An ode to family

An ode to family

The family as an evolving unit has often been the subject of much scrutiny. Especially now, with the very word ‘family’ undergoing a metamorphosis from joint to nuclear, from extended to blended. Come to think of it, the ‘desi’ family has officially shrunk, writes Shine Antony, wondering where the Great Indian Family is headed

The Great Indian Family is going places, at least it is walking out of its photo frames so that there are less and less people left to pose. Divorcing, remarrying with kids his and hers, not marrying at all, coming out of the closet, adoption, single parenting, surrogacy, test-tube babies, love child, migration of key members…

The very word ‘family’ has metamorphosed from joint to nuclear, from kids ten to two to none, from married moms to unmarried ones, from extended to blended. Sibling rivalry of the scope detailed in the Mahabharata is no longer possible with the predominance of single-kid families; though households with a hundred kids were always tough to find. Having moved from the rambunctious rambling type to the new Microsoft version where the two sole members are peering at their own laptops, the desi family has officially shrunk. While the old meaning of the word has grown somewhat extinct, a redefinition is en route.

Travelling from one city to another, or one country to another, for education, employment and entertainment partially unravelled the celebrated close-knit families of yesterday. In many rural pockets, it is only the elderly straining their cataractic eyes at the outside, waiting eternally for their children, grandchildren, anyone. Headlines reveal the lonely deaths of some whose bodies are discovered later by strangers. Just as they do statistics of infants being kidnapped or even shaken to death by their nannies when their double-income mommies and daddies are away at work or play.

Which has also given rise to the ‘friends as family’ phenomenon where pals generate mini families of their own, joined at the hip by shared hobbies, bringing the values that they grew up with in a mix and match manner to these new settings. Buddies replace bloodline. Anyone can order a family pack ice cream. The loosely knit urban family has arrived. Instead of a sunny courtyard in the ancestral homestead, they come together in cafés.

All in the family

A close-up of fraying familial ties also demystifies what was until recent times an inscrutable tangle of dense DNA. In the old days, a surname defined a person and demanded his loyalty unto death. The bit about an unmarried girl being in the family way stayed in the family. Now sex tapes are routinely released by the participants themselves.

In joint families, acreage in real estate and the chastity of daughters used to be two main brags. Marriages were strategic affairs involving much plotting, further identifying and strengthening bonds between families, and pointed to the careful calculations involved in the building of families. Each family set down its own laws. They thought nothing of promising their firstborn to priesthood, getting a stark raving mad cousin married, or tossing a widow into a temple. Servants stayed in families for generations, slave after slave serving master after master, swearing eternal allegiance. These days, on the other hand, good help is hard to find.

The traditional patriarch and conventional matriarch have fallen off the family tree. No one is keeping up with the Joneses anymore, they are busy Keeping up With the Kardashians. Custody battles are fought, kids take parents to court and property disputes drag on for years. Family is the number one suspect in any ongoing case. The fashion is to run away from ties that bind and gag. ‘Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city,’ said George Burns. Ditto, say the new Indians, one foot out the door.

It was considered shortsighted once upon a time to out your son-in-law as a wife-beater because that meant a lonely middle-age for your daughter and many mouths to feed if she has had half a dozen kids in breaks between the beatings and decides to return to her premarital address. Now the boy barely taps the girl and she is back in a blink in her single mom’s arms, suing up a storm. The institution of marriage itself is no longer accorded the sacred status it once enjoyed, with parents coming to their offspring’s rescue at the slightest ‘ouch’.

Where previously the rough and tumble of one life was subsumed within the larger network of multiple intertwined lives, the current sparse structure of families allows no such screen. Sanity is the ultimate sacrifice and one few offer to make. The family unit is fragile and central to its ecosystem is each dwindling member’s wellbeing.

Break-up & after

So, up goes the divorce rate, with neither spouse hushing up the matter. Pre-nups are drawn like loaded guns and kids shuffled around. If couples stick on, it is because, as they themselves say, this is cheaper than a legal separation where one party has to pay a lump-sum to the other. Kids are introduced to new partners of their parents and vacations mean a reconfiguration of roomies.

Society, to step up to the job of handling all these revisions in the most basic of all units, has begun to arch back its spine to accommodate grayer unions. The matter-of-fact tone of writers like Jacqueline Wilson when they address the new realities — divorce, step-dads, half-brothers and half-sisters, mental illness — goes a long way in dismantling stereotypes and ushering in a new era of complicated relationships that evade pat designations.

Courtesy doting dads, the gender-neutralising of education and pay parity in most fields, women are beginning to step into the same financial stratosphere as men. This naturally allows them greater freedom to walk out of a marriage if and when they want to. A common reason, ironically, men and women cite for their various separations: I want a marriage as stable as my parents’. Being childless by choice eases their exit from marital commitment. A career does necessitate postponing and then cancelling any plans of procreation; a baby can wait, not a promotion.
In cities, where anonymity is guaranteed to an extent, more couples prefer to live together. A decision to formalise the union or to call it quits could well take the woman past her childbearing age. Most are happy to play uncles and aunts while their brothers and sisters rant about what a bad marriage they have. Also, having watched their own parents cut corners and live what they consider half a life, independence is a much-valued commodity. That this sometimes snowballs into intense loneliness and an occasional tendency to dangle from the ceiling fan is a chance they are willing to take.
Religious rituals, another glue that helps bind families together, are also observed with lesser regularity by the younger generation. Families that don’t stay together don’t pray together. Working long shifts in a foreign city and maintaining momentum at workplaces compel only a weekend crash. Even dropping in on distant relations who happen to be in the same city takes massive effort, and when this does happen, both the guest and the host are, relatively speaking, strangers to each other. Tossed out of their terrain, kinship can become an excuse to exploit each other in new lands.
With internal numbers on the decline, families are overprotective of who they do have. For example, the rapport between a divorcee and her adult son, or that of an only daughter who drops in on her widower dad, or siblings who organise a parent’s funeral amplifies the biological connect. Contrasting against the need for self-expression and charting one’s own path is the indubitable and historically proven fact of mortality, their own, and that of their loved ones.

Caught in the crisscross of dwindling membership and the natural urge to belong, families are nervous of doing the wrong thing, of chasing away the only people on Earth who share their genes. Emotional blackmail and family fidelity are adapting to latest scenarios. Innately afraid of being run over by new-fangled relationships, members cling on to each other by letting go.

The family is designed to live on even if one day it won’t perhaps be called a family anymore. A constant reworking of this closest relationship is in the works, but its overall utilitarian role remains. The glowering father who says “Yeh shaadi nahi ho sakti”, and the sobbing mother who never vacates the puja room, are no more. In their place are foster moms and step-dads and half-brothers and adoptive aunts and two dads and grandparents by marriage; an extended and blended family grown organically from the same old roots. The bottom line is this: the planet will always be populated, never mind how.

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