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Will the great Indian family survive?
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July 05, 2006
Home is where we go when we run out of places to go to...' That, the first line of Gitanjali Prasad's The Great Indian Family � New Roles, Old Responsibilities (Penguin India, Rs 295), is enough to clarify why a closer look at families in India was long overdue.

Sure, sociological studies abounded, as did journals circulated among academics. It was chatty, informed discussions on all aspects of family life that awaited publication.

Armed with a bachelor's degree in English, a master's degree in Russian, diploma in journalism and a Chevening Press Fellowship, Gitanjali has had opportunities to discuss all kinds of subjects over the years, in publications ranging from The Times of India and The Indian Express to magazines like Society and Eve's Weekly. She has tried her hand at everything from book reviews and travelogues to humour and features on food. And a large part of her work has concentrated on issues such as parenting and family life.

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Coping with fatherhood, stay at home mothers, problems for women in contemporary families -- she began talking about it a long time ago.

Now, with 335 pages at her disposal, there is more space for analysis. The result ranges from the intriguing to the clich�d. We know Indians are having more sex, for instance. We know pre-marital sex has increased, and that women want to balance homes and careers more effectively. What Prasad has going for her are her years as a journalist. She manages to bring in many voices, off the street as well as figures of authority, to back her statements.

Lindsay Pereira caught up with the author to question her about the book's origins and where she thinks the Indian family is headed.

The family, as an evolving unit, has often been the subject of much scrutiny. Why did you think your perspective would be different? What did you hope to bring to the idea of examining the Indian family?

Actually, there has been very little scrutiny of the middle class Indian family. In my book, I quote sociologist Patricia Uberoi who talks about why this is so: 'The reluctance to address the subject of the Indian family stems not from the unimportance of the field, but rather from its importance and sensitivity. It is as though interrogation of the family might constitute an intrusion into that private domain where the nation's most cherished cultural values are nurtured and reproduced.'

I wrote the book because, on the one hand, I realised the family was a great source of support to all of us, including women. On the other hand, I was also aware that, in many ways, it is the family that curtailed a woman's ability to pursue a career and locked her in a role dictated by gender rather than personal choice or ability.

I was a person who was deeply attached to my family. I was also very driven to achieve success as a career woman. It was very clear to me that to marry, have children and also be a successful journalist was going to be very difficult. I wanted to see what would have to change to enable both men and women to have better options.

If working mothers lose out on careers and become only mothers, do working fathers actually lose out on fatherhood, and become only workers? Young men today want to become more active fathers; I feel that both sexes lose out when we do not have a work-family balance.

In my view, the family has been profoundly influenced by work, so my book shows how work has influenced values, relationships and lifestyles in the middle class Indian family.

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Did you set out with the idea of trying to create a manual of sorts, for coping with the unique pressures of being part of a family in today's India?

I think it would be presumptuous of me to think I have answers to every problem an individual may face, so no, I did not set out to write a manual. However, I share a lot of incidents from the lives of real people to illustrate various points I make.

Now that the book is out, a lot of people have come up to tell me they feel a sense of relief that a problem they are facing is actually not uncommon. Others say they now understand a spouse's viewpoint or that of a mother-in-law or daughter-in-law better.

Some management institutes and organisations have invited me to address their people because the book identifies specific problems with regard to work-life balance, especially with regard to women. So, I suppose it is being used as a manual to deal not only with the pressures of being part of a family in contemporary India, but also with the problems of attracting and retaining women in the work force.

I cannot deny that I am both surprised and delighted by this.

You speak of the difficulty involved in moving from a joint family to a nuclear one, while highlighting some of the advantages the latter offers. Do you think the fading away of the joint family has been good for us?

I speak of the difficulty of moving from a joint family to a nuclear one, and also say that movement in the reverse direction is also problematic. I believe I give the merits and demerits of each system quite fairly.

People have to make adjustments when they move from one system to another. And generally, if you have been brought up with a great degree of freedom, then getting used to living with, and considering the views of other family members, does take some getting used to.

Most of the young people I interviewed believed that living with grandparents was very good for children. I have also cited research that gives this viewpoint. In this book, as in life, there is some overlap. So, though there is a chapter on the joint family, which gives a flavour of various points of view, there are some comments on the joint family in other chapters as well.

I have tried to deal with this by cross-referencing, and giving my considered viewpoint at the end of each chapter, but you need to read the whole book very thoroughly to really get it sorted out. It is difficult for a book on the family to be too neat.

I do not think the joint family is fading away, but I believe it is adapting to a changing world. Young people will expect the joint family to change to accommodate their special needs and requirements. Earlier, it was the individual who had to adapt to the demands and needs of the joint family. Projections for the future, even in the West, show a return to the multi-generational family, so I think one should not start writing epitaphs for that hoary old institution just yet!

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Parts of your book mention how women have 'internalised society's patriarchal diktats.' You also clearly point to the discrepancies involved in what is supposedly an egalitarian society. Would you say the lot of the Indian woman has not improved at all since Independence?

It is difficult to talk in very black and white terms of times being better or worse. Women today have better options with regard to many aspects of life. Financial independence means a woman can decide not to marry or to walk out of a bad marriage, but she has also lost out in many ways. Today's fast paced, achievement-driven, work-oriented lifestyle means the loss of a sense of connection to the larger family and to the community, which, I think, is quite tragic.

Many working women have to manage commitments at the workplace with responsibilities at home. Housewives too have to cope with their responsibilities increasing even as their role is often seen to be diminished.

But, on the whole, almost every woman I spoke to thought her life was better than her mother's has been. So, yes, the lot of the Indian woman has definitely improved since Independence.

As you point out, a readjustment of the work-home balance is necessary. In a nutshell, how would you describe this readjustment to someone reading this interview?

I think the workplace functions on what I call the 'Buy one, get one free syndrome.' When an organisation hires a man, it assumes there is a 'free person' -- a woman to take care of him, his children, his parents and his home. But we are looking at a world where, not just the wife, but the mother and mother-in-law may also be working.

The workplace must allow every individual to look after both his or her professional commitments, and personal responsibilities. The book discusses various ways in which an organisation could be family-friendly as well as profitable.

What was the most surprising thing you learnt while working on the book?

This book was about a subject I had written about for 20 years and researched fairly intensively, so there were obviously no startlingly new revelations. However, five years of reflection helped me understand that the real source of work-family conflict lay not in the 'ambitious career woman abandoning her traditional responsibilities,' nor in the 'chauvinistic Indian male being caught in a time warp', but in the workplace which had not adapted enough to a new reality where every adult member of the family would be working.

With regard to the family aspect of the book, I was surprised by the fact that more than mothers-in-law or husbands, it was children who resented a working woman's commitment to the workplace. I was surprised by how today's 'mothers-in-law-in-waiting' wish to re-write the script with regard to the mother-in-law-daughter-in-law relationship, and I was surprised by the overwhelming priority young people want to give their parents.

You maintain that attitudes towards marriage are changing in India. Do you think there is still hope for the institution, or will it become as irreverent as it is in the West today?

Marriages in India are now more complicated because, today, a marriage is regarded as a 'relationship' rather than an 'institution'. This means it is now more important that a couple is compatible, that the marriage fulfils the need for companionship. And in an environment where people are moving, not just in terms of location, but also up and down the social ladder, marrying colleagues and friends from different castes and, sometimes, of different religion and race, the adjustments to be made are far greater for the couple and also for the family.

Will marriages in India fare better than marriages in the West? I think so. Marriages are valued much more in India than in the West. In India, there is far greater awareness that one should 'be' the right partner. In the West, the focus is always on 'finding' the right partner. Though differing backgrounds do have some impact and call for some adjustments when people marry, I think the value system in India is still fairly similar.

Also, people who have been brought up in steel townships, or in railways colonies, or children of defence services officers who marry other adults brought up in such environments, actually experience the same sense of 'comfort', of commonality of experience, that was earlier provided by marrying into the same caste. I think the real challenge to marriage in India comes from the pressure of work.

I found most young people want to marry. I also found that most married people valued their marriages, but that the workplace in India has become so demanding in terms of time, energy and commitment, that there could be a problem. We have little respect for personal time, the mobile rings all the time, everyone works long hours, there is little respect for weekends -- this is not a very conducive atmosphere for a marriage to survive.

If we can change our attitude to work, the outlook for marriages in India should be very positive indeed.

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You end your book with the question 'Will the great Indian family survive?' and say that the future is in our hands. That is not really an answer, is it?

I think it is. As I say in answer to your last question, in India, there is unqualified support for marriage and the family. And even though there are greater complexities in today's world, where individual rights and freedom are valued much more highly and greater diversity in families is commonplace and calls for more understanding, amongst middle class families, this was not really a problem.

In the UK, there is genuine ambivalence about whether marriage and indeed the family should be supported, with several fairly important figures such as Anthony Giddens questioning this basic premise.

In India, support for marriage and the family is almost universal. The biggest challenge to the family in India comes from the way family time is being squeezed out of our lives. That is what I believe we need to address with some urgency.

Eventually, even when it comes to a social unit like a family, the choices are always individual ones. Would you agree?

No, I don't. I think choices are always made in a context. I can choose an option only in the context of what other options are open to me. I may wish to marry, but if, by marrying, I have to say goodbye to the prospect of a career, I may decide I cannot afford to marry.

I may wish to have a child, or more than one, but again I may have second thoughts if this would mean I would then have to be a housewife, or an underemployed single woman (in the event of my marriage breaking up). I may wish to have my parents live with me, but may be unable to look after them because of my commitments at work, and the fact that there is no one at home to look after them.

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Do you intend to work further in this field of research, or are there plans to write about something different?

I think I will definitely continue to work further in this field. This is a subject that has always fascinated me, and always will. And being on the lecture circuit is exhilarating. I learn so much from the interactive sessions that follow a talk.

But yes, right now, after five years of working on this subject, I feel like a break. I would love to do some travel journalism. Something completely different!

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