Friday, July 19, 2013

Traditional Indian "Joint" Families: Are they quite the paragon of support?

In a recent post, noted Indian educationist and social commentator Meeta Sengupta has wistfully (as she herself noted) sung paeans to the traditional Indian family, also referred to as a "joint-family". Do read the eloquent essay in her blog, and I encourage you, dear reader, to interact with her. Understanding her point of view is important for another reason, too: it'd help clarify my position on this - in sharp contrast to hers. This is a matter of some significance to me, and hence I chose to respond via a blog post of my own. I think a disclaimer is important here: I greatly admire the wisdom and thoughts of Ms. Sengupta on different aspects of education, and we follow each other on Twitter. Rarely do I have an/any occasion to disagree with what she writes; however, this essay of hers seems one of those rare occasions, where I disagree with her thesis. This response is not to engender acrimony between us, but to present a viewpoint that is - as will be apparent - patently different from hers in this matter.

Ms. Sengupta describes a traditional family, what she refers to as a 'homestead', thusly:
... that is where the family would centre, where the prodigal son (or daughter) could rest their weary head, knowing that whatever they could not cope with at the moment would be managed... The traditional Indian joint family has been much romanticised, and has fallen into disuse in many ‘modern’ towns.
The alluded romanticization is indeed not a secret. One needs to only take a casual stock of the primetime soap operas on Indian television to get a feel of the extent of extreme romanticization of this aspect of Indian life. However, at this point, I'd have loved to see what Ms. Sengupta thought of the real reasons why the notion of joint family has fallen apart in the contemporary urban societies - societies about which Ms. Sengupta appear to harbor (I may be mistaken) a certain amount of disdain, as exemplified by her use of scare-quotes around the word modern. Be that as it may, let's consider what she finds so fascinating about the joint family.
... it had its merits if viewed as an organisation. There was clear and distinct leadership. Clear progression. And choice. Since tasks were often assigned to roles, there were efficiencies of scale, much like what drove the concept of a company. Or much like the concept of shared services that group companies often use. These synergies gave greater choice to the members of the household.
Since the tasks are shared, everyone spends less time than a single person running a nuclear household would. After all, the bins are emptied only once a day – whether there are six family units or a single family unit in that homestead. In fact, with six, the chances of being able to pool resources and outsource jobs are higher. Releasing even more time for each family member to pursue their interests and careers. The children of all the sub-families eat together, play together, learn together and there is always some adult from the family to look after them. (The internal financial structure of these families is a fascinating study in itself)
Let's now see how these ideas go along with the story that Ms. Sengupta recounted of a real family she knows (while maintaining anonymity for the protagonists, which is reasonable), thereby putting a human face to certain abstract ideas. For a clearer understanding of the dynamics, I have put her story as bullet points, with some notes of my own in parentheses.
  • Sona (name changed): a school teacher (employed, with a reasonable salary, and certain amount of societal prestige)
  • Lives in a three storied house with her extended family (presumably in a metropolitan city, so middle- to upper-middle class, with property as asset)
  • Her parents in law: 2 sons and a daughter, each is married with two children each (In the context of the modern Indian society, this is a slightly unusual arrangement - where a married daughter, with children, is living in the parental home - with or without her husband we don't know; what this tells me is that this may not be a stereotypical Indian joint family)
  • Each one of them has a career or business except for the mother in law who has interests of her own (Again, the family members are possibly financially secure and reasonably well to do - a point of privilege)
  • Sona leaves early for work, does no housework before she goes, unlike those who run smaller family units. She knows that her unit will be fed, washed (she has a baby too) and kept busy even if she does not plan for it. Her mother in law looks after the morning chores. (Again, in the Indian context, a very understanding mother-in-law - a rare specimen
  • Her elder sister in law (We don't know if this is the married daughter or the wife of the other son; possibly the latter) enjoys the same privileges – she runs a business and leaves at around ten, having been fed and watered. She has had time to spend with her loved ones all morning, and will do when she gets back home too. She will cook one dish a day, and tidy up her room, and supervise the tidying up of her children’s room. 
  • Her husband starts work at noon, and works till late – he is being groomed as the successor to the family business, so spends more time there. 
  • Sona’s husband: an entrepreneur, goes to work with his elder brother but takes a break after Sona comes back from school, just in time for a late lunch together. (It is wonderful that they can afford to spend their lunchtime together, but let's not pretend that for many working families this is not an unaffordable luxury)
  • The mother in law spends every afternoon and evening with her friends at the local temple, or a kirtan (religious singing) in a neighboring house.
  • Often Sona takes time out in the late afternoon and evenings to meet her friends, while her sister in law gets to go out later, when Sona is back. (Really? They take turns to go out? What is this, kindergarten?!)
  • At every point of time there is at least one adult male and one adult female looking after the children, even if the household help is not around. (Ah, but there IS household help, which they can afford, if need be - yet another point of privilege)
Ms. Sengupta goes onto describe other sterling qualities of this paragon of traditional family, where men and women share cooking responsibilities, everybody eats dinner together, a family that backs each other up, especially in temporary times of professional stress, takes care of all members, and provides space and support to anyone who needs it.

Ms. Sengupta also trots out the oft-quoted, favorite Indian simile of pots and pans in a closet brushing against each other and making noises - in order to highlight, light-heartedly, a possible downside to the joint family unit, noting that, just as in a workplace, conflicts are managed within the 'team', which survives strong, as a unit. Truly, a modern Indian household, and this - according to Ms. Sengupta's wistful eyes - is how they have it all.

Beautiful, no?

Except that Ms. Sengupta and I must be looking at completely different realities. Look, with all due respects to Sona, her family, and her familial accomplishments, I submit that this is not a typical family in the urban Indian context. That's where these comparisons break down, and it is important to recognize that. This is the reason why I tried to point out the privileges that Sona and her family enjoy, which in part allows them the unencumbered happiness of their joint family. But if I may be so bold, this hardly seems the typical experience of the average middle-class Indian family.

It is a well-established truism that relationships work out best amongst equals. This holds true for various types of relationships, and the familial relationships in the context of the traditional Indian family is no exception, to a great extent. Especially for Sona's joint family, a very important corollary works out perfectly in consonance with this, namely, the financial independence of most of the adult family members. Regardless of what they each earn separately, or whether they pool their resources as a family or not (some families do, some don't), the fact remains that they all are employed and they all earn. To my mind, this represents a significant concatenation of factors which preserves mutual respect and admiration, which in turn paves the way for a relatively harmonious functioning of a multi-family unit.

For many Indian joint families (many that I personally know, including some of my own), these esoteric concepts of equal partnership, financial equity, and mutual respects hardly ever apply. Often different individuals within a family have different earning abilities and/or situations. This often makes for fundamental inequalities, uncouth comparisons, bitterness, petty jealousies that run deep - all of which engender and fester acrimony. In many families, the women are not allowed to work outside the house, and instead are forced into domesticity; within the domestic sphere, there are micro-hierarchies based on age, husband's earning capabilities, personal tastes, fertility, and so forth. All of these tend to create an unhealthy, oppressive and insidious environment. I am not even going to get into (a) the lack of privacy and oft-absent sense of boundary (which perhaps is not too difficult to understand for people essentially cohabiting under the same roof), or (b) the difficulties of cohabiting with people of different intellectual levels and pursuits.

Having a safety net, especially one from within the family, is a wonderful feeling, as Ms. Sengupta points out. But for many families, that safety net comes for a steep price. There may be - I repeat, "may be", not necessarily "is" - an element of growing up and taking responsibility, that may not quite develop or appear in the folks enjoying the safety net of a joint family and the emotional comfort it is supposed to bring.

Along the same vein, conceptually, the idea of children growing up in the midst of an extended family of kids and adults, never lonely, never alone, is great. But often it teaches the kids to be co-dependent, and grow up with a sense of perpetual immaturity, entitlement and lack of boundaries. There are also, in this situation, two other major caveats.
  • No matter how much one loves one's families children as a whole, looking after someone else's children is almost always considered rendering a service - and it gives rise to various kinds of expectations on part of certain members, not all of which can be possibly fulfilled by other members of the unit. 
  • A joint family, while fun, hardest on children who grow up with different set of adults often receiving conflicting wisdoms and mixed signals; they often don't get clear guidance on specific issues, and most importantly, in many families, children are not listened to - and find it difficult to form their own identitites separate from that of the clan. Historically, in many families, this is what has enabled familial sexual abuse.
Ms. Sengupta has compared the running of the traditional Indian family favorably to that of a company, using the concepts of leadership, hierarchy and progression. However, she has chosen not to mention a major and important difference; a company must adhere to a certain set of rules and there are consequences to non-compliance, as much as there is an established grievance-redress system. One, however, cannot "fire" one's husband or wife or brother or sister-in-law and so forth for any perceived injustice - there often is not even a due process - and the vicious cycle of unjust treatment often runs in families across generations.

Ms. Sengupta has used the example of the Tagore family as the epitome of the efficacy of a joint family.
Some, like in the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s household (admittedly a rich zamindari household with myriad servants) used the time to explore their talents. In other households this time was used in other pursuits.
And yet, there was considerable strife within the women of the family. I'd direct Ms. Sengupta's attention to at least two different books written on that illustrious family, Jorasanko by Aruna Chakravarti, and Women of the Tagore Household by Chitra Dev - both of which recount the intra-family tensions, strife, pettiness, and heartaches. If they were able to rise up despite all those as an elite family, it was because of the incredible talents of many of the family members, not to mention, the strength of their exchequer. Not quite comparable to the situation that we ordinary mortals find ourselves in, is it?

So, in the final synthesis, going counter to Ms. Sengupta's thesis, I'd strongly advocate in favor of nuclear, self-sufficient families. Of course, there are problems in such small-household families. But as times have changed, the scope and breadth of support networks have changed, too. One hardly needs to look inside the family for continuous support nowadays; most of the support often comes from without. The essential resources are no longer restricted to within the family; in many cases, help for small, nuclear families are even mandated by the government. If one thinks about it, the stigma around nuclear families has often been manufactured by interested parties concerned by the breakdown of a larger multi-family unit (I say "concern" because it is not for me to allege willful misconduct). And if the family is around to lend an occasional helping hand, that is excellent. After all, who doesn't like unconditional love from grandmothers?

I do understand and respect the fact that Ms. Sengupta has a different perspective on this. We all look at life individually through the prism of our own experiences, perceptions, and even biases. Let me amend my earlier hyperbole, and state instead that we are possibly looking at two or more facets of the same reality of human interactions. The only noteworthy aspect of this is that there is probably no "right" or "wrong", or even "better" or "worse"; each individual or each family tends to find the niche that suits their dispositions and conveniences the best. C'est la vie, non?

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