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Once upon a happy family

Family bonding is important and calls for a conscious effort to make it harmonious.

india Updated: Dec 16, 2005 17:00 IST

"We are four sisters and one brother," says Kalpana Iyer, a 50-something Indian housewife from Mumbai. "After my first husband died, I had financial problems. One day, the housing society sent me a bill of Rs 15,000. I was in despair when that afternoon's courier brought a cheque for Rs 15,000 from my brother. Apparently, he had dreamt the night before that I was in financial need."

Mithu Basu, a public relations consultant, comes from a close-knit family of ten siblings. "When my brother went on his first trip abroad, he spent all the money he had making calls to our mother. When his friends asked why he didn't spend the money shopping, he told them that calling home was more important."

Dr PP Gandhi, a retired Mumbai-based doctor, is the eldest of a family of seven brothers and two sisters. Says he: "Some of us are better off than the others but that has made no difference to family unity. Recently, one of my brothers retired and another brother, an affluent businessman, gifted him a Maruti."

Moments of sharing, caring, loving and giving. Signs of a family that works. Where does the magic lie? Why do some families, no matter how large and unwieldy in numbers, flow together like a song, while others are gridlocked in conflicts and hatred or simply drift apart like a cloud of autumn leaves? Why do some seem to grow in strength and purpose while others taper off like an unfinished sentence? Is a happy family a conscious creation or just an act of grace? Is there anything we can do to make our family life more fulfilling, more harmonious, more loving?

Families are where our histories are made. They have the strongest part in determining who we are. Whether it is the primary family we are born into or the secondary one that we make on marriage, it is the scene of our greatest joys, deepest sorrows, most significant milestones, most heartfelt hopes and disappointments. The birth of a child, the death of a parent, one's marriage or that of a sibling, housewarmings, operations, festivals, birthday celebrations: these are the incidents that punctuate a life. No matter how successful or fulfilled we are on the outside, these private moments nourish us and form the center of our emotional and spiritual lives.

"We have evolved from a tribal society," says psychiatrist Dayal Mirchandani, "and human connections are supremely important."

A happy family life is one of life's greatest blessings, and conversely, its absence is a singular misfortune.

But why, you ask, preach to the converted? After all, India is the original champion of the family concept. Vasudaiva Kutumbakkam (the world is one family) is the proud slogan of our Vedic culture. We are the land of the joint family. The average Indian woman nestles into the expansive bosom of her primary family until marriage propels her out into creating another. We still pull together, still put the interests of our children ahead of ours, still give the family first priority, still treat our parents with respect and our children with love; and we point a collectively smug finger at the permissive West and its disintegrating family system.

And yet... Our families may be holding up better than ones in the West, but the strain is palpable. Modern life, says motivational writer and trainer Stephen R. Covey in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families, is family unfriendly. "We now live in a world that values personal freedom and independence more than responsibility and interdependence… Social life is fractured. Families and individuals are becoming increasingly isolated. Escape from responsibility and accountability is available everywhere."

Every 'ism' and revolution in the recent past has driven a wedge into the institution of the family. Women, traditionally the custodians of the family, are venturing into the workplace today. Latchkey kids are a sad reality of urban life. Tremendous tensions as families vie with each other for better and more.

Says Maya Kirpalani, psychologist and family therapist at India's Jaslok Hospital in Mumbai: "In this competitive atmosphere, families are achieving more but after a lot of struggle. Ultimately, they are unable to enjoy their achievements." One-child families are the norm and guilty parents attempt to compensate for their lack of time and attention by plying their children with goodies. As traditional values are replaced by a greater demand for freedom and individuality, relationships are cracking.

Popular Indian author and columnist Shobha De, a proud mother of six children, says: "The Indian family culture is under threat today. It is in such a fragile state, I wonder whether it will survive the next decade."

Divorce, in urban India, is hardly scarce. Technology, particularly television, is fast substituting human company. According to Stephen Covey, an average American child spends seven hours a day watching TV and five minutes with Dad. Here in India, the statistics are fast catching up, and we haven't even mentioned the Internet as yet!

But there are other reasons why our family values merit attention. Even in families that stay together, how many actually maximize the relationships? Most of us may spend evenings at home, but what do we do with them? Do we use them to bond with our folks or do we retire into our private cocoons or watch television like zombies? Are we there when the family needs us? How much of our time, imagination and effort do we invest in creating a vibrant and joyous family atmosphere? Are we giving our children all that they need to flourish? Are we realizing our full potential as a family?

Well, that's the opportunity and the challenge.

And finally, we are entering the age of conscious living. Today, we are consciously learning and implementing the underlying principles that uphold life. Should we not direct this consciousness to the level of the family too and look at the principles that hold a family together? Why not create the family of our dreams rather than merely taking it on sufferance?

MAKE IT HAPPEN
Happy families don't just happen. They are created by conscious effort, time and attention. But above all, by intention. "One of the reasons why we are so close is because that was a top priority with my parents," says Kalpana Iyer. "I remember my mother telling us repeatedly that we should be like the five fingers of the hand."

Adds Mithu Basu: "We were always close but the turning point really came when our eldest brother began to consciously prioritize the family. Even if he had other activities on a day that the family was meeting, he would consciously choose to attend the family function. And he made us aware of his choice. Gradually, all of us got into the habit of prioritizing the family."

Says Covey: "Many people may want to put family first. But until that deep priority connection is there and a commitment is made that is stronger than all the other forces in our lives, we will not have what it takes to prioritize the family. Instead, we will be driven or enticed by other things."

Covey suggests two ways of converting priority to practice. One is the concept of the weekly family night. Here, in India, almost every night may qualify as family night since most people do stay at home. However, the crucial difference between hanging out at home and consciously meeting is that it creates opportunities for interaction and bonding.

Covey and his family of nine children use these meetings to review family events such as children's birthdays, school functions, sports events and vacations. They also hold family councils to discuss issues and problems. Children use it to showcase any new activity or skill they might have learnt. They have fun, which is a forgotten concept in many Indian families. They go out for dinners, picnics, movies, whatever. Finally, they use it for spiritual closeness as they pray and sing together.

Aditya Ahluwalia, a global businessman and chairman of Life Positive, abides by the concept of a family right in his own home. "We go out for dinner or take in a movie," he says.

Covey also recommends one-on-one bonding between parents as well as between each parent and a child. Indian parents might feel awkward about creating structures that should ideally happen naturally. If bonding occurs naturally between members of the family that is ideal—if not, give this a try. One-on-one bonding is particularly crucial between spouses. Covey says, "There is a tremendous need for husbands and wives to sit down together and plan or, in a sense, mentally or spiritually create their own future."

Pankaj Naram, the popular ayurvedic doctor, shares an enviable relationship with his wife and helpmate, Smita. He attributes it to the regular retreats the two undertake outside Mumbai. For a few days every two months, each sits in a closed room writing out a vision for the future. At the end of the period, they exchange notes and see how they can integrate their separate visions. Naram attributes his success to this quiet reflective time and the synergy gained by blending their separate visions.

Bonding with children could take the form of taking them out for their favorite activities. Covey talks of taking a child on bike rides and camping trips. "This is where there is deepest nurturing of heart and soul. This is where the most significant sharing, the most profound teaching, the deepest bonding takes place."

In an article on childhood memories in the Reader's Digest, writer Norman M. Lobsenz reports that most people recalled memories of inconsequential things that the parent did with the child. Lobsenz's son best remembered the time they stopped in the middle of a drive and caught fireflies together. Another remembers the time his dignified executive father canceled a trip to Europe to join him at the school picnic.

Writes psychotherapist Dr Pearl Drego in her book Happy Family: Parenting Through Family Rituals: "Parental bonding in infancy is crucial to the development of healthy closeness where a child is unashamed of needing love and knows how to ask for and receive love."

CREATE A FAMILY MISSION STATEMENT
What does your family stand for? What goals do you aspire to? What are your shared values? What kind of relationships do you want with each other? Where do you stand vis-à-vis society? All these can be reflected in your 'mission statement', which in turn will help you to achieve it. The fundamental truth of life is that life goes in the direction of our dreams and desires. Most of the time, through conflicting desires or negative intentions, we create undesirable outcomes. If we can make the process conscious by drafting the mission statement, we can move the family purposefully towards harmony.

Adds Covey: "A mission statement is important in a marriage because no two people are completely alike. When you put two people together in this tender, sensitive and intimate relationship called marriage, if you don't explore differences and create a sense of shared vision, then these differences can drive them apart."

"Certain values were drilled into us as children," says Kalpana Iyer. "Cleanliness was essential. Every week we had to clean up our cupboards. At the slightest mess, my aunt would simply throw everything on the floor. Today, I do the same with my children and nieces and nephews because it taught me discipline."

Shobha De says that her family stands for love and loyalty. Says she: "The family culture I grew up cherishing is the one I've tried to pass to my children. Honesty and integrity at all times. Hard work. Respect for elders. Discipline. Old-fashioned in today's context, timeless in mine."

(For more log on towww.lifepositive.com)