The institution of family lies at the foundation of every society on Earth. But in India, it is so much more than just a foundation, family is the sustenance and the bane, the crutch and the agony of all festivals and all funerals, all of society and all of culture. But even when it’s a pain, it’s a pain we do not know how to live without. What seems overbearing and out of line in most cultures is the norm in Indian families. Indian families, with their little comprehension of space and boundaries, constantly barge, intrude and critique. From the ‘aunties’ glaring at exposed cleavages to the uncles who are making matches on marital websites, Indian families have never believed in hesitation. No advice is ever unsolicited. But there is something to say of the large joint families with people constantly milling around the house, the warm grandmothers with their secret recipes and the numberless siblings and cousins. There is something to say of the tightly knit structure of Indian households with an abundance of canopies of comfort.
The ever-presence and the intrusions are symbols of a certain type of familiarity; a manifestation and reminder of a claim, of a sanction given long ago in the pages of history. Families lay a claim over us, over our mental and spiritual selves, over our sense of being. These claims perhaps go a long way in making us feel loved, because who else would intrude and scold and worry except those who want to keep us safe and invest in us. Even though it might feel like an encroachment upon autonomy, it certainly has a warmth to it, a charm not found in western homes, which let go. India’s collective inability to let go is rooted in our love, our ever-holding-on, unwilling-to-be-apart love; it is rooted in the way we have been brought up: our values of butting in, and pointing out, and determining for others, what’s best for them.
Even with the present generation and its streak of rebellion against family and tradition, familial bonds continue to be magnificent and powerful, encroaching and unjust, bustling with its magic and unwavering in its unfairness. These bonds become crucial because of increasing isolationism and the interference of ego in relationships, which make “enforcement and encroachment” necessary. Even when the connection is an enforced one, at least there is some degree of retention of connectedness. The presence of any support system, even if it is far from ideal, is better than having nothing but a dreary 1BHK to come back to. The price of complete autonomy is a high one, one that we Indians are yet to pay. Yet, is their romanticism in our narrative?
The value that comes out of family and the revered Indian lens through which it is viewed should not blind us to the problems that manifest as a result of the “family structure” being placed on a pedestal. The narratives of queer individuals, of women and of children cannot be pushed to the sidelines. It is easy to look at the cheery side of families and ignore the harshness. This attempt at pretence is easy, almost second nature to us. Growing up, we Indians imbibe a lesson from the world around us; that the front we put up for the world to see is far, far more important than what really goes on. India lives in a world in which the publicity of injustice wounds one more than the injustice itself.
An Indian may dismiss abuse and torture of women as isolated incidents, not as crimes committed by depraved people not fit to engage with civilised society. Abuse doesn’t pop out of a void or only lurk in alleys. It stems from the idea of patriarchal entitlement over the bodies and decisions of women. It is in a household that this entitlement begins and heightens, and manifests in the worst forms. There is a misguided sense of ownership men feel they have over the women in their families, and society just accepts that, which is why violence against women by family members does not scandalise one’s idea of social propriety or elicit the same response that violence by an outsider would.
The false idea that familial ties lend some form of ownership over another human’s body is fed and drilled into one ever since childhood. India is a nation that is still far from even frowning upon children being hit by the elders of the family. Beyond the physical and emotional ramifications, hitting children also instills in them the idea that they have only partial autonomy over their bodies. It teaches children the lesson that bodily autonomy, while otherwise a valid concept, loses all ground when inside the house. This leads to toxic ideas of ownership which in turn leads to a path of denying oneself victimhood in the face of abuse, because if it’s family how wrong can it really be?
The problems lie with us as a society when we twist and bend our limits and thresholds for what is right and what is wrong in order to excuse and justify whatever family does. This stems from the family being glorified as sacred and notions of entitlement that equate familial love with ownership. One’s inability to open up about any kind of trauma, pain or even smaller complaints that have to do with family comes from the belief that family always comes first. “Family always comes first” sounds like a noble sentiment but it can be exploited to make individuals feel as though they have to dismiss the wrong done to them by their family members, family being first is extrapolated to make a person feel as if opening up about family problems in front of friends, teachers, or lovers is wrong, or a form of shameful betrayal.
The point of this article is not to say that Indian society must abandon the family structure that glues together the fabric of its society, but to examine how we have been systematically taught to worship and pedestalize this structure, the institution of family and the people who constitute it. All the problematic things with family life become even more problematic because when our assumption that families provide a safe space fails, there is no alternative safe space to fall back on. The friends, peers, and lovers that should act as a safe space do not, because it becomes very difficult for a victim to break that inner wall of shame and talk about family.
The sad part is that communities are meant to look after the well-being of its members, but we Indians have become obsessed with merely the “illusion of functionality”. We venerate the ‘structure’ so much that we want to protect it even at the cost of real humans and their very real lives. So long as the overhanging structures of marriage, parenthood, and households stay intact we don’t really care what happens to the cogs that make up the wheel. How is it still that we have not redefined our idea of brokenness, how is it that people get abused and children are driven to committing suicide but we still think it’s working?
Love and abuse, on the surface, seem to be mutually exclusive. Two concepts, so contrary, so antithetical to each other that they can never be thought of as coexistent. How can one love their abuser? How obvious, right? But the relationship between the abuser and the abused is anything but obvious. The world and this great nation are littered with tales of how the two thrive together, grip and dig into each other. Maybe the nature of love is such that it is with great difficulty that one might stop loving their abuser, but third parties and well-wishers can go a long way in helping one. Talking about experiences surrounding family that are grim will lead to a much-needed counter-narrative that will finally paint abuse as abuse, whether physical or emotional, that will finally show family as human beings, capable of falling, capable of wrong, and not as oracles who can dictate morality.
Even the love that comes for parents and siblings is not as organic in nature as one would like to believe. A lot of it also comes from the narrative that is flashed around us, of how much we are supposed to and are obligated to love. The love that is regarded with so much veneration, the devotion towards parents that is thought of as moral accomplishment itself is manufactured by society, it does not arise as authentically as one would like to believe.
After reading all of this one might ask, so what? So what if the structure is a certain way that has both pros and cons? The answer lies in valuing family but not pedestalizing it. The answer lies in acknowledging how the family has cared for one whilst understanding that families are not incapable of wrongdoing and some families even inflict grave abuse and injustice. Asking a nation which is willed to throw-off all balance, to approach a middle path might seem counterproductive. A nation in which family is all or nothing, asking for a path that both loves and censures family is daunting in itself. But God knows we’ve needed it, we’ve needed the balance.
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