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Family matters

Recently released census data shows that households with two or more couples — or joint families — have gone up in urban India. The Great Indian Family is not just thriving, but also reinventing itself for the times. Shalini Singh reports.

india Updated: Apr 14, 2012 22:56 IST
Shalini Singh

For Delhi-based Sangeeta Jindal, 48, marrying into a joint family was a welcome change. “I came from a family of three in Kolkata, and loved being around people. Fitting into a large family actually came easy,” says this mother of two. The 11-member Jindal family is part of the proportion of households (HH) in urban India where two and three married couples living together has increased in the last ten years. Recently released Census 2011 data shows that the share of two and three married couples in a HH has gone up from 10.8% to 12.6% and from 2.7% to 2.9% respectively. (Rural India maps a marginally reverse trend: the share of three couples living together shows a decline — 4% to 3.4% while two married couples living together have increased slightly — 14.6% to 14.9%.)

As India becomes more urbanised, one would imagine family structures would change into smaller units as people became more independent. But an intricate play of socio-economic factors seem to have put the Indian joint family back on the map. “Family has become important, even grown as a multi-purpose entity as strains of living have increased,” says social scientist Shiv Visvanathan. Especially after the recession, the safety net became important. “Family is an important identity factor for us. It’s a source of psychological comfort, providing familiarity among anonymity,” he says. The trend among several families in Gujarat for instance, Visvanathan says, is to buy 6BHK flats and live together. “We are now adapting urban architecture to suit family structure,” he says. “Even if there are separate kitchens, there will be one common space. We’re learning to keep both individuality and ‘jointness’ in our structures,” he says.

Economics have played a considerable role too. Recession, real estate, cost of living have made going back to the family’s safe folds a trend that Delhi-based economist Shirin Bagga feels is here to stay. “The joint family system was popular from the 70s through the 90s, when needs were simpler and there was less discretionary spending.” Over time, real estate prices have shot up, making affordable housing out of reach for many, she says. “Add to that EMI, interest commitments, job uncertainty with people being laid off, spending going up. In the US and Europe comparatively, EMIs are not that high and can be more easily paid off.”

The definition of the joint family is also changing, says Bagga. “Now, it’s the parents, yourself (a single person), sibling(s) and perhaps their family.” [Census 2011 shows that total HHs in India with no married couples has gone up from 11.1% to 11.6%.] “The concept to live with the family is likely to become popular in metros as people give up living alone given high rentals and expenses,” she says. [Census 2011 also shows that rented urban HHs are down from 28.5% to 27.5%.] People with choice may then have to sacrifice quality education, shopping, good living etc. “The trade-off is stay with the family and enjoy a good life, or stay alone and compromise. And for many who live in good neighbourhoods, moving to a satellite city or suburb is also seen as a ‘loss of prestige’,” says Bagga.

Dr P Arokiasamy, professor at Mumbai’s Department of Development Studies, feels that with India’s rise as an economic power given its age structure, things will continue to remain expensive and hence more viable for families to live together. There’s also a demographic transition at play. “Life expectancy has increased, leading to multi-generational families. One can easily expect to find 2-3 generation families in metros now,” he adds.

While socio-cultural factors in India may cushion the ‘going back to the family structure’, it’s economics that seem to be largely driving the trend.

“In India, there’s also legal measures. Responsibility for the old lies with their relatives under the The Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act 2007. Neglected parents can go to court. In western countries, it’s the state’s responsibility to care for its aged,” says Arokiasamy.

However, Partha Mukhopadhyay, senior fellow at Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research is more cautious. “It’s early to say if recession has caused major changes in family structures. While the Census shows that two and three married couples living together have increased, the size of the urban HH has also decreased. [For a 6-8 member HH, it has gone from 24.4% to 20.6% and 9+ members HH has dropped from 9.3% to 5.5%.] It’s all quite complex.”

‘Separate floors, but open doors’

It’s nearly dinner-time on a weekday, as two of the Jindal family children Prachi, 20, and Radhika, 23, set up the laptop to Skype with their grandmother who is visiting relatives in Kolkata. The elders – Sangeeta, 49, Sunil, 50, Indu, 51, Anoop, 52 – join in to egg her on to bring some ‘mobile moodi’ (a popular street snack) when she returns home. After that, cousin Anubhi, 26, comes online from London to update the family about her day while they tease her with prospective groom profiles. Internet has kept this 11-member tech-savvy family well connected with two of the six children studying abroad and one married.

The family is also preparing for a traditional function next month called ‘sone ki seedi chadana’ to honour a set of grandparents. “This is done if they live on to see their great grandson,” says Indu, the elder daughter-in-law. But the tradition has changed over the years. “Now a grand party is a must to celebrate where the children want to invite their friends. Earlier people were tight-fisted so there was no party, just the ritual,” she explains.

The Jindals lived in north Delhi’s Roop Nagar till the early 2000s. There the kitchen was common and meal-times fixed. With the family business being based in Faridabad, moving into a two-storied house in NFC with separate kitchens afforded greater convenience and independence. “Back then, meals were made at the same time and we had to eat together. Now I can eat when I want or watch TV in my room when I want to be by myself,” says Ankit, 25, who’s recently joined his father. The girls of the family avoid dinner for fitness reasons. “We usually avoid carbohydrates at night,” says Prachi.

For Sangeeta, an outgoing Punjabi who came from a nuclear set-up in Kolkata, marrying into a Marwari joint family proved to be a welcome change, especially cooking for all the children. “The thought of the kids not eating together when we moved to NFC almost made me cry,” she says. The families live on separate floors with individual rooms but the doors are always left open. “Anyone can poke into anyone’s kitchen/fridge or drive any car – women exchange their fancy saris and the men share their sweaters,” says Indu.

“Being part of a large family teaches you adjustment. I don’t understand the word ‘space’ that kids use now. It’s selfish and a western concept. If they want privacy, they should also pick up the independence of the west,” says Sangeeta as daughter Prachi interrupts her saying, “We feel bad when we take money from home, I don’t mind doing a part-time job, but would you let me?”

‘We chose not to break up the unit’

For 34-year-old Ruchika Nanda marrying into a joint family 14 years ago was a natural progression. She came from a similar set-up herself. “My father had five brothers, mother’s side was eight siblings in Mumbai and both my in-laws had big families too,” she says. The family was living in Pitampura on one floor when Ruchika got married. As the family expanded — her sister-in-law Shalini, 38, had two children Dhruv and Navya (now 14 and 11), Ruchika had her first, Sowmya (10) — space became a problem. As the family started looking for a new house, the possibility of living separately also came up. “Our in laws gave us a choice of moving away. We finally decided not to break up the unit. Also, since I had two daughters, I didn’t want to stay alone,” says Ruchika.

The family moved into their DLF home in May 2008 and despite more space decided to retain the shared kitchen.“The grandchildren said if we went in for separate kitchens, they wanted to live with their grandparents. Even the cook who’s been with us for 45 years joked how he would be divided if the kitchens became separate!”

The family places great emphasis on values and tradition. They believe grandparents, besides playing mediators for younger couples, provide quality attention that children need, something parents may not be able to always give. Both daughter-in-laws are homemakers who lament that nuclear families have driven up domestic staff salaries. “More women are working and dependent on their household staff, and willing to pay them high wages because of which bureaus have also come up and they charge huge fees,” says Shalini. “In a joint family, the elders need us and we can also rely on them. If the cook takes off, between my mother-in-law and us, we take care of the family,” says Ruchika. While the women eat lunch together, dinners are a family affair. “Five days a week everyone eats together, we wait for everyone to get home,” says Shalini.

The cars are another shared asset. Even though both daughter-in-laws brought their own cars when they got married, all car keys are kept in a basket in the mother-in-law’s room. “For example, if I have to travel from Gurgaon to Kalkaji, I have to take the diesel car,” says Ruchika.

While the advantages stack up, there are downsides too. Business decisions need to be taken together. A big purchase is discussed over the table. Everyone gets fixed pocket money. A guest can’t usually drop in unannounced. “Everyone has to be informed and someone may have to cancel a planned outing if people drop in,” says Shalini.

‘Our family has always accepted new trends’

The Kutchi family of Maldes occupies five flats in Chunabhatti, near Sion. They are a perfect example of the modern-day joint family, which wants to live separately for privacy, but in close proximity from each other and work in the same business, to be financially and emotionally secure.

The family, headed by grandfather Mohanlal, had no problems accepting a Maharashtrian girl as their daughter-in-law. “Our family has always accepted new trends of the changing time,” says Pradeep Malde, 52. “We let our children make their own decisions.”

The sons and grandsons all work in the family textile business. But the sons were not forced to do so. “Nobody pressured me to join the business,” says Sagar Malde, 25, Pradeep’s son. Although there are times when Sagar thinks of being independent, but in the given economic conditions, seeking a job in another company is not a good idea.

All four daughters-in-law are homemakers, but the granddaughters-in-law are working women. “Gone are the days when women had to be home to do household work,” says Savita Malde, 60.

The basic rule to respect elders and be there for each other, keeps the family together, says Savita whose husband died at the young age of 50. But Savita never had to worry about her two sons’ as his brothers-in-law took care of all their financial needs. — Riddhi Doshi

‘Treat everyone equally & there will be harmony’

Its 9 pm on a week-day and the 12 members of the Bhatia family gather to have dinner. This is their daily ritual. The entire family of grandfather, 80, grandmother, 64, two brothers, 45 and 40 and their wives, 40 and 38 and six children, five studying in school and one in college, have dinner together.

The Bhatias live in a two-BHK house in Ghatkopar, where both the sons occupy the two bedrooms and their six children — five daughters and one son — sleep in the hall along with their grandparents.

The bread-winners of the family are two, the older one, Yogesh, who works in a readymade garment store and the younger one, Dilip, an advocate. In spite little space, and having enough means to buy separate houses, none of the family members wish to live apart. “We cannot imagine living in separate houses,” says Yogesh.

The women, all homemakers, share each other’s saris and jewellery and the children their story books and toys.

There are strict rules which the elders follow, to make sure that they all live harmoniously. “Except for our grand parents who do not eat onion and garlic, the same food is made for the rest of the family,” says Preeti. “Whatever is bought, whether fruits or chocolates, is for all six children and not for one or two,” says Yogesh.

— Riddhi Doshi