Sunday, August 15, 2010

Cousin who, uncle who? we are a nuclear family

“Remember, the family's been nucleated,” intoned my son Prayag. “I needn't do all that you did or still keep doing!”

He was responding to my idea of being in touch with his aunts, uncles, cousins, now that he is settled in a new job.

For him, as with most children of his generation, the family begins and ends with the nuclear family. Cousins are cousins — not their own siblings; the uncle-aunts are uncle-aunts — not like their parents; the grandparents too are grandparents — distant and remote, and, surely, not the elder father-mother figure they were for us. Their world encircles them, their siblings and their parents. It's a table-top, ending sharply at the family's edge.

How different our worlds were in the 1960s and 1970s! Our world was small, with big families. One's recognition was via the family; one's name was incidental and could and, indeed, was often forgotten. “He's the son of so and so, the grandson of so and so or the nephew of so and so.” That's how one was introduced. The ubiquity of the family couldn't be missed.

Family embraced cousins — close and many times removed — and relatives and friends, also cousins of cousins, relatives of relatives, and friends of friends! They're welcome any time of the day and night. There were no fixed visiting hours, no prior intimation. Prior knowledge of visit had an air of artificiality about it, a feeling of incipient urban dross enveloping the pristine rural-feudal mindsets of unspoilt values — the pleasant and pleasurable elements of thrill diminished, not to say that it negated the familiar ring of vasudhaiva kutumbakam — and sublime equations.

I still recall the string of people who visited us all day. If it was lunch time, they had lunch; if it was dinner time, they had dinner. Often relatives came and stayed with us — not exactly with a purpose or on a sundry assignment. They came and stayed because they liked to come and stay! This never forebode well for my brother and me for, we were the ones to first take the hit, and had to promptly make way for our visiting relatives to grace our beds! But we cheerfully ratcheted up and rehabbed ourselves with our makeshift floor-beds for the nights! And even felt bereft when they left after months of stay, so much had they become a part of the family's collective unconscious! No questions asked on the purpose or length of stay — that was apostasy and solecism that didn't behove of honourable families!

Of the many who came and stayed with us and who I addressed in familiar endearing terms, it came as a big surprise one day years later when I realised that the old couple who lived with us for months every year (and not with their only son and his family who lived in the same city), were in no way related to us but had lived close to my parent's house years ago in the 1940s and had grown mutually fond of one another, and adopted my mother as their daughter!

How the world has changed! The joint-and-nexus-family construct — that existed in the same space — alas, has crumbled inexorably in the face of modernity. The dispersal of family members across the earth's surface with putative clamours of a globalised world doesn't warm the cockles of my heart. Each sculpts out his mode of living in his habitat with its bespoke ecosystem, each with his own outlook and esoteric worldview humming along that admits of few common denominators running through as a strand. To my heart still dipped in nostalgia recalling my indelible childhood world, this is far from warming. I make memories and memorialise them — how families were tirelessly generous and entertaining, even exceptionally welcoming.

I know the world has changed, certainly not always for the good. My children would differ, consider me prickly, and argue vociferously, reminding me that I'm caught in a time-warp and that my go-go world has become passé and no amount of soulful nostalgia will get it back for me. They demand their independence, their private spaces denied to me in my growing-up years because it wasn't thought necessary, but which, as the world changed, I ungrudgingly granted them. I tell them about the value of family, the family values and honour but I sense they place more value not on my construct but on theirs — nucleated — that one day when they set up their own homes not too far-off I'll be pushed beyond the immediate concentric ring to the one next, as I grow old and decrepit with the Methuselah gene bump full up against my inability to accept the change and forlornly look upon them with wistful indulgent eyes.

The Indian family has changed. I continue, cast in past tense that touches on family lives, and continue being swept up in seemingly unending self-pity as my eyes sweep right, then sweep left, yet miss the entire point as thoughts I'd pushed out of my mind for years come rushing back constructing a Venn diagram of family. But I'm none too sure if it's for the good, this moral outrage, this doleful cocktail, that's taken the mickey out of me I think malicious.


  1. Purnananda GuptasarmaAugust 15, 2010 at 10:41 PM

    I greatly enjoyed your article in this morning's newspaper (The Hindu) on changes in the family structure. You have a flair for writing!

    To a certain extent, it may be admitted, structure does appear to determine behavior. Thus, the nucleated environment in which your son is growing up may indeed end up appearing to be the cause of its own perpetuation, down the generations, just as the opposite experience
    has ended up creating a wistfulness in you.

    However, just as with crops - where the quality of the seed is as important as the quality of the soil - I propose that there is also
    something inherent in a human being determined, perhaps, by the unconsciously recalled impressions of past existences) that predisposes one to these things, and influences one's reactions.

    My brother and I grew up in what might be called an 'almost nuclear' family, which was nuclear by the force of circumstances, rather than by choice (my father's moving to Hyderabad, from Calcutta, before I was born). One set of grandparents lived with us for the bulk of the year, until they passed on, and we were all very close; otherwise, we had only occasional visits from relatives. My brother and I pined for our relatives, and willingly gave up comforts to fully enjoy their
    visits, and felt bereaved whenever they departed. While they were with us, our lives joyfully revolved around looking after them, and making them happy.

    I see the same behavior now in my daughters (aged nearly 14, and 7)who have also largely grown up in a nuclear environment with
    occasional visits from grandparents, or others, lasting from only a few days to some months. They fully enjoy these visits, and are greatly excited for days before they begin. They pine for their relatives, uncles/aunts and cousins, and constantly complain about having to grow up without the company of more relatives.

    So, while the nuclear families are apparently self-perpetuating, there is also something deeper that influences the reaction of each individual.

    Once again, I enjoyed reading your thoughtful article. Please continue to write, and give pleasure to readers.

  2. I respect your views & sentiments. I loved the way you expressed the practical problems of life "Kahani ghar ghar ki". The only way out is never to expect anything from anybody. Stand strong against opposing wind(situation). Involve yourself in serving society, humanity & you will discover God. It is pleasurable experience. Read Mother Teresa, Swami Vivekanand. Discover the final aim of your life & hit it. Family & children are immortal but your soul is immortal. Love it.

  3. Its an apt article to read after a discussion yesterday about the negative effects of losing the joint family effect.

    I think a lot of it to attribute is to the insane amount of time we put at work in the new generation and the growing amount of goods consumption. Add to that the opportunities and income disparities in the youth I mean educated youth with honors! Me and my wife being toppers in respective domains at school have a ratio of 40:1 in wages. It may be extreme but many times we see 10:1. Imagine that's between two families of two cousins. Living in 2 cities. Their consumption and material wealth will grow in two ways and soon people get attached to what they have or don't. And sharing becomes difficult esp wil children coming into pic who see each other only few days in a year.

    Look at agarwal families. Many still have very closely knit families. I attribute primarily due to how much entwined their business partnerships are. Its like all your office is related to each. You get to bond better.

    I have no clear answer to what can be done to get back what we lost. Individualism is put beyond group. Winners are measured by what rewards they have taken not given.

    Anyway good to see a nice article. Are u in Delhi?

    I still try to give as much time as possible to bond and help when its in my reach financially and time-wise with even cousins and aunts. They grew us up like parents did, though for shorter timespans. Many washed us, fed us and played with us. Now treating them as strangers isn't a fair thing.

    Consuming less and sharing more is a thing which is tied to spiritual side of beings and with more youth interested in learning about deeper selves and spirituality can only help.

    Hence I choose to spend time promoting spiritual thoughts and values in kids: mine and their friends.

    Have a good day. Happy independence day!


  4. Dharmajit GuptasarmaAugust 15, 2010 at 10:48 PM

    You do not know me. I retired from Govt service in the CSIR in 1992 at the age of 60. So I must be senior to you in age. I enjoyed your article very much. I have very similar memories of my early years, and many things in your article stirred a very familiar ring inside me !

    Thanks for the insightful article.

    May God bless you.

  5. I read your article in today's Hindu.

    The central point that you have highlighted is the declining trend among the younger (as compared to us, naturally!) generation in not evincing interest in relating to the larger family. Yesterday too I read another article where the author has bemoaned the tendency among the younger (!) generation to disconnect from even the immediate family.

    Thus it appears that neither the "nuclear" family nor the "larger family" hold any attraction for Genext.

    I am 56 years old, and come from a middle class South Indian Family. I have often wondered about if this "tendency" is rather sudden? If so, when did it start and what could be the social events that triggered the same?

    Is this a human trend seen magnified in a society that for so long remained stooped in collectivism as a social norm? May be for too long one generation depended on the previous one as the sole provider of values, comfort and guide posts that when the awakening of individualism arose it was felt as rather sudden. Is there a connection to the parallel rise of "women empowerment" in society? Family as a unit to function effectively needs a hierarchy. There has been a major shift in the hierarchical relationships over the last 3-4 decades.

    Sure, this is a transition and is uncomfortable to both sides of the generation divide.

    From my personal experience, I think that the elderly ( I include myself in this esteemed group!) can set an example- let your love be universally directed, for every son/grandson who does not seem to reciprocate/understand your affection, there are many "sons/grandsons" out there who probably are open to your inputs.

    After all if the younger generation is "I gen", we can set example of being " we gen".

    Just wanted to share my thoughts.

  6. I read the above mentioned writeup of yours in todays Open Page in The Hindu. I could identify with it instantly as I am one who was born in the late 60's wherein our world was small but we were blessed to enjoy the pleasures of the big families. It is sad that times have changed and so has relationships through the years. I too have changed and I wonder whether it is for the good or bad.

    You have written very well and I hope it opens the eyes of some like me who read it and try to make a difference in whatever little way we can.

  7. My nephew, V. Ananthanarayanan (eldest son of my elder brother, Sri P.A. Vaidyanathan !). has, today, forwarded to me the article of yours on the above subject, which appeared in THE HINDU dated August 15, 2010. Since your email ID was also given, I am taking this liberty of writing to you.

    Yes, indeed, we are in the midst of a period when the third-generation (and, in some cases second generation as well) do not know anything about even close relationships. We cannot blame them also. In earlier periods, the families were confined within easily accessible distances, and they could all meet on several occasions. Once the migration from rural to urban areas started, the decline really began. Those who migrated, stayed on in their new places of livelihood, got married, begot children, who were virtually brought up (born in their maternal homes and stayed for a few months, that is all) in the cities/towns where their parents lived. These children, in turn, grew up and got married and they too begot children. So, the generation-gap widened. There were fewer opportunities to meet relatives, attend various functions, including marriages, as the modern trend is to visit new places for sight-seeing, etc., on vacation. The present-day education system has left no room for the youngsters to keep away from books, and time for play was so precious. One finds that both husband and wife work these days to meet both ends meet as the prices of essential commodities have been increasing by leaps and bounds. This leaves them with no time for rest and relaxation as they get busy the moment they get into their houses ! There is no mood to go out to meet friends, or attend some interesting programmes in the locality.

    Despite all these, it is my privilege to say that our family (and it is a large, extended family) has always strived to keep in touch with many relatives, not just cousins, uncles or aunts and people who knew us used to be wondrstruck how we managed to keep up these relationships. To them, I would only say, "where there is a will there is a way". In earlier periods, a guest was welcomed at any time of the day or night. And, today, with the advent of TV, Computer, etc., any visitor (unannounced) is more an intruder than a welcome visitor.

    The subject under discussion is a fascinating, but, at the same time, a thought-provoking one.

    I have no doubt that if the present generation members are involved in a light-hearted discussion, and they are shown, by illustration, the various relationships, from both the mother as well as father's side, they will certainly evince a little more interest in interacting with them, leading even to a face-to-face meeting. This will gradually narrow the gap between the present generation of youngsters, and the earlier two generations at least. "Vasudaiva Kutumbakam" should, indeed. be our motto.

  8. Jamaludheen MasthankhanAugust 16, 2010 at 7:40 AM

    I have read your article entitled "Cousin who, uncle who? We'r a nulear family" that was published in The Hindu. The article is based on ground realities. Being a sexagenarian, I fully endorse your views. However, I don't understand the need for the caveat ".....the views expressed are his own ..." . Of course, the younger generation will not understand or digest this. Something goes somewhere wrong. The trend has already taken a toll in the Western countries. Is it the outcome of cultural invasion or fall in values, or something else? God alone knows. Anyway, let's be prepared -- mentally -- for the day when we will end up in old age homes. This applies to younger generation, too. The situation may be worse then.

    Anyway, the article is a good piece of writing. Keep them coming please ...

  9. It was a pleasure reading your article and your nostalgic views about the unfortunate fossilization of the joint family.

    I was particularly impressed with the use of language and vocabulary, especially in the paragraph - "How the world has .... even exceptionally welcoming".

    Thank you.

  10. Sir,
    Frankly speaking, the article may not be digestible for software! generation. The fission of nucleated families which is being evidenced by the generation of more and more 'old age homes', is a really a paradox.
    More avenues in life, more we depart.