A Modern "Joint" Family

By Shyama Parui

A large family is seated around a table making dumplings as they laugh and share stories. The matriarch of the family gives out instructions while cousins joke about their childhood antics and they continue to nurture family traditions. This was my favorite scene from the movie, Crazy Rich Asians, as it reminded me of my family's tradition of making pithe (rice flour dumplings) together in January for the festival of Sankranti. During those times, my mother often reminisced how preparing special delicacies during festivals were always more fun in a joint family set up. At that recollection, I couldn't help wonder if the traditional Indian joint family is too good to give up. Will it ever make a comeback in India's metropolises or among NRIs around the world?

I cannot speak from personal experience as I have only lived in a nuclear family set up. Frankly speaking, as a quiet introvert having too many people around all the time would be exhausting for me. Yet, the bleak lockdown period of 2020 exposed the limitations of a nuclear family. The individuals within a single-family unit involuntarily took up the workload of a village. Having an extended family living under one roof might have been a blessing. Elderly family members would have been spared the dangers of isolation. They would not have to worry about little things like shopping for groceries or picking up medication. Children would potentially have playmates and interaction with peers. And in this mini utopia, there would be one math expert, another science enthusiast among other subject matter experts along with a fitness guru who strives to keep the family active.

Young parents' childcare responsibilities could be shared and the labor of household chores could be divided among more people. I am picturing an assembly line set up for dishing out large quantities of roti. From our childhood kitchen, I recall Bordi (oldest sister) kneading the dough, Mejdi (second oldest) rolling, Sejdi (third) roasting the rotis on the pan and all I had to do was apply a generous spoonful of ghee as it came off the pan. In a small family, one individual must churn this all out by himself or herself.

Ancient societies that flourished were more cooperative than competitive. In general, those cultures promoted sharing and interdependence within the multigenerational family. A family after all, forms the foundation of the larger society. It was the drive for survival and need for continued prosperity that fortified that kind of societal structure. In our recent pandemic ridden history, it has become abundantly clear that cooperative cultures were better at mask adoption and in recognizing how their behavior impacts the community they live in. Sacrifice is not a bad word; on the contrary it is expected. I would confess that my family members are quite adept at emotional arm twisting when they want you to give up your individual choices. The seemingly exaggerated dialogues and melodramatic expressions of characters from Hindi soap operas accurately portray some of our relatives.

Despite benefits, there are disadvantages to living in a joint family set up where simmering problems can explode in a crisis. Close relations can be your pillars of strength but at times be the very cause of your mental anguish. The strain of everyday stressors, not to mention the distress caused by a pandemic could be disastrous for grih-shanti (home's peace). Nevertheless, I find myself thinking, what if a 21st century version of the joint family was adopted? It would embrace the strengths of the traditional model and at the same time integrate changes that can mitigate some of the major foreseeable problems.

Joint Family in a New Avatar

Love and a willing desire to coexist needs to be a prerequisite before any steps are taken. The success of a modern joint family depends on open communication about reciprocal expectations including financial contributions. Non negotiables and boundaries should be clear to all. All members must believe in equal or fair amounts of give and take. An individual's life stage and circumstances dictate needs and wants from other members and if a conscious effort is taken to repay that in kind based on what others need, a balance can be maintained. Additionally, elephants that are likely to sneak into the living room must be addressed head on.

Smaller family units living in separate households within walking distance, maybe be better suited today's lifestyles. Mutual respect and a policy of non-interference should be followed on sensitive topics. Both family time and individual time should be fiercely guarded. To me, they are equally important and for that same reason, my recommendation would be to vacation separately with your smaller unit or alone if the bulk of your free time is spent with and around the extended family. And one's potential should not be limited by sex role stereotypes. A family should be a true team where roles are assigned based on a person's unique set of skills allowing them to thrive. And finally, the purpose of the joint family should be to strengthen bonds without becoming a trap. Family members with a strong independent streak should not be exiled or stigmatized for moving out.

As we know humans are unique and thereby one size does not fit all. Therefore, I am eager to hear your valuable thoughts on this contemporary hybrid family model and the caveats for its success.


Shyama Parui is a long time North Carolina resident and an ardent writer. You can reach her at: shyamashree_parui@hotmail.com