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February 06, 2017

Separated But Together: The New Indian Family Unit

Text by Tasneem Mohamedbhai

As joint families give way to nuclear setups, can ‘slight’ distance make the heart grow fonder?

In an ideal situation, freshly squeezed orange juice does morning rounds between A Wing Flat 45 and C Wing Flat 73. The primordial maharaj is shared between mummyji and bhabhiji; and, sometimes, the D.I.L. even pops on over to baste the roast for M.I.L.’s mixed kitty before heading back to her own place for yoga with her girls.

Gender roles, patriarchy and familial duty are concepts that have seen great change in the last decade. Previously visible norms have vanished, a new social construct has emerged and the traditional joint family today has a somewhat disjointed character. These changes could be attributed to a natural evolution vis-à-vis modernisation, or they might simply be the result of the end of this generation’s intolerance for quirks like family dinners, plastic placemats, lack of privacy, decorum, dal-chawal…the list goes on.

The over-the-top celebration of handed-down values, set against backdrops of palatial homes filled with a dozen, happy relatives all living together (think Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!), has ceased to be the epitome of family bliss for the new generation. Today, it’s all about ‘my home’, ‘my space’ and ‘my personal life’. Young couples want to start fresh. The quintessential bahu has been replaced by the ‘madam’ of the house who can sleep in, walk around in her boxers, and spend hours chatting on the phone, at a breakfast table laden with nothing but sugar-free muesli and skimmed milk. ‘Beta’ has made way for ‘sir’, whose well-stocked bar can be opened on a Friday, or Monday, or any day, without a fleeting thought for the religious sensibilities of the elders of the home. The truth is that the responsibility of being a member of a joint family and fulfilling the archetypical role just became too much to manage.

There are definite perks to this new system of smaller households that have less to do with social constructs and far more to do with the joys of independent living. Young families want the luxury of private bedrooms for the kids and they’d much rather have the puja room turned into a dry laundry area. Extra space and modern aesthetics mean no more floral curtains! Also, out goes the dark Burma teak and in comes Scandinavian pine. It is indeed a goodbye to hot naashta served round the clock, as food stops being the centre of the universe! And finally, the not-so-smart, old-fashioned rasoi makes way for the contemporary, state-of-the-art open kitchen. Shedding the weight of a joint family also means that no more permission is required for late nights, entertaining, firing, hiring and indeed having a dog!

It is 2016, and we’ve seen urban fashion, food, literature, and art shake off their shackles, and our family structures have followed suit. But, breaking stereotypes comes at a price. The transition from a joint family to a nuclear one doesn’t happen automatically and it involves changing centuries of traditions, expectations and emotions. A sour breakup between child and parent can leave the older generation miserable and scar relations for life. Even practically, the financial repercussions of a split are many — smaller homes, extra costs, a step down the social ladder, freedom at the price of loneliness, and the loss of in-house support for children and elders. But the independence also leads to a greater dependence on hired help, and we all know how difficult it is to find a good nanny! Most crèches and old people’s homes are shoddy; so, unlike our NRI cousins, we can’t depend on signing up our parents for luxury retirement homes in Miami!

The nuclear family became a phenomenon in the West, around the 1950s. Though some statistics these days show that the popularity of smaller units is waning, we, in urban India, have caught on to the trend…and we might have even found a way to make it work. The households of A Wing Flat 45 and C Wing Flat 73 prove it. This innovative setup foresaw a nuclear family as inevitable and even preferable. They wisely chose to buy a couple of flats in one apartment complex, ensuring only slightly separated homes. And, in the process, revealed the ideal solution to the nasty repercussions of breaking from a traditional joint family.

One can only expect new property projects to flash advertisements like: ‘So close, but luckily not close enough’, ‘Buy two at a 10 per cent discount’, ‘Buy three for a definite hassle-free future’, and ‘Slight distance makes the heart grow fonder’. Welcome to the third arc in the fragmentation of the Indian family unit — from joint families to nuclear ones to disparate setups.

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