Saturday, February 26, 2005

The Great Indian Family

Zamana beet gaya

There is a scene in 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding' where Nia Vardalos is shocked when her American boyfriend says he has no cousins. OK, technically he has a couple but hasn't met them in years.

Vardalos splutters," How can that be? No cousins! I have 28 first cousins!!"

It was an isn't-that-so-funny moment except ... Suddenly I realised I probably have that many first cousins. A quick calculation reveals -- tan tan na -- I have 44 first cousins. 21 on my dad's side and 23 on my mom's.

Shocking? Well, not really. My dad is one of 9 siblings, and my mom one of 7. And in a way my family is a mirror reflecting the social and demographic changes of India as a nation.

What once was...
Pre-Independence, every family was a large family. Except for a few, very few educated and elite parivaars like the Nehrus.

The older aunts in the family who were married in the 1940s and 1950s had 4-5 kids each - and that was considered a progressive thing to do. Those who married in the mids 60s, 70s and 80s have had an average of 2 kids - in the rare case there are 3.

The next generation - my cousin sister and I who married in the mid 90s - have one kid each (so far). Both are girls.

My cousin is a housewife, yet not keen on having a second baby. I am what the magazines call 'career woman' and I too am ambivalent about having a second child. But one thing's for sure - neither of us is going to have another baby simply in the hope of producing a male heir.

But what happens when my daughter Nivedita grows up and happens to watch 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding' on cable? She's going to find the thought of having 28 first cousins extremely funny. She currently has one first cousin - and can expect 1, or 2 more. For all you know - she may never even have a real sibling.

How India has changed!
This is a pattern you can see all across urban India. And I think it has huge social implications. I can't say I am 'close' to all 44 of my first cousins. Some are more dear than others - simply because we are on similar wavelength. But at the end of the day, when there is a wedding, you do feel a sense of 'family'.

My daughter may never have that. There will be extremely few rishtas (relationships) she will be able to take for granted.

Now at a younger age I would have called this a wonderful thing. Throughout my childhood I found the constant presence of the extended family quite painful. Summer vacation? Six cousins would come to stay for a month or more. It was fun - in hindsight - but also a source of acute embarassment at the time.

Being from what can politely be termed as 'hicktowns' my cousins were rather different from me - the city kid. They didn't speak English, they wore strange clothes. They put 4 spoons of sugar in milk and put excess oil in their hair.

My birthday - bang in the middle of summer - was always 'spoilt' because my cousins and my friend were like oil and water. The two never mixed.

Today - things are different. The same hicktown cousins have become a lot smarter and sophisticated, thanks to the general sophistication of India itself. Satellite TV, internet, the consumer boom in smaller towns - thanks to increased purchasing power.

Some still don't speak English too well but it doesn't matter. Because I've lost my 'English-is-cool' complex.

They wear branded shirts - not safaris, use Brylcreem - not oil. And we all laugh when we recall the days when ek kapde ke thaan mein se teeno bhaiyon ki shirt banti thi.

Their wives don't wear jeans like me, but they are fashionable in their own way. And as keen to live life and experiment as me. They like trying out new recipes - and at weddings where the traditional daal-baati used to be the highlight, south Indian or Chinese stalls are a must.

Their kids will be even more similar to city kids like Nivedita in attitude and aspiration.

We do need an education...
For my brother and I, growing up in Bombay, education was of prime importance. But not so much for my cousins - it was understood the boys would do B Com and join the family business, and girls would get married.

That's changed.

Even those cousins whose parents are in business now want a professional education for their children. One such cousin is busy preparing for IIT entrance at the famous Bansal classes in Kota. His younger sister will also join him after completing class 10 this year.

When my brother applied to study abroad it was understood he would have to secure a full scholarship. Now, parents pay - or students take loans. And that's just what a young cousin of mine has done recently.

After completing 3 years of his engineering course in India, he's gone to Purdue university to do the 4th year (it'a part of a tie up the univ has with his college). He's paying his way but determined to pay back his parents by working abroad for a few years before ultimately coming back.

Even the girls are a lot more ambitious. A couple have done MBAs - not from the very best institutes but good enough to get them decent jobs. One cousin entered the BPO industry 2 years ago and is today a Team Leader earning close to 25 k a month.

She was just a small town girl - and a plain graduate - when she came to Gurgaon in search of a job, when her dad's business collapsed. Now her parents and siblings have in fact shifted to Gurgaon and started life afresh - thanks to the success she's been able to make of herself.

That's a changing India for you!

Conclusion: Large families are neither practical nor desirable in today's day or age. But there is something really nice about having buas and mamas and mausis - which is not the same as having aunties and uncles.

For my generation, some friends are almost like family. For the young people of tomorrow they will be family - because 'family' as we know it really won't exist.

Hmm. Maybe I really should have another baby.
Then again....


  1. Anonymous4:59 PM

    Yes I ve observed similar trend around,my cousin sister who got married barely at 22 n was a plain BA,a housewife now with a daughter of 4 years aint keen on having a second baby,last of all would she wanna do it for sake of a boy!!I have a total of 11 first cousins and did miss the togetherness and fun of having a big extended family that comes together on festivals n functions.But now,I think its better being solo,I might not be compatible with my cousins from what u termed as 'hicktowns'.Yes we all have become more individualistic!

  2. Do it for the sake of yer daughter, single children are all screwed up :P

    But then, so are the rest of us.

    Sorry, that wasn't very helpful.

  3. friends will be/become family.........and what if all one yearns for is isolation...for all the ppl who by nature are reclusive,21st century india is a wonderful place to reside is......except, of course,the odd lunch with d extended family


    "What happened... all of a sudden..."

    "Aare bhaiya, how are you..."

    Just a couple of reactions which i had after calling my cousins once i read your post...

    I actually was re-living the past, the chupan-chupai(hide and seek), the pitto's and vish-amrit.. the guddia ki shaadi family and friends.. or was it family and extended family... no cousins or friends.. it was all family!!

    From a village, growing up in a town and now in a metro i'v seen it all and have experienced the change within too! From the cool to not so cool... from the "AARE I MET AMITABH BACHCHAN!!!" to "YEAH, I MET PIERCE BROSNAN" all of it and i think everyone has taken it in the stride..everyone grows up and finds the way ahead but, the warmth remains.

    I love em all for all the reasons.. hate em when they talk about me not getting married and kids and stuff... but it all comes naturally... you see its all family!

    Its takes me a while to recall the names of all my bhatija-bhateeji's and bhanja and bhanjee's... havent seen a few of them yet!
    what ever it is.. its all in the family...

    And to tell you, now i am planning to call up everyone.. each of my cousin (err,, let me count!) for a get together..

    will write more later... for sure u wont mind.. see... its all in the family!

  5. After I read this I just started to count and realised that we are 17 cousins from my dads side and 15 from my moms side... these are just the first cousins... from the 6 sibblings that my mom and dad have. And then all those second cousins and third cousins you are expected to remember whenever your grandmom talks about them are endless..
    With time there has been a considerable change in trend not just in the number of children but also the gap between marriage and first borns. My sister was born within 10 months of my parents marriage, but my sister has been married for 4 years and is considering a child now.

  6. c'est trea sympa

    well i was just pondering over to my mother's side and my father's side
    I happen to have 20 1st cousins from mother's side (being a 10 sibling family) and 10 1st cousings (father's side)
    if you do look at the generation maps some last gen siblings are infact elder to their previous siblings how wonderful

    but this really took me away
    "But there is something really nice about having buas and mamas and mausis - which is not the same as having aunties and uncles."

    nice post

  7. Anonymous12:17 PM

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