Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Being Together Blues – track one

Relationships are hard work. That’s a fact most sensible people have always known, and appreciated. It was in one of my many jaunts around the blogsphere that I ran into another blogger, who goes so far as to ask “can two people really ever live together?”  Although he presumably meant it as a question in the context of adult human romantic relationships, it is worth looking at it from the perspective of all relationships, whether filial or romantic.

Setting aside romantic relationships for the time being, consider families. Kids, parents, siblings, all living under one roof, at least for the first 20 or so years of the lives of the children, at least in India. Unconditional love (that’s what they say it is… although in most cases there are numerous conditions to be fulfilled before approval and love can be won, and both approval and love can be lost in an instant by one misstep), combines with similar upbringing, one common set of parents and values. However, all these great and noble emotions notwithstanding, it is a difficult enough job to live together in peace and harmony with one’s parents and siblings, and most people end up with a lot of baggage of repression, anger, resentments and what not.

This statement, of course, labels me as anti social, against Indian culture, unnatural and whatnot, simply because I dare to question the concept of blind love and loyalty and duty to the family unit and parents. Not that it exists, in my experience. The ones most vehement in shouting the praises of all these are the ones most loudly badmouthing their families behind their backs. The few families I have seen which have genuine personal space, independence, and real respect for each other are the unusual ones. These are the homes and families, like the one I grew up in, where the RULES are not so codified and the emphasis is on working on earning real respect and love rather than insisting on the outer trappings like feet touching.

Most people have a mini heart attack every time they hear me address my man or (shudder shudder!) my parents with the ultra familiar “tui” or “tu” which is reserved for pals and people younger than oneself in India, or for the beings of a much lower social strata, such as the domestic help, or the paper wala. My brother and I, on the other hand, find it most natural to address them this way rather than with the more formal “tumi” or the very formal “apni” because they are our buddies. We have a very open, frank, really close relationship with both parents, and I actually find it amazing that people find it amazing that my folks know everything there is to know about me. To me, that’s the most natural thing in the world! And yes, I hope to be that kind of a best friend to my kids in turn! And no….to answer some critics…. I will not mind or feel insulted AT ALL if my daughter calls me tui….in fact, I would love it!

And yet, in spite of the open atmosphere at home ad the total absence of formalities and codified behavior expectations, it was difficult enough growing up, simply because that’s what growing up is like. And yes, there have been massive arguments, misunderstandings, and resentments, a few of which probably linger on in some way or the other. Any set of people, living under one roof, is a situation rife with the certainty of emotional hassles and ego clashes, personality mismatches and sheer miscommunication. That’s just how we are made. If, to top off the already roiling confusions, you add a thick veneer of FORMALITY and “ADAB”, and you have a recipe for the worst kind of disaster.

And that is exactly what I see around me in many families. On the surface, perfect. Never a raised voice (there are many in our house), never a harsh word, and certainly not any disrespectful behavior (the definition of that one is another blog post in the making) ever in those houses. Everyone is invariably polite, nice, and oh so proper with each other. Get them alone, and the story is something else. There is NO communication, NO understanding, and NO empathy among the members of these families. Forget all that, there is no RELATIONSHIP to speak of. They are strangers related by blood who just happen to co-exist in a common physical space. They don’t know each other, have no clue of the others’ dreams, aspirations and emotional needs, and have no channels open to even try to know or explain those things.

So, the children HAVE to do what the parents want, regardless of what their ambitions/ desires are, until they are ready to leave the nest…if ever. While a few have begun now to leave the nests at the beginning of their careers, they never quite manage to detach themselves from the umbilicus which reaches across time and space to exert its authority. Many never leave the nest, unable to be “their own person” until the parents die, at which point they are too old, it’s too late, and they are too set in their ways and demoralized to have a life.

As a result, they study what they don’t like, marry where they don’t love, and where there is no mental emotional match, and exist in a sort of bound and gagged state known by our culture as the respectful and loving family. I am the black sheep for occasionally screaming at my mum to make her see my side of things, but these ideal children would never dream of any such transgression. Instead, they are willing to sit with any sympathetic “other” and use terrible language to describe their angst and name call their “elders” to hell and back. Naturally, resentments deepen, anger turns to a deep seated poisonous vitriol, and all real love and emotion becomes warped into a strange love-hate being which hurts more than it heals.

Add to this the common absence of the concept of compromise or adjustments. Kids will HAVE to do what the parents say…because they are the parents,  and in our culture, they virtually own the kid. They can beat it, torture it, emotionally and physically assault it, restrict its mind, emotions, life, and basically do exactly what they like with it, just by virtue of the fact that they happen to have biologically created it. So, obviously, there is absolutely no concept, or even an imagination of a concept, that a child may want something other than what the parents want “FOR IT” or that he/she may have the right to voice that want. By extension, there is no concept that parents might tone down, or even give up, what they want in favour of what the child wants. The child too is trained to hide and lie. From its earliest years, the kids learn not to tell the truth to their parents, not to bring their friends home, to say they are going to group study rather than announce they are going dancing, and never ever try to explain what they think or feel, never ever to ask questions, and never ever expect communication.

As a result both sets spend their family lives looking at each other with mild scorn (you don’t understand anything), and barely tolerating each other. Hardly the recipe for ideal filial ties (whatever those might be). Hardly the best formula to have a great and happy life together.


  1. Jia.. beautiful article.. am in one of this phases where parents just dont seem to get it.. even after clearly trying to explain to them what i want and why I want it.. Its a feeling of hurt and disappointment that I cannot describe.. you just wish things were normal..
    I hope Indian parents will soon see children as not an extension of themselves.. till then this control is suffocating.

    1. sorry to hear that Sam. yes, home can be very very claustrophobic sometimes. hopefully, one can work through it in some way, to achieve at least a plateau of mutual respect. sometimes though, one just can't, and then it is better just to bite the bullet and concentrate on making one's own life everything it can be.