Gathering up the folds of her sari, Tulsi Devi Saxena shuffles out of Delhi’s piercing sun into the dim light of her dormitory. Nailed on the wall outside is a blue board listing the bed number and name of the 13 elderly women living in the state-run home.
Inside, the walls are plastered with images of Hindu gods and Sikh gurus, but not a single family photograph. Oblivious life Tulsi Devi has a big family, living near to the bluntly named Old Age Home, where the 81-year-old lives. She and her late husband worked as cooks to bring up their four daughters and two sons.
She has adult grandchildren, daughters and son-in-laws. She opens a dented metal cupboard filled with biscuits, sugar, soap, linen and saris: her life’s possessions. “I used to think that because I had children — a full family to rely on — I’d never have to worry. I never expected I’d end up living on charity.”
It is three years since Tulsi Devi was driven out of her youngest daughter’s home by her son-in-law. Not so extended anymore The extended family, in which several generations live together and care for older members under one roof, is splitting apart. The result is that urban Indian families are going nuclear: in just two decades the average size of an Indian household has shrunk from six members to four.
Besides, a generation of middle-class women have began seeking career..from less than one per cent to 15 per cent in just one decade. What is driving women out of the home is the sudden appeal of two incomes in a country where shiny new malls are filling with consumables unknown to earlier generations. Separated for peace Delhi-based, Renu Kumar, 36, looks nervously towards her husband, Pavan, 43, when asked about her parents-in-law.
The couple, who have two boys aged 11 and nine, lived with Pavan’s parents for 11 of the 13 years they have been married. But 18 months ago their joint family split with her in-laws moving into a rented apartment nearby.
“I always felt I failed to come up to their expectations. They said I wasn’t doing a good job taking care of the kids; that I didn’t make the right food; I was giving too much time to myself and not enough to them,” she explains.
Squabbles galore “My mother-in-law has never worked and never understood the problem of how women are under pressure at home and at work.” Pavan still calls on his parents every day and helps them financially. “Individualism and being self-centred wasn’t part of the way I was brought up. I miss my parents.” Pavan’s father, Jeet Ram Lohani, 82, never imagined that he and his wife, Premawati, 70, would live alone.
“Renu never used to listen. She never took our advice,” snaps Premawati. United and happy But that’s not the case in the Jain household. Pankaj Jain, 30, approves of the system: “I don’t feel the pressure of responsibilities. My parents are always there to take care of me. It's never crossed my mind to separate from them.”
His wife, Dipti, 23, who also grew up in the extended family, says her mother-in-law is like her own mum. “The way they both point out my mistakes — like if I'm making the lunch too slowly,” she smiles without irony.
Living in a nuclear family would make the dual responsibilities of childcare and the home hard to juggle, she says. “I’m young so I may not have enough knowledge and experience about how to raise children. They’ve seen an entire life and can give that to our children,” she says.