It used to be that a traditional Indian family was shaped like a pyramid — the patriarch and his wife at the top, their children and children-in-law at the next level, then their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
In urban India today, that shape has morphed into more of an
amoeba — in some families, each member is in a different state or country; in others, single parents are remarrying, giving the children three or more parents; children are moving out within the same city to live independent lives; elsewhere, widowed grandparents left alone in their empty nests are moving in with a companion so that they have someone to care for them and keep them from being lonely in their final decades.
Finally, the joint family — that mainstay of tradition — has, in some cases, changed its very nature, with couples and young families packing up their nuclear homes to return to a haven of shared expenses and shared responsibility that allows them greater disposable income and more free time, both of which they are then free to spend as they wish.
“The concept of family in urban India is being redefined with globalisation and Westernisation,” says Joseph MT, associate professor of sociology at University of Mumbai. “Overall, there is a liberalisation of the stringent notions associated with the term ‘normal family’.”
Part of this phenomena is impelled by new ideas of autonomy, which means not just having a job or a financial portfolio but a household, says Radhika Chopra, associate professor of sociology at University of Delhi.
For the purpose of this feature, it is only urban households being examined, but the change is being felt across the country.
Three in five households in India are now nuclear (defined in the National Family Health Survey as households that consist of a married couple or a man or a woman living alone or with unmarried children, with or without unrelated individuals), with 63% of households being nuclear in urban areas and 59% in rural.
Coming full circle, some urban households are now converting back from nuclear to joint — to further the younger generation’s own goals and aims.
“It was financial and personal independence that caused the rise of the nuclear family and this same sense of independence is sending some nuclear families back to the joint family home,” says Joseph. “With work-life balance skewed and rising costs coupled with hectic social lives, young parents want the support of their parents and in-laws. It is all part of the same pattern.”
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