The Great Indian Family

A few days ago, Itchy had this post on the old Indian social structure, and how it is breaking apart now. I agree with her on a number of things. Families were definitely closer on the whole – by family I mean not just a unit of four, but the entire extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, even second cousins. Holidays were great fun for children, with the entire family spending special occasions together. There was no question of ‘only I look after my kids’ – Kids were a communal responsibility. Infact, for families who actually lived together, everything was a joint responsibility. Further, everyone, or almost everyone was taken care of. My mother’s ailing uncle, who passed away recently at 90, spent his last 8-10 years, with a nephew and his family, since he didn’t have any children of his own. Except for rare cases, no one had to fear abandonment simply because you did not have enough put away, or any direct descendants. The family made space for everyone, atleast till my parents’ generation.

So what I am trying to say is, the old system had much going for it. Then, why am I ambivalent about it?

Because, I believe that such a system can only sustain when it looks at what is reasonably good for everybody, not what each individual wants as the best for himself. And the practicalities of this system, could only be sustained in an age, when women kept oiling the wheels of this machinery.

Now, in this system, it is not just women who made the sacrifices. I know men as well who abandoned their education to look after siblings. Or postponed getting married until well over 40, not because they wanted to, but because younger sisters needed to get married first. So in a situation where everyone’s needs had to be balanced, most people necessarily gave up something.

But on a daily basis, the whole family as a caregiving unit, could function only because the women of the family acted as caregivers. Their role was to stay home as wives, mothers, daughters-in-law, nieces-in-law, granddaughters-in-law. In my grandmothers generation, this was never questioned. Women were not educated, there was no question of their going out to work or doing anything for themselves. Neither did they give it too much thought – this was what they were brought up to be.

But by the time my mothers generation grew up, things had changed. By the early 70s, girls’ schooling had become widespread, even college was no longer rare. This then, was really the sacrificial generation, in a sense. They knew that they could go on to do many things, but in most cases, familial pressures dictated that they confine themselves to running, often large households that required a lot of attention. These were the women who ensured, that our vacations were lovely, because they could spare the time needed to make us those goodies, those murukkus, those sweets, that we buy at the store today. These were the women, who welcomed visitors at the drop of a hat, because they were family, and family is always welcome. Even if it meant getting up at unearthly hours and working themselves to the bone. These were the women who, even if they worked, often gave up jobs because a child was ill, or the husband got another transfer. Who looked back ten years later, just for a minute maybe, and thought about the senior post in government they would be holding now.

Ofcourse you can say that they made their choices. But certainly the demands of the old way of life didn’t make it any easier. Today, its not just that more and more women opt to work. Perhaps our notion of what is due to us, has also changed. I demand time to read, whenever I feel like it. My mother, for a large part of her life, woke up at 5 a.m to get us ready to school, pack our lunch, cook lunch for the rest of the family, and then set out for her teaching job. In between, she also managed to pursue her Masters, when she was 40. When she was 20, it had been an impossible dream – a graduation was as far as her family could afford, before setting aside money for the education of her siblings. Though she loves reading, for much of her life, it was a luxury for her to find the time, not something that she could take for granted, like I do.

So while I certainly miss the warmth and fun of my childhood, now you know why I am ambivalent about the whole thing. It was great in many ways, but looking into it closely, the dreams that were never fulfilled seem too many.



  1. for all teh unfulfilled dreams – dont you think there was less therapy required?! seriously though – words like angst and ennui find a lot more place in our daily vocabulary – we have more ppl being treated for clinical depression because they just dont have anyone to lend them a sympathetic ear…

    i know i should move back to the 16th century – but all this focus on the self rarely brings ppl peace. i know i wish we were more of a joint family system. kids could be left with family while the parents get a berak, my granduncle died in our home despite having 5 of his own children simply because they didnt care… so yeah, your point that no one needed money. i think i should do a post instead of rambling on ur page or itchy’s!

  2. My name is Kathy, and I am the primary caregiver for my 79 year old Dad who has Alzheimer’s disease and lives with me in North Carolina.

    I am writing a daily blog that shows the lighter side of caring for someone with dementia.

    Please pass this link along to anyone you feel would enjoy it.



  3. hmmm, funny you shld write about this topic girlie. I have been thinking about it rather strongly the past few days. where i am now is probably the cause of it all. i fully agree with u that the whole system worked primarily because of the laydeez.
    have u noticed tho, how the men’s life goes on pretty much as normal, gen after gen? i mean, my grandpa did (and does) pretty much as he pleased, my dad is away doing his own stuff but if my gran or mum or aunts have to do something for themselves, there’s a truckload of things to be considered first. to cart the whole gumbal off to see Sivaji was off-putting enough – it must have taken the Greeks less time to launch the 1000+ ships!!

  4. Your mom seems so much like me.getting up at 5 to get the children ready,cook a meal and rush to college by 7.My daughters are so much relaxed now and while elders are missing from the set up husbands do pitch in and help much more than our men.Each sysyem has its merits and demerits but a joint family can be a boon to working women but they still have to compromise a lot.and once children outgrow the need for granparental care there is a chance of them feeling unwanted and done with.Thanks for giving your view if things.I must go thro’ kathy’s blog.seems interesting.

  5. MM, I notice you have a post up…will visit there in detail! Infact I agree with you on many if the benefits, but I still feel individual aspirations are too precious to give up. I also have an issue with the lopsided power structure that most joint families had, things were not necc hunky dory in many.

    Kathy – thanks for the link. Will go through. Its amazing that you are able to think of it from a lighter side perspective.

    DG, I think the men give up things too, in their one way. the difference is often, that in their case, its often “one big thing”, like having to stop your education mid way. Not to put that down in many way, but for women, its a little bit different. since they didnt have a 9 to 5 job, i feel in a way, the work never stopped. like what you pointed out – even if though things are changing.

    padmaji – i thought you would understand. i dont mean to say that the system was totally bad. having lived in a joint family myself for a few years, i do know the benefits it offers. but yeah, personal space was so much lesser. i freely admit – i am terribly selfish, and couldnt imagine working like that. ofcourse now labor saving devices are also much more, so perhaps things could be different in some ways…

  6. There is another side of living in a joint family from a totally Indian perspective. I may be okay with the work I need to do/share while in a joint family setting but then if I have to explain to my elders why I need to go to a club to chill out once in a while(when they never were a part of the party scene in the first place), That would be tough.

    Joint families are great when there is a mutual desire to bridge the generation-gap. However things fail when despite the good intent of helping out/sharing/caring, there is a difference in basic ideologies/life-style.

  7. Well argued. I see your side of it entirely and completely agree. My father grew up in a joint family setting and my mother in a nuclear family. So now he recalls fondly his growing up years and often wishes things were the same now. He is realistic enough not to expect it but I know that he would love it if we had an open house, relatives dropping in, people coming to visit and staying on for ages, lots of chatter, chai, etc. But I can imagine the toll it would take on my mother, because it was the woman who uncomplainingly cooked extra food at the drop of a hat, often foregoing their share, who produced extra beds and hot tea as if by magic, and who made sure that the guests were well looked after while the men’s lives went on pretty mch as usual.

  8. sparsh – the way we think now is totally different, no?

    anamika – thanks for the note. we think alike on this – mostly it is women who shoulder the drudgery…

  9. […] who wants to live independently with her spouse, will often be branded as breaking the family. As I mentioned before, the joint family did have some advantages. But coming from a three-daughter household, the injustice of a patriarchal set up strikes me […]

  10. […] The point of this post being two posts I read by Itchy and Apu. […]

Comments RSS TrackBack Identifier URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s