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An innovative documentary by the BBC introduces eight Western celebrities to the possibilities, adventures and misadventures of retirement in India
THE POPULATION IN THE WEST IS BLOSSOMING as the post-wartime baby-boom generation are reaching their prime. Looking forward to retirement—having fulfilled family and professional dharma—is a blissful time. But in the West, the wisdom years bring challenges: the family unit may be fragmented and pension funds insufficient. Additionally, the Western pace of life can cloud the voice of the soul, which may be searching for answers at this time of life. As a result, some Westerners are looking to India as a place to spend their precious retirement years.
Westerners’ money reaches farther in India, and the amenities of daily living can be provided with ease—two prudent considerations in retirement planning. Moreover, India has a long-standing tradition of respecting elders; indeed, they are generally cared for in the loving arms of close family. With its majority-Hindu population and abundance of the oldest and holiest of temples, religion permeates life in India. It is no secret that India offers a profound spiritual journey, perfect for those contemplating the purpose of life and its myriad experiences.
Can one’s well-earned retirement be more fulfilling in the mystical East? This is the question English writer Deborah Moogach asks in her unassuming novel These Foolish Things, which inspired the 2012 Golden Globe and BAFTA-awarded “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” movie. The novel and movie are constructed around narrative accounts by retired British ladies and gentlemen who move to India to start life anew, facing joys and challenges in an unfamiliar culture.
The BBC’s Creative Experiment
This concept so captured the imagination of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) that it commissioned a series entitled “The Real Marigold Hotel.” In this experimental project, eight real-life celebrities of senior citizenship made the 4,000-mile journey from the United Kingdom to India to experience retirement in the holy land. David Vallance, series editor for “The Real Marigold Hotel,” explains, “the idea of retiring in a country completely different to our own is a fascinating one. Not only are you adapting to the next stage of life, but you have a totally new culture to explore.”
The celebrities who courageously stepped forward for this endeavor represent varied entertainment backgrounds. Several have received sovereign knighthoods for their service to the Order of the British Empire (OBE). Some had never met one another before, but now they will live together, eat together and pray together while exploring India’s many intricacies.
Each of these souls already had a personal connection with this wonderful motherland. Jan Leeming, 74, a former TV presenter and newsreader, shared, “My reason for signing up was that my father was born and brought up in South India. The Real Marigold Hotel was a golden opportunity.” For Patti Boulaye, OBE, 61, a Nigerian-born singer, actress and Ambassador for Peace, her motivation was to continue her spiritual journey: “The path to enlightenment is a difficult one, but at the end of it one finds humility, spirituality and peace. I was inspired to learn about it from its roots in India.” Joining this journey were Miriam Margolyes, OBE (74), well known for her role as Professor Sprout in the “Harry Potter” movie series; Wayne Sleep, OBE (67), Patron of the British Ballet Organisation and Vice-President of the Royal Academy of Dance; TV chef Rosemary Shrager (65); comedian and TV presenter Roy Walker (74); famed darts player Bobby George (70); and actor Sylvester McCoy (72), renowned for his roles as “Doctor Who” and in “The Hobbit.”
Life Anew 4,000 Miles East
“The Real Marigold Hotel” series begins at London’s Heathrow Airport, where participants share their excitement—and, yes, trepidation—about the journey that lies ahead. Bobby George reports, “This is a lifelong ambition for me. I said to my wife 20 years ago, ‘Let’s go to India!’” Mariam Margolyes humbly speaks of the unfolding nature of this journey: “When you go to India, you come face to face with yourself.” Together the eight explorers journey to Jaipur, the largest city in Rajasthan.
They are warmly welcomed by the owners of their new home, a communal haveli, and greeted with namastes, garlands and kumkum blessings. This is their first insight into family unity and hospitality, as the owners live in the haveli, too. It has been their ancestral home for 160 years. Remarkable, too, is the cost of living, as they find a luxury room will cost only $25/day, far below the costs of urban living in the UK.
Aware that India has many faces, the celebrities are keen to get out and start exploring. They conclude that in India joy and happiness exist in all, irrespective of material wealth, as religion and spirituality permeate every aspect of life. Some of our travelers are at home with this overt expression of spirituality, while others find it challenging: This is the first time they have ever been urged to stop thinking, stop doing and simply live in the moment. For these high-achieving Westerners, this is a new concept!
Their journey to inner calm begins with the hatha yoga practice early each morning at the haveli. Their instructor, Atul, explains that his specific brand of yoga is designed for senior citizens. Exercising in the early hours of the morn is a new experience for some, but most are soon commenting on the feeling of inner joy engendered by the ancient science and want to continue beyond their allocated hour.
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COURTESY OF BBC/TWOFOUR
Their resultant contemplative mood prompts discussions on the immense willpower needed to control the mind in yogic and meditative practices. Jan Leeming confides, “I’ve tried to practice yoga and meditation, but I just find my mind won’t sit still and I simply cannot focus.” Rosemary Shrager, who at age 65 has just opened new businesses, seeks further depth to her meditative endeavours by enlisting the help of a guru at the nearby Om Ashram. She is advised that meditation starts when the mind stops. It is here she finds inner calm amidst the mental activity: “That is the stillest I have been in an awful long time.” Wayne Sleep, who speaks openly of a recent healthcare episode which heightened his search within, reflects, “I am in India to find something. I do not know what that is or if I can meditate.” Earnestly he tries, and after his first encounter at Om Ashram he confesses, “Meditation has been the most significant point (of the visit to Jaipur) for me. I felt completely relaxed.”
Off to the Temples
Bhakti, devotion, is core in the lives of Hindus, and India’s great temples emanate a wonderfully uplifting vibration to pilgrims and tourists alike. This was exemplified during a visit to Amer Fort, the jewel of Jaipur. At a temple dedicated to Lord Hanuman, the participants see devotees bathing in sacred waters and witness swamis devoutly performing rituals. Wayne Sleep comments on the swamis, “They seem so peaceful.”
It is here they first come across one of their guides, Raju, a 27-year-old determined to educate himself for the betterment of his family. As they explore the temple surrounded by mischievous monkeys who make haste with their offerings, Raju explains the karmic benefits of feeding animals.
He invites the visitors to his home, where they are warmly welcomed into the family. Over a chappati-and-curry meal, Raju explains how caste discrimination has limited his employment opportunities. His stark story, contrasted with the warmth of the family reception, triggers introspection among the Britishers. Jan Leeming was struck by the cultural contrasts: “Meeting Raju and his family was lovely. I have met more people in one afternoon who want to take me into their family than I have met where I live in ten years.” There is an acceptance that succcessfully living in India requires an adjustment to local culture, including the observance by many of the caste system. Bobby George reflects, “If you have a talent and you can do good, why should you be on the bottom rail. I think that is wrong, personally.”
Understanding that just as elsewhere in the world, wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few, and keen to see all facets of life in India, the travelers accept an invitation to meet royalty. They visit Maharaj Jai Singh and Maharani Vidya Rani at the opulent Rambagh Palace. The hospitality shown by the royal couple softens the hearts of the celebrities. Mariam Marygoles later observes, “Though the disparity between rich and poor is shocking, I find the royal family very generous.”
In expression of their gratitude, the famous senior citizens open their haveli home to all for a warm and welcoming evening of dinner and entertainment, attempting to return in kind the hospitable and soulful reception they have been accorded by the locals of Jaipur, which has so deeply touched their hearts. TV Chef Rosemary Shrager prepares a delicious repast, and the others entertain their guests with the talents that have made each of them so famous. Wayne Sleep reveals, “I am learning from the locals the feeling of happiness and serenity. It is all part of a spiritual awakening.”
Their visit to India falls during one of India’s most widely celebrated Hindu festivals, Ganesha Chathurti. In Jaipur this holiest of days to Lord Ganesha is celebrated with a vibrant street parade that includes singing and dancing. Intrigued and excited, the travelers are taken through the colorful streets right into the heart of the parade to watch the elephants and horses pass by, guided by joyful devotees. Jan Leeming, who has never ridden a horse before, bravely chooses to enjoy the parade from horseback. She later bubbles, “This is the most fabulous evening I have had in over a decade. It is making me think I want to spend more time in India.” Others climb the steps of nearby buildings to watch the parade pass below. “People would look up and wave. Everyone was happy, peaceful and spiritual,” Patti Boulaye recalls. The morning after Ganesha Chathurti, in a contemplative moment, Wayne Sleep muses, “This is a wonderful time to consider life, death and being well in oneself.” His words are full of unintended significance, as they will depart soon for Varanasi, slightly over 500 miles by car.
“I am learning from the locals the feeling of happiness and serenity. It is all part of a spiritual awakening.”
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It is said a pilgrimage begins at the moment of its contemplation. This seems the case for our senior celebrities. Miriam Margolyes asserts, “I am fascinated by Indian religion and will not flinch from a spiritual adventure.”
At Varanasi, on the banks of the holy river Ganga, some 30,000 bodies are cremated every year by loving families who wish their departed one to achieve moksha. The auspiciousness of dying in Varanasi is explained to the Westerners as they watch bodies covered in simple cloths pass along the narrow streets of Varanasi. Jan Leeming finds the experience overwhelming, having lost her mother and father in recent months, while for others it opens thoughtful discussions on death and dying. Rosemary Shrager observes, “I think there is something peaceful about being cremated near a river.” Miriam Margolyes confesses, “Death is something one has to face. Am I frightened? Yes, it terrifies me! I hope I will be calm and graceful when the time comes.”
The spirit of the group has now taken a somber turn. Death remains somewhat of a taboo subject in the West, though in the East it is exalted as an auspicious transition. Jan Leeming and Patti Boulaye choose not to join in a visit to an ashram for the dying, a private space to be with close family. Patti explains, “The final moments are very private and I do not wish to disrespect this onward journey.”
Everyone’s spirits are raised by the vibrant evening arati on the banks of the river, an offering to Mother Ganga, and one can see the joy return to their faces. One by one they have the opportunity to light a candle and offer it to the holy Ganga with a prayer for those close to them who have departed. Watching hundreds of tiny candles float down the river in the evening is a truly memorable sight, and Roy Walker is deeply enamoured by this ceremonial release of the candle onto the holy river. He shares that he lights a candle for his late wife at every opportunity.
India weaves her mystical magic on each of the celebrities as their spiritual journeys unfold. For some this represents a few small, hesitant steps forward; for others it strengthens existing beliefs and practices. It is inspiring to hear spirituality spoken of so openly, especially as most comment that they have not found a way to connect with their spiritual nature. Enamored with India’s mysticism, the senior stars consider the practical aspects of a move to the culturally contrasted East.
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COURTESY PATTI BOULAYE
Practical Stumbling Blocks
Central to a retired life in India is the community one builds during the early years of transition. Our travelers are profoundly impressed by the strong family unity and the openness with which the locals of Jaipur—unacquainted with their careers—have welcomed them. Miriam Margolyes comments, “Within the family there is great love, and that is nice to see. I do not have a big family; it is just my partner and I.” Jan Leeming adds a heartfelt reflection, “I am feeling more of an integration with the people of India than anyone else. I speak two words of Hindi, but I feel very much at home.” Jan explores living in a haveli with a family, which is a common option for expatriates in Jaipur, and she speaks of the contrast to life back home where one may not know one’s neighbors. “Living behind closed doors,” she calls it.
Concluding that societal amalgamation is less of an issue, thoughts turn to health care in India. Each participant explores the situation in detail. All are delighted with the provision of excellent health care at a fraction of the cost of the UK private system.
Deeply impressed by his experiences in India, Bobby George leads the group to meet with a real estate agent, who informs them that a luxury three-bedroom property can be bought for $120,000, which is roughly equivalent to a purchase deposit in parts of London. Having viewed a property, Bobby and others enter serious discussions about buying here. At this point, however, the agent informs them the government does not allow non-Indian residents to buy property, though they may rent. Adding to this disappointment, the Britishers learn that obtaining temporary visas is a challenging process. Few are inspired to deal with this kind of stumbling block.
These practical setbacks do not dampen the group’s spirit. Each reflects that their time in India has proved a fruitful personal journey. Most are keen to return to India, at least for a holiday. Jan Leeming considers short-term stays during India’s winter months. Mariam Margolyes goes further: “I can never have enough of India. I long to return.” Roy Walker is touched by the locals: “The hospitality, humility and friendliness of the people are to die for. I was humbled.” Rosemary Shrager finds peace here: “I found the spiritual side of India extremely moving. I found myself being very drawn to that life, one of calmness and acceptance.” Her comment seems to sum up the feelings of most, as they leave India after participating for three weeks in this novel and courageous project.
India’s magical grace has kindled a light in each of these good souls. Irrespective of where they spend their retirement years, this spiritual journey and cultural immersion have enriched them all and served to inform more than three million viewers of the possible and the impossible. “The Real Marigold Hotel” aired in January and February of 2016 and is currently available through BBC iPlayer or here: bit.ly/MarigoldHotel2