"Someone asked me who wears the pants in your house. I said we all do,” laughs Delhi-based knitwear designer Jyotsna Gokhale.
Gokhale is one of 12 people from across three generations who live in four houses of an apartment building reconstructed to accommodate the entire family. She is divorced, and lives with her son and partner in one house; in the other three houses live her parents, two sisters and their families. Gokhale has a cordial relationship with her ex-husband while her former mother-in-law visits each time she does pop-ups of the knitwear she sells.
When Mumbai-based architect Tushar Mistry decided to come out as gay, he somehow did not feel the need to tell his parents outright, or give his relationship a name. “They understood,” he says. Today, his parents, from a small town in Gujarat, invite his partner Ekant Singh to perform a puja usually done only by a heterosexual, married couple. The family pujari initially refused to conduct the ritual with the two of them, but later he came around. “When he realised how I care for the family much like a bahu would, he blessed us together,” says Singh, an interior designer, who works with his partner. It’s not about education or big-city living, but about being open, he says. “Tushar’s parents are very accepting of the fact that society has changed. His father once told his mother, ‘We have lived our lives the way we wanted to, now it’s their time to live theirs the way they want to’.”
Embracing c hoices
The Indian family is changing. There’s no ‘ideal family’ defined by children or lineage. It comes in different shapes and sizes. And it has grown to embrace individual choices, and social realities: single children, divorce, double incomes, sexual freedom.
This change is inevitable, says Neeru Kanwar Chaudhuri, Delhi-based clinical psychologist. The concept of ‘family’ has always been fluid, even in traditional set-ups, but today “the new generation is seeing much more of the world; they’re exposed to Western norms of individualism and autonomy,” says Chaudhuri. Everyone needs both individual identity and affiliation. “Earlier, we submerged ourselves completely in the group; now the sense of the ‘I’ is developing,” she says.
A family could now be the quasi-family of the TV serial Friends, where a group of people cohabit and share their lives and belong to each other in a fundamental way, but have no single figure of authority.
Gokhale would relate to this arrangement. The absence of an authority figure helps her make choices and be candid about her relationships with her partner, her ex-husband, her son, her parents and siblings. It is a level of honesty impossible in a highly patriarchal household where a single person’s views often prevail. Neither her brothers-in-law nor her own partner had a problem moving into homes built by the women of the family. It was a practical move.
- A record number of Americans today live in multigenerational households, part of a broader trend toward more shared living. In 2016, a record 64 million people, or 20% of the U.S. population, lived with multiple generations under one roof.
- Meanwhile, 78.6 million adults, or about 32% of the U.S. adult population, were part of a shared household in 2017, reflecting another increasingly common living arrangement. A shared household is a household with at least one adult who is not the household head, the spouse or unmarried partner of the head, or an 18- to 24-year-old student. (Most multigenerational households are also shared households.)
- Source: Pew Research, 2018
“We meet as a family twice or three times every week. We have a WhatsApp group, and invariably someone says it’s time for all of us to meet. And if someone can’t make it, we’re not fussed. We’re flexible,” says Gokhale. A large family has its advantages, of course. Shopping is shared, as is caring for elders, and the children grow up together. “It is a safety net,” says Gokhale.
Nithya Karthik, a doctor, lives in a ‘blended family’. She and her husband were both married before, have children from their previous marriages and between the couple, have four sets of in-laws and former in-laws — all of whom are welcome at their home in Guwahati. Karthik lost her first husband when she was 30 and her daughter was two. Her present husband had lost his wife and had one-year-old twins. Wherever they have lived — and they have lived in several parts of the country as her husband is in the Army — Karthik says she often had people make disparaging remarks about her family, whether at parent-teacher meetings or at social gatherings.
“I wish people were more open-minded. It’s okay to have had a broken relationship or a failed marriage,” says Karthik. But her unconventional family has taught her how to navigate societal scepticism. “So for instance, you may break news selectively, first to your friends, then to your siblings, then to your parents. You choose how the information is filtered, you tell your mother, so she can relay it to your father.”
And increasingly, age is no bar to starting over. “ Pyar karna sabka haq hai (everyone has the right to love).” says Natubhai Patel, 69, a retired government officer. He lives in a so-called traditional joint family with his wife, sons, their wives and children. In 2001, after the devastating Bhuj earthquake, when over 20,000 people died, he began to think of those who had lost their spouses. The next year he started the Anubandh Foundation, a remarriage bureau that divides its candidates into ‘below 50’ and ‘over 50’. He has some 5,000 of the former, and 10,000 of the latter. Through his large sammelans or meetings in cities across India, people get together and explore possibilities of remarriage.
Everyone needs a hamsafar (companion), says Patel who has facilitated 145 weddings in the over-50 category. His oldest client was 82 years old, and 12 couples he introduced opted to live together.
“Yes, there is still stigma around women remarrying, and I have seen some cases where relationships have failed, others where the daughter-in-law hasn’t accepted the new mother-in-law,” says Patel. But there have also been instances when daughters-in-law have come with their mothers-in-law to find partners for them, he says. “As you grow older, the caste, creed, and region divides begin to blur.”
Retired seniors, with both the time and money to travel, read and relax, no longer see the care of grandchildren as their duty. “They value their own freedom, and so in some ways are slightly detached,” says Chaudhuri. There’s also respect. The mother of an adult who has come out of the closet may privately be anguished, but may not express it aloud, says Chaudhuri. Earlier, older adults felt entitled; today, that’s changing.
Sujatha Sriram, dean, School of Human Ecology at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, who works on marriage and family concepts, feels the change is no revolution and that it is still marginal. The problems around reimagining families conjoin around three main areas: assumptions, expectations and adjustments, she says. Assumptions for instance that a man of 28 necessarily wants to get married and wants to marry a woman;expectations that a woman will leave her job once a child is born; and adjustments like the ones women must make to meet the spouse’s family demands. Communication, says Prof. Sriram, is key. “Within families we should be able to sit and talk about everything, including sexuality.”
Families aren’t likely to be immediately won over or created anew, but they may come around eventually. Kolkata-based N. Krishna Rao lives with his wife, Sushmita Kundu, who is 13 years older, in her ancestral home. Living in the same space is their daughter, the writer Sreemoyee Piu Kundu, and their nine-year-old foster granddaughter. Rao, who came to Kolkata in the 1980s, was a paying guest with Sushmita’s parents, but was gradually embraced by them as one of their own. The couple soon married, then a big step, because Sushmita was divorced and older than Krishna. Sreemoyee, who was 12, initially resented the relationship, but later grew to love him, and today shares a warm relationship with the man she calls her “karmic father”.
Before the wedding, “My dad sought my permission, then gave me space to take a decision,” she says.
Some of the changing perceptions are thanks to popular culture, movies, movie stars. When you see Sonam Kapoor and her siblings interact with their step-siblings, it helps push the boundary of what is possible.
Says Karthik, laughing: “I was the youngest of three sisters and always said I wouldn’t marry as I didn’t want in-laws or children. But today, here I am with two marriages, four sets of in-laws, and three children!”