Gravity, levity and the theory of relativity

Euripides, the Greek playwright, got it right centuries ago: one loyal friend, he said, is worth ten thousand relatives

Updated - May 25, 2024 08:09 pm IST

Published - May 25, 2024 08:08 pm IST - Bengaluru

George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw | Photo Credit: FILE PHOTO

In general, relatives are best avoided, especially those who knew you as a child and then lost touch before reconnecting some three or four decades later. Somehow such people are shocked that you have grown taller since you were five years old, have more hair and surprise, surprise, even a moustache. Change confuses them. 

They hold it against you for growing up; it is as if you have to apologise for becoming an adult and having a family and children of your own. 

I wonder how Nelson Mandela or Gandhi reacted when they were reminded of their childhood catastrophies. There is always some ancient aunt or friend of the family around for whom a fall from a bicycle at seven or eight is more real than winning independence for your country. 

“Remember when we went on a picnic and you threw up all over the dog?” In my case, someone is bound to bring up that stunning, unique, never-before-or-since-experienced-by-anyone-else family story. You can’t nod weakly and hope the conversation will move on, nor get defensive for then they will tell you everything in pitiless detail, adding bits that never actually happened but have clung to the story over the years like barnacles under a ship. 

“And what about the time you hated milk and poured it out into the potted plants when you thought no one was looking?” Exciting stuff this. Has nothing else happened in the lives of these people that they have to live vicariously through my childhood mishaps? 

This is why grandmothers are so popular. They tell children stories about the childhood of their aunts and uncles to be weaponized later in family gatherings. 

“Don’t talk about my throwing up. Tell me auntie, about the time you got lost in a grocery store and ate up their apples in sheer panic?” That usually changes the topic, moving it into the present and such things as your enviable job and brilliant academic record. Euripides, the Greek playwright got it right centuries ago: one loyal friend, he said, is worth ten thousand relatives. In fact, distant relatives are the best, and the farther away the better. 

Part of the problem we have with relatives, I suspect, is that we think they might be a version of ourselves, but more grotesque, more crass, less sensitive, which means some of those qualities could be within us. Will I be reminding my young nephews and nieces of their silly deeds in childhood? Is that a way of bringing the bigshots, the CEOs, the Phds and the professionals down to earth? “You might be a star today, but don’t forget I know you wet your bed as a child”! 

George Bernard Shaw summed up best the relations with relatives: When our relatives are at home, we have to think of all their good points or it would be impossible to endure them. But when they are away, we console ourselves in their absence by dwelling on their vices. 

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