In a family-centric country like ours, we cannot write off the joint family yet. It will likely reinvent itself in a more flexible form…

Probably the most significant challenge that many young, urban, married couples in our country face very early on in their marriage is the conflict between the needs of their marital relationship and the demands imposed upon this by their families. The more traditional the communities they are part of, the more intense the conflict. That unique and secular identifier of Indian culture — the joint family — is currently under a lot of pressure and finds itself at a crossroads.

Many young Indians are ambivalent when it comes to taking a position on the institution of the joint family. Today, increasing numbers of young people have grown up in nuclear families (with their parents and siblings), and find it next to impossible to adapt to what they see as the ‘irrational needs' of the joint family. As far as they are concerned, joint families are dinosaurs. On the other hand, those who grew up in either extended or joint families, are well aware of the advantages and are able to recall the joys of childhoods spent with multiple parent-figures and large numbers of family playmates to the point that cousins aren't really seen as cousins but as brothers and sisters. However, when they grow up and get married, they realise that many of the legitimate needs of their marriages have to be sacrificed if both partners are expected to function in a joint, or even extended family environment. But being unable to confront the patriarch (or matriarch), they stumble along, wearing their joint families as albatrosses around their necks.

Historical necessity

The joint family was a historical necessity. Centuries ago, when environmental uncertainty was very high, when people were beginning to expand their geographical horizons, the village-community progressively became too large or too nebulous an entity to provide emotional support to individuals. The joint family filled the void admirably. It served the role of parent, protector and nurturer, and by harnessing collective wisdom, created an enabling environment to permit the growth and development of its constituents. However, as anyone who has worked in management will realise, hierarchies and disciplines are inherently necessary for the survival of any organisation. And so it was with the joint family as well.

To perpetuate itself, it had to evolve a strict code of conduct, clearly delimited individual roles, a prescribed power structure and unstinting subordination to the nominated head for it to be able to perform its function. Unfortunately, since the position of the head of a joint family is usually inherited (eldest son of the eldest son, usually) and not necessarily earned, the whole system started functioning more like a monarchy than like the democracy that post-independence Indians were getting used to. As a result, internecine politics, machinations and manipulation became an integral part of the institution, and rather than being a supportive environment, many joint families ended up having to deal with unprepossessing power struggles and rebellion.

Economics also played a role. Whether the joint family runs a family business or whether its constituents are individually employed, the functioning of a joint family often involves pooling of financial resources, with all financial decisions being taken or at least authorised by the paterfamilias. Often, this results in piquant situations, with those who contribute the most, not necessarily having the biggest say in the allocation of funds. Not coincidentally, although we have been a democracy for the last 64 years, political processes in our country also seem to function like a macrocosmic joint family and increasingly many middle class Indians too tend to think of their political structures as dinosaurs or albatrosses.

Waiting for a makeover

But the key question is whether the joint family will remain this way, or whether like the Phoenix, it will rise from the ashes? I, for one, believe, that in a family-centric country like ours, writing an obituary for the joint family would be foolhardy. Even though it's not yet been reduced to ashes, the joint family, I believe, will rise again and this time around in a more contemporary re-invented form. The intrinsic value of family systems and kinship cannot be overstated or overemphasised. Nor can the need for a substantial social safety net, which the family is best equipped to provide. But the joint family needs a more benign and sanguine makeover.

In its new avatar, it will perhaps be more flexible, provide more opportunities for recognising and rewarding individual excellence, not insist on uncompromising adherence to its diktats and provide more emotional space for the growth and development of all its constituent sub-systems. Perhaps the joint family will reinvent itself as a cluster of nuclear families that come together when needed, but also have the capability and freedom to function as independent units. Not unlike Facebook actually, except that privacy settings will be more clearly defined and ‘unfriending' won't be possible.

And then, every time a young couple decides to ‘go nuclear', it need not be seen as a breakdown of the joint family, but more as spreading its reach and ensuring its longevity, for, when people have well-defined spaces for their respective nuclear families, they are better able to ensure that the larger family comes together to buttress everyone's requirements. This way, the only nuclear holocaust we have to fear is the radioactive kind.

Email the writer at vijay.nagaswami@gmail.com