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An Ode To The Indian Joint Family

Orality and narrativity are unique forms of knowledge and encode within themselves a cultural history – the story of a people. Emerging from ever expanding communities, traditions are passed down from generation to generation and form the backbone of Indian society. At the heart of a close-knit community lies the complex machinery of the family unit that grows and takes on a life of its own. It comes forth in tidal waves, creating ripples, exploding into the society and manoeuvring changes – it expands, and the society accommodates, it dictates and the society adopts, it transforms and the society transforms right along. At the intersection of family, culture and community, a way of life is birthed. The family then, almost becomes a synecdoche for the vast, expansive nation that one can never hope to understand, unravel, and experience if one does not consider the parts while considering the whole. The Indian whole is not a sum of its parts but is the parts itself. Owing to the diversity of the similar yet unique family unit found across the country – parts take on more importance than one would usually consider.

So, welcome to the family.

Welcome to the Indian family.

Welcome, to the Indian joint family.

Three welcomes because that’s just how excessive we are. Three welcomes because there are too many members, and they will all greet you with gracious warmth until you feel just the slightest bit overwhelmed. They will give you water, then chai. They will provide you with food – heaps of food that you must eat yourself unless you want it pushed into your mouth. So much food. So much sweet, sour, savoury, spicy food rich with the aroma of herbs and spices and garnished with motherly love. Not one mother’s love either – the Indian joint family has your mother, your cousins’ mother, your father’s mother, your mother’s mother, your grandfather’s mother (if she is alive), all living under the same roof. 

In Indian joint families, we give our elder’s respect, so let’s start with the father’s mother. Dadi is the word of comfort and the sound of sage advice. She is the repository of stories that prove truth is stranger than fiction. A fine line of distinction separates her from the rest of the house, a line drawn with inexplicable purity that cocoons her. She smiles upon everyone else – angel-like. Dadi will love you to bits and make you kheer, hover over you with an air of acute emotional understanding and encroach upon personal boundaries unintentionally. She will speak with a slightly shaky, uncannily sweet voice and call you out on things like your skin colour because she has grown up believing that the lighter, the better. But that’s okay because she won’t mean it hurtfully- no, to her it is just stating facts. With time, you will learn to judge the intention behind her word and then the words won’t bother you as much. Most of the time, though, the words are not bad at all. She’ll make you believe you are the best child in the world.. 

If you are lucky, once dadi is done coddling you, dadu will take you on a walk. If you are not so fortunate, he will ask you what you learned in school. As you walk you will learn a lot – you will learn about the trees you pass, the people you see, the weather – but most importantly you will learn how to cross roads, and you will gain knowledge about a (usually) problematic brand of politics. But hopefully, this problematic brand will teach you to recognise and adopt a non-problematic one. . When you return from the walk, you will learn a lot more – how to change a bulb, how to fix the fuse, and whether or not your dad always got the perfect 100 in math that he likes to talk about. But you will also teach a lot – Facebook, WhatsApp, and any other application dadu might need assistance with. 

In the middle of this teaching process, while on your phone of course, your father will walk in. Papa has a special love-hate relationship with mobile phones, in that he loves his, but hates yours. More specifically, he hates seeing you on your phone. So, obviously, papa will only walk in when you have the said phone in your hand, shake his head in slight disapproval and walk out. As a child, he will teach you cycling and build you a dollhouse. As a young adult, he will tell you all the fantastic things he did when he was your age, but you can’t even imagine him doing for the life of you. At this opportune moment, hopefully, dadu will walk in and ask him to stop bothering you, even though he had probably been a much more demanding father. Papa will sigh and leave, but he is caught in a perpetual conundrum. Looking backwards and looking forward at the same time has never been easy yet here he exists – an almost dormant state of hurtful stasis without any hope of making progress. For every step forward, he feels he has been pulled two steps back and is pretty sure that he will never be in control of his life. Perhaps that’s because if you live with your mom all your life, you never really grow up. You are a child to her, and she treats you like one – in turn, you don’t know how to behave in any other way. It is sad, really, but papa will never know how to break out. 

So he would project every wish of freedom onto his younger brother and help him fly, wishing he would leave the nest so he may live a little. But chachu is comfortable right where he is. At least for now. In a few years though, he will begin to show signs of weariness, the lines around papa’s eyes will frame his eyes too, and his usual joviality will harden into something that would be visible in the set of his shoulders. Then they will hold silent conversations about the pull of responsibility and the desire for freedom, but loyalty will win in the end – neither can leave one with all the duty and so both stay, both struggle, both try to find their own person only to lose themselves in the chaos of everyday life that pulls them in two opposing directions till they lose all orientation. They can’t tell backward from forward now, so they hope that they are at least moving. Stasis is not an easy way to be. 

In this stasis enters mumma. And she has all the right in the world to hate it the most because it is not even her stasis to live with. And yet in a house where movement stopped quite a few years ago, there is no other way to be, except to wait. Wait and wish and hope for the better tomorrow that won’t come. She comes with a mind of her own and an open heart – and she doles out love, love to a family she is just beginning to understand and realising with every instance of how different this one is from the one she left behind. But that family won’t accept her as one of their own any longer. Neither will this new family, not until she makes a place for herself at least. With time she grows on the house, and the house grows on her. She has you – a child, a beacon of all hope – so she smiles through life. She pins some dreams onto you and imagines you with wings. But in a house with two mothers (or more), mothering is a collective activity. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, at least not until there are conflicts of opinion. They do emerge though, like unwanted outcroppings in a garden tended to perfection that cause silent tussles. There’s barely any speaking involved, just a quiet struggle and a sense of unfamiliarity that comes when one feels pushed around. It is a conflict that comes to stay. At times, mumma is too disoriented to know what she should do and in moments like these, when giving up seems all too easy, she understands the stasis. She embraces it. 

Then there is you. As a child you thrive – affection is lavished upon you from all sides. Even though mom gets mad sometimes, dadi is always there to protect, to shield, to love. And so you grow up surrounded by people who dote on you – all of them in their own unique way and never for a moment do you feel lonely. You don’t understand what your friends mean when they say they go back from school to an empty house. You cannot begin to imagine, or fathom, the lives they lead without dadi’s stories and chachu’s chocolates. You are cocooned in a sort of unending bliss and life couldn’t be better. That is, until you get older and start seeing the illusion that you have been living in – the illusion and the cracks in it. The utter hopelessness that marks the faces around you sends a jolt through your being and the more you try to step out of the stasis, the more you feel pulled in. 

You are young, you are rebellious, you are thirsty for freedom and a life of your own that makes you want to break free. When you are barred from following your heart because dadi and dadu would not like what you plan to do – you think how glorious it would be if you lived just with your parents, like your friends. The freedom would make returning to an empty house worth it. 

Or would it?

Because on a rainy evening, when everyone is gathered on the porch with chai and pakoras, you can’t conceive of a better life. Laughter rings across the lawn and rides the wind, singing of your happiness to the whole wide world. As mumma frets over the now drenched clothesline, dadi hands her a cup of chai and asks her to sit back, to slow down, to live a little. What you see then is the kind of love that you will never see anywhere else. It has a purity that is hard to miss. You think you know now what this means – family, rough and broken as it might be around the edges, is home after all. And home would not be home without its tussles, its struggles, its conflicts. Home is only home when all its parts come together to form a jaggy, glorious whole. 

Experience Further: Against the backdrop of Old Delhi and its ageing houses, this song captures the essence of the Indian joint family by balancing the emotional against the humorous. While the visuals paint the picture of familial bonding and joviality, the lyrics turn it into a nuanced experience with an exploration of the intricacies that constitute married life for the woman, as she attempts to acclimatize herself to the novelty. As the dadi takes center stage, we journey into the heart of the family dynamics to discover the love that lies at its core. The song calls to me because it is an embodiment of simplicity – it captures the mundane in an attempt to highlight what actually matters in life.

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About Us

Anant Shah

Anant Shah- Founder

Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

Kartik Sundar- Founder

Kartik Sundar loves nothing more than opining on cultural content. An avid writer for many publications, the decision to start one of his own came from recognizing a substantive lack of critical discourse around Indian culture today. He graduated Ashoka University with a degree in History & International Relations and wishes to complete further education with a focus on media and cultural studies.

Who We Are

We at inCulture are looking to shed light on what we see as an emerging new Indian culture as well as paying dues to the traditions that have been integral in shaping the current space. We want to try and create a space where critical reflection on cultural events, individuals, works of art, or practices can be fostered. Rather than exist as a cultural news outlet that merely serves as a bulletin board for the latest releases, inCulture will look to curate multi-medium pieces that seek to inform readers about aspects of our culture that make you think beyond an immediate reaction. In particular, we strive to look critically at Indian culture by investigating it under four distinct categories – film & theatre, music, spaces, and society.

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