Thursday, June 25, 2009


Familial equations: Redefine structures to ensure the family’s survival.

The unhesitating reply of many urban Indians, when they are asked to define the most unique identifier of ‘Indian culture’, is “the joint family”. I am never really sure whether they actually believe this or whether they assum e this to be the politically correct response. If indeed they believed it, their attitudes towards their families should be far more venerating than psychotherapeutic experience, contemporary literature, performing arts, and media reports would have us believe. I believe it to be an unconsidered response motivated more by a sub-conscious sense of guilt, for the joint family in metropolitan India has been a visible casualty in the course of the process of national development. In fact, as a practicing psychotherapist, I find that over the last ten years or so, the greatest stress factor in modern urban life is the family — an institution that has been the bedrock of Indian life over the centuries. Our leaders continue to lament the breakdown of the joint family in the country, exhort us to return to “Indian cultural values” and resurrect the joint family. But is this possible? Or, hold your breath, is it even necessary?

Historical necessity

The joint family was a historical necessity. Centuries ago, when environmental uncertainty was very high, when people were beginning to expand their geographical horizons, the village-community progressively became too large or too nebulous an entity to provide emotional support to individuals. The latter, who had a strong need to belong to a group of familiar and supportive people, looked to the joint family to fill this emerging void. And the joint family responded admirably to the situation. It served the role of parent, protector and nurturer, and by harnessing collective wisdom, created an enabling environment to permit the growth and development of its constituents.

To perpetuate itself, it had to evolve a strict code of conduct, clearly delimited individual roles, a prescribed power structure and unstinting subordination to the nominated paterfamilias (or, in some instances, the materfamilias) for it to be able to perform its function. But, as midnight’s children and grandchildren started appreciating their need for individual identity, the restrictions placed by the joint family were not easily manageable, and therefore the extended family (parents living with one married child and grandchildren) made its appearance, This seemed to, temporarily at least, satisfy the individual’s need, and guilt was kept at bay. Unfortunately, extended families, unable to shake off the hangover of their origins from the rigid joint family, began to function like downsized joint families. The dynamics were similar: The benevolent or tyrannical paterfamilias, the power structures, the subordination to the head of the family, all continued, though in a mildly diluted form.

But, in 21st century India, economic realities, practical considerations and the demands made by the process of identity development, all inevitable aspects of the process of maturation of a culture have already started gnawing at the institution of the extended family. More and more people are becoming dependent on their nuclear families to provide them whatever support they require. The joint family with its rigid structures or the extended family with its uncomfortable undertones has become more like albatrosses than the facilitating agents they were designed to be. Even in extended families, active jockeying for the coveted position of Head of the Family takes place, with the incumbent often finding it extremely difficult to relinquish the reins, even when economically dependent on the heir-apparent for survival. This often results in messy and sometimes Machiavellian power struggles resolved only by the passing on of the former. The situation is, of course, more critical in urban and peri-urban India, but given the rapid pace of development, it is not unreasonable to speculate that, over the next few decades, the problem may become more severe in rural India too.

Subliminal bonds

As a result of all this, equations within the family are not defined by mutual respect, as successful relationships should be, but more by some subliminal filial bonds that are expected to magically hold the unit together. They do not, because they cannot. Does this mean that the only possible future scenario is large numbers of broken families and elders abandoned by callous children? Not if we see the writing on the wall, get our collective acts together and actively redefine the institution of the family, just as we are attempting to do with the institution of marriage. One can actually visualise a scenario where families become more functional and their members engage in more mutually respectful relationships than has been the case in the past, provided the focus shifts from the individual having a relationship with the ‘family’ as an entity to having more conscious relationships with the constituents of the family. Only then can the family emerge as a more substantial unit of social support than the hollowed out institution it appears to be today.

It is the search for mutual respect that places a burden on the perpetuity of the family as a functional unit. But it is this same search for mutual respect that is finally going to ensure that the family survives as a unit, even if in a redefined form. For relationships to become mutually respecting, the fundamental requirement is for the individuals within them to be objective about each other. No longer can the parent-child relationship function in a parent-child mode. By this, I mean that the adult offspring should be able to relate to the parent as one adult would to another. Equally critical is for the parent to engage in a similar process. The child needs to cut the umbilical cord completely and the parent needs to ‘emotionally let go’ of the child and facilitate this process. Likewise siblings too, need to start relating to each other as adults and not with the same patterns that they have been used to since childhood.

Mutual respect

But for this to happen, we need to change the way we look at the institution of the family. Rather than look at the family as one large umbrella identity that requires rigid disciplinary processes to survive, we need to start thinking of the joint family as a cluster of nuclear families. Each nuclear family unit may have its own unique processes that distinguish itself from its counterparts. And each of these units needs to be respected as an organic entity that has every right to pursue its own stated aspirations, even if the other units in the cluster have a differing perspective. Such a redefined joint family, provides support to its constituents by learning to respect the space required by each of its constituents — a federalisation of the joint family, if you will. The end result is an apparently joint-less family, that is nevertheless jointed, not by virtue of a common genetic structure, but by virtue of mutual respect.

The redefined family, that builds itself on a satisfying present than on just a shared past, has the potential to construct an optimistic future. But the process of redefinition needs to be undertaken actively and consciously. It will not happen miraculously. There is, of course, one other way of dealing with the family: Keep chugging along and hope that something will happen to change things dramatically, or that with advancing age everyone settles down to mutually accepting and acceptable patterns of behaviour. Does it work? I have no evidence that it does. But the choice is ours. Hopefully, we will choose wisely, thereby preserving the integrity of the special Indian institution — the family, instead of constantly lamenting its breakdown.