An ideal society should be class-less and caste-less, that is understandable, but is it right or even possible to build a society that has no family structure at all? What would be desirable – abolishing the family unit or a fundamental change in it?
Social structures based on Caste or Class are either a religious imposition or a financial diktat. A family, on the other hand, is a natural unit. Amongst all mammals, the human child needs care and nurturing from its parents for the longest period in order to survive. Add to it the rigours of modern living and the number of years that children stay with their parents is even longer.
Simply put, the human child is automatically born into some sort of a family unit. Since humans are a social species and they depend on each other for their daily requirements for basic survival, they have evolved relationships within that unit and given them names and organized them into ‘family trees’. By this simple fact alone that, people, unlike animals, build shelters and townships and ‘put down roots’, it would be hard to imagine a society without any kind of a family unit at all. Abolishing the family unit is not a real option.
When one looks at modern society today, it has not changed or moved away from ‘older’ or more traditional family units on the one hand and on the other, some family units are almost entirely on their way out, depending on whether the people one is talking about are from rural areas or the city.
The great divide, that of ‘joint families’ versus ‘nuclear families’ is a reality. It is also a matter of convenience. It is entirely fueled by everyday realities like the size of one’s pocket and the need of the various people in the family unit. Sometimes it is a result of something as basic as space constraints and living habits. It is hard to find a house with a yard in the city due to lack of space and those who have large family units find it hard to adjust, so some members of the family choose to stay back in the village while others migrate to the cities and set up their own nuclear family units. For some it is a need of the job or profession they may have chosen to pursue. For instance, it is neither practical nor permitted for people in transferable jobs like the defense-services to drag along large extended families to their postings where amenities may be very basic and accessibility fairly limited.
In the typical middle class family unit in urban or semi-urban environments the family unit may flex according to necessity. When a child is born into the house-hold, older family members like the grandparents, who may be living in their own homes, may come and stay for long periods of time to help with the baby and to allow the new parents to get on with their lives and jobs as soon as possible. This elasticity of the family to change from nuclear to joint and then back to nuclear, when required, is perhaps the best kind of bond in these times considering how increasingly financially challenging life remains.
Since India lacks any kind of a Social Security System or Pension Plans for people who retire from private jobs, it’s the family unit that is the old-age haven for most people. Even those who retire from pension-able or Government jobs may find that their pensions are not enough to keep up with the cost of living. Consequently, families look upon their children as an old-age investment. They try to raise children with a firm belief in their responsibilities towards their families, both nuclear and extended. This may be the best insurance older people have in their twilight years.
In the Indian context, parents who may be even slightly comfortably off believe it is their duty to not only nurture their off-spring but to also ‘set them up’ in their lives ie. make sure they have a good education and also a secure livelihood. Parents go to extraordinary lengths in order to ensure financial stability for their children. Every contact is used, donations are given, wherever there may be a string, it is pulled. Sadly, children have come to believe that such effort by their parents is their birth-right. It nurtures an unhealthy trend in society, that of Financial Might being Right and makes children grow up with values that actually undermine real respect for their parents. The familial bond begins to increasingly depend on its financial well-being alone.
All of the above applies mainly to families operating within the traditional structures of social and religious rules. However, that is no longer the only kind of family that exists, especially in the rapidly growing urban and semi-urban areas. With more financial independence for women and exposure to the idea of equality and greater implementation of this idea in towns and cities many women have chosen to walk out of a social structure ie. the family, which she is the center of, but, in which she is rarely given a voice or decision making powers equal to the men in the house-hold. Separation and Divorce has not only changed the nature of family units, it has also changed the work-place where more and more women with financial needs and responsibilities bring their intelligence and skills and education, competing fiercely for their justly deserved share of the nation’s wealth.
As a result, the children in these homes are growing up with the assistance of neighbours and friends and extended or older family members and that all important part of the urban and semi-urban family, the Maid. It’s not a bad way to grow up at all, especially in the urban environment where people become insular because of the nature of their living and working conditions with people literally stacked up on top of each other. The Maid brings with her an introduction into a world which middle and upper-middle class people (lets leave the rich out of this because they operate to a totally different system entirely of their own making) generally miss or deliberately avoid. This, because in the past, she depended on them for her livelihood, where as now, they depend on her to be able to go to work at all!This automatically means they have to become intimately involved in her day-to-day life. It’s a valuable lesson and ensures that one does not go through life blind-folded.
Changing times and commercial evolution has made it possible for people to make individual choices with more and more frequency. As a result, many people have eschewed the entrenched life-pattern of “study, get married, get a job, have kids” type of ‘settling down’ which was handed to them by their older generation. Increasingly, people are thinking of financial stability as ‘settling down’. People are also not averse to single parent families or adopted children or couples who decide not to raise children at all. But India as a whole has been very very slow to make this change. Some of the reasons have already been mentioned above. Another reason may be the loosening of religious and ‘cultural’ ties.
With stigmas, attached to children whose birth back-grounds may be unknown or men and women who may choose to walk the parenting path alone or those who want nothing to do with children at all, fading gradually, more and more people are comfortable living in family units of their own making. In today’s commercially driven world, as long as one is ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ nobody really cares what sort of a family one goes home to on a day to day basis. The place where it matters and very much so, is in schools and government institutions and work-places and the ubiquitous marriage market; the last being a particularly draconian place.
Schools and work-places and particularly the marriage market demand the name of the father of the child because, even though the Constitutional Laws of India do not care whose name is given to a child – it merely recognizes every child’s right to have a name, any name – society at large recognizes the father as the legal parent of the child and so a father’s name is considered essential. Strange, since the only parent that a child has real proof of is the mother since it tears its way out of her body in order to partake of life. Please note, the mother’s name is hardly required in most official forms and when required is asked for almost as an after-thought.
However, I can tell you, based on personal experience, that it is possible to have only the mother’s name, as the legal and sole guardian of a child, on a document as important as the Passport. It just means one has to get up and go to the Passport office personally and has to have various affidavits ready for presentation and has to give honest answers to harsh questions and hopefully, has a sensible Passport Officer processing one’s case.
Families come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, in reality. A couple together in a childless union is as much a valid family as one which has grand parents and uncles and aunts and cousins and siblings all living together. A family of one parent and child/children is as valid as a family of young ones in an orphanage. A transgender lives in a family or Gharana whose head, like any other parent, is responsible for her family’s food, shelter and welfare. In fact a family may also consist of members living apart from each other for any number of reasons and yet looking after their mutual needs by whatever means they can garner. Proximity does not, necessarily, a family make. Sometimes, proximity makes a family dysfunctional. Sometimes distance keeps people close. Life is full of paradoxes. There are no absolute rules.
By the same measure, there is no absolute definition of a family. In my journey with ‘Ek Madhav Baug’, a play that I have been performing for the last two and a half years, it has come to me with immense clarity that sometimes families don’t constitute people who are connected by birth at all. To a transgender, the group of people who accepts him/her for what he/she is, becomes the family that his/her biological parents could not bring themselves to be, in almost all cases. Some families will necessarily constitute two men or two women as the core unit because a man-woman combination would be a lie that would trap them forever. In fact that is what happens to most gay and lesbian people – certainly in India. They are trapped in heterosexual marriages due to social and family pressures and live either very miserable lives or double lives which have the potential of endangering the mental balance and physical health of all the people involved in such twisted relationships, including any children that may have been begot.
The world as we knew it even 30 years ago is vastly different from the world as it is today. The only balanced and healthy way forward is to acknowledge this change and realize that the world will keep on changing, in both expected and unexpected ways, for ever. The rigid social structures of yore will be changed by the coming generations because life for them is different from what it was for us when we were growing up. That is a fact and cannot be reversed. Change in the family structure as we have known it in the past is on-going and will only accelerate in the future. It is not to be judged on the basis of good and bad, correct and incorrect. It has to be judged on the basis of validity of sexual and personal orientations. It has to be judged on the basis of the honesty of personal transactions.
What the average family of the future will be like is a silly question because for each individual the definition of family is different. Based on the perceptions and needs of an increasingly independent minded youth, the family of the future will be whatever each of us wants it to be, provided we have the decency and the courage to live honestly in our personal lives.
Mona Ambegaonkar accidentally strayed into the entertainment industry and has been a model, editor, documentary producer and director, writer and award winning actor in theatre, TV and films. She is now working towards writing and directing her own films and is acting in TV soaps and films as well. She has devoted her time in watching life, hers and other people’s, has always taken at face value whatever she is told and has always asked and answered direct questions. From this springs the fodder that enriches all her work both on and off the screen. Recently, she has been touring the world with Ek Madhav Baug, a play about alternate sexuality.