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.