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Millennium Post

All about the Big Fat Indian Family

The Indian family’s universal acclaim as a holder of sacred values, as a carrier and preserver of traditions, and as the champion of ancient and prehistoric customs, has been touted as a lesson to commerce-driven trade relationships that have now replaced the tender family bonds of capitalist nations like United States. Or, is it at all so easy and simplistic? Can the complex and intricate mechanisms, which underlie the construction of a social unit that is fundamental to the functioning of society, be reduced to the basic formulaic assumptions that inhabit our antiquated imagination as far as the ‘Indian family’ is concerned? When are we finally getting ready to encounter the scandalous truth that the ‘Indian family’ has decisively and firmly refused to acquiesce to the exploitation of its obsolete ideals, and broken out of its monolithic and tiresome status as the guardian of all that is old and gold?

Rationally speaking, it has become impossible for us to conceive of a singular, monumental, objectified body called the ‘Indian family’. What may anyone mean by any reference to such an entity I am at a terrible loss to comprehend! After all, in a nation where the population is counted in billions, where there are 18 national languages, where a considerable quarter of the citizens exist below the poverty line, where the national economy is a continuous source of mystification, what definition of a national family can be basically inferred without neglecting at least several huge sections of the populace? What is the ‘Indian family’ that we are talking about? The family that resides under one of those numerous overbridges and survives on the residual dignity of child labour and beggary? Or the one, which has two working parents doing late night shifts to get their children through expensive boarding schools? Or, the one where children learn to tap on keyboards before they learn pronounce their first syllables, and eventually go ‘abroad’ to get a degree and ‘settle down’? Or the most dependable category of the financially-viable-but-not-obscenely-rich Indian middle class, whose morality quotient has never once faltered in decades, except perhaps for an occasional slip or two, courtesy of ‘Sheila’s enduring
jawani
’? Which do we anoint as the archetypal, representative ‘Indian family’ before investigating its ‘changing face’?

The family unit, without delving into the unnecessary depths of Marxist theory, is dependent for its essential structural development on the chief economic forces that support its existence. The quintessential family in ancient India tended to be patriarchal because the principal bread-earner of the family was almost always a senior male member. The rest of the family revolved around this pivot, which functioned as the financial axis of the family. And, as is always the rule, power lies where money lies. Therefore, the primary earning member almost indisputably also became the decision-maker and chief coordinator of this system. A sort of general manager in corporate terms, if you please. The arrangement made the family a hierarchical organisation, which operated on the basis of division of labour. As long as this convenient configuration was not interrogated or challenged, the family ran smoothly on patriarchal wheels. The convergence of the family on a single financial fulcrum made it a centripetal social unit, which is the primary characteristic to have undergone an alteration by the time we entered the new millennium. With the opening up of career opportunities for women in the late 19th and 20th centuries in India changed the family scenario somewhat – the system now became centripetal, with members of both sexes diverging and renting out their labour in various sectors. Once it became clear that housewifery was not the only vocation available for the fairer sex, the family circuit quietly rearranged its furniture to make room for the new phenomenon called the working woman.

Not only does this fact metamorphose the hitherto stereotypical and stultified gender relationship, it also changes significantly the power equation within the family circle, which had earlier tended to be unfairly tilted towards the male half of the community. This fact has also further helped as a stabilising agent in the economic arena, gaining for the family a healthy fiscal foundation to perch on.

The proliferation of urban industrial economy had a similar centrifugal effect on the ‘joint’ family structure, which had been blessed and endorsed by elders for aeons. The rural economy fails to sustain a plethora of ancestral relations and end up diversifying into areas, which would provide for a continuous source of employment. Like an amoebic limb, smaller parts of the familial plasma began to migrate towards cities, which offered both education and profession to the youth, where the ‘nuclear’ family began to sprout. The proverbial prodigal son now began to disentangle himself from the age-old kinship ties and venture out in search of greener pastures. Gradually, with the influence of modernity and family planning programmes, the city dwellers began to subdue their progenitive impulses to the needs of higher living standards. Consequently, the sprawling size of extended kinships was reduced to the nuclear composition of a four-member pith, which was self-sustaining both financially and emotionally. Since the bourgeois family is oriented towards profit, older relations began to suffer disregard due to their inability to contribute to the economic process. No better illustration of the evolution of the new family can perhaps be conceived than the portrayal of Apu’s family in Satyajit Ray’s
Pather Panchali
(1955).

The changing face of the Indian family has undergone all these phases through the successive decades: its face now has the boldness of modernity; its features flaunt the adaptability vested in the post-modern predicament. Parents have willingly discarded their role as the strict guardians and slipped into the comfortable garbs of friendly solicitors for rebellious adolescents who, between shopping malls and internet dating, hardly manage any time for family vacations.

If the picture seems too bleak, we may at least take solace in the fact that family ties in India are at least decidedly stronger than any first world nation. Adults still earn respect for their greying (or balding) head, and get more than their fair share of pranams on demand. Ardent students still need all the blessings that they can muster from the grandparents before the dreaded mathematics examination.

Festivals and other rare occasions when the family reunites with friends and relatives are still a joyous excuse for the choicest home-made delicacies, the secret recipes for which are passed down as family heirloom for generations. Children mingle with cousins who they never knew existed. The scent of sweetmeats and old anecdotes fill the air with the heady sense of nostalgia – an incurable disease in Indians.

Anxious aunties still exchange resumes of the most eligible NRI bachelors for the next potential bride in the family.

We are still together, in spite of the distance. The face of this family has changed, but thankfully, has not yet altered beyond recognition. Let us hope that it stays that way. IPA

The author is a scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
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