chose to write her college essay on her grandma; the pride with which the Madhavans spoke about her reflected how attached they were to this young woman. Madhavan’s scientific and technical background was of great help to both the children in their homework. He was instrumental in Nikhil getting involved in robotics from the fourth grade —Nikhil is now president of the school’s robotics club and has won many awards at the state level and beyond. Madhavan’s hobby, photography, is one more way in which he has documented Natasha and Nikhil’s development over the years.
Gradually, the grandchildren have become more and more independent and Arti and her husband Robert are beginning to move into the next phase of their lives. The Madhavans will adapt, too, just as they’ve done so many times before.