Lessons from India
No 2 – Family
Family is fundamental in India. Along with religion it feels as if its responsible for holding life together and is the reason for celebration and structure, giving purpose and meaning to life.
Everywhere we went we came across families. We were approached by families travelling together, walking together or even just out for the evening together. They wanted to take photos with us and have us take photos standing alongside their children. Families were in all shapes and sizes but were usually multi-generational and always together. I was frequently asked about my family, how many children I had and if I was married, giving the impression that this is how you are judged in India or perhaps identified.
The respect for family is obvious. Time is given to family activities and is regularly prioritised over time spent with friends. After my second meeting with a beautiful and intelligent 22 year old woman, I asked her what she liked to do with her girlfriends on the weekend. She paused for a moment and looked at me and then replied “yes if my friends want to go somewhere I go with them, but I usually prefer to spend time with my family.” Another young woman we met who worked in one of India’s best hotels gave me an insight into her life when I asked her where she was from.
When she spoke of the town she had left to move to the city for study and work, her face lit up with conversations of her family, and how when she had a 3 week break coming up, she couldn’t wait to go home and spend all her time with family. It struck me that when I was 22, that spending time with my family would have been the last thing on my list. At this stage of my life I was working, studying, spending time with girlfriends or hanging out on the weekends with my boyfriend. But in India, the family structure is first and it permeates all aspects of life.
So strong is the influence and connection of family that as a young Indian man or woman, you put your faith and trust in your family or extended family to find your future husband or wife. More on the topic of arranged marriages in a future blog, but the concept of letting your parents or aunts and uncles make this match for you, although foreign to our western minds, is the accepted tradition in India. What respect you must have for your parents to live a life based on their decision. That is what fascinates me, the absolute respect and acceptance of the decisions made for you by older members of your family. However, in a country where parents are respected and revered it does not surprise me and in many ways I find it a beautiful sentiment. I can still remember talking with an Indian friend of mine and telling him that I wasn’t feeling great because I had an argument with my parents. His immediate reaction was that parents are precious and should be respected and I should sort that situation out quick smart. Completely different advice to what I would have been given by my Australian friends, who probably would have indulged my “poor me” situation and listened to me complain. Another example of the attitude that continues the importance and respect for family across India.
Yet it was the concept of joint families that left its mark with me, more than any other family experience I came across. Meeting several different people who lived in homes with multi generations all under the same roof, really got me thinking. If you asked me how I felt about that before travelling to India I would tell you, you must be out of your mind. After being there and seeing it first hand for myself, you can see the benefits to all of those involved. As a mother of an only child there are often times when I feel for my very social little boy, who doesn’t always have someone to play with. I’ve made my peace with the guilt of that, but it doesn’t change the fact that at times it is hard for him. So, when we attended Holi celebrations with a family in Varanasi I could see the joy in the children’s faces as they played with their cousins. Cousins that live in the same house as them, along with their aunts and uncles and grandparents. All assisting each other with life’s daily tasks including child rearing, childcare, housework, cooking and all the aspects of the day to day. When there was a birthday, which there was on that day, they celebrated together as they do with all of India’s many festivals. Even after receiving questions from us curious westerners about privacy and a sense of place, there was so much positivity and joy obvious in this home. I couldn’t help but think about life for women in our world. We come home from hospital after having babies, and after the initial excitement dies down and everyone has gone home, we are left to ourselves to go about our business and get on with child rearing. Then, when and if we decide to go back to work, there is the decision and expense of childcare and the division of household chores. I’m not sure I know of any women in my life for whom this has been easy. It is often fraught with guilt, sadness, anxiety and let’s face it…exhaustion! Once again surely 1.3 billion people can’t be wrong. Have we made it all a little too complicated? As for retirement villages and the other end of life, I’m not sure India even has them. Families take care of each other, live with each other and support each other.
I’m not suggesting I call my family in the morning and move us all in together in a 3-level home. In fact, I’m sure none of us would survive the first week. I’m also completely aware that are many examples of close knit supportive families in Australia who help each other with life’s daily tasks. And I’m also sure that not all these joint family situations are harmonious, and in fact I’m positive there are examples where it doesn’t work, but I get a feeling that there is a message here for us and something to observe. Life is lived very differently and in many respects, they have mastered a sense of simplicity in its structure. Just from my observations I feel that the importance and faith in family helps create this simplicity and I think there is a lesson there for all of us.
As families, how can we support each other more? How do we let go of family tensions, beliefs or patterns to just get to the point where we roll up our sleeves, dig in and help each other? As a country, how do we make it possible for our older family members to live a sense of community, so they are not shut away from normal life in retirement villages and nursing homes?
We all want connection, we all want to feel needed and supported. My India experience suggests to me that the family structure in India provides people with this. Giving you a sense of purpose, community and your place in life, the Indian family structure has many lessons for me and will continue to raise thought provoking questions for a while to come.