The last weekend I had travelled to Kerala to pick up mom. She had just undergone Ayurveda treatment for back ache and refused point blank to travel by air because it involves sitting for longer durations as well as changing flights. So train it is! And as is the lovely habit of Indians, especially our parent’s generation, of chit chatting a lot with the co-passangers, so was the case here. Mom being the talkative type found company easily and I was being subjected to an array of discussions ranging from Indo-Pak war strategies to the pathetic state of railway coaches to raising children to different traditions of marriages in different communities.
One such discussion I picked up was how things are in a joint family and how elders treat and train the younger boys and girls for their respective roles in life. I have had friends who come from joint families. And most of them wanted to run miles away from it. Many had a criteria for marriage that they did not want to marry into a joint family. So the general image I have about joint families is that it is a big freedom cruncher especially for girls. The very thought of having to take permission for going to a friend’s birthday party from 3 different people and being answerable to another 7 is in itself a thought that can freak me out. Add to that taking any decision considering the pleasures (and mostly displeasures) of the entire family. To someone who had lived all her life is a nuclear family, this seemed pretty taxing. Somehow, after a while the conversation jumped to the fragility of marriages today. This got me thinking.
What made the Indian institution of marriage tick so long despite two, practically, strangers marrying each other and what has changed now?
I think if you look at it, the basic fabric of families has changed and is constantly changing. The great Indian joint family has been disassembling in the past decade and continues to do so. It is practically non-existent in today’s urban India and is headed towards becoming extinct.
Did the joint family system have a role in keeping a man and woman together?
If you look closely beyond the facade of traditional, unyielding family rules, joint families were the biggest support system a couple could have which the nuclear family couple is missing and for them that void is being filled in by counsellors and psychiatrists. To start with, a man and women are not thrown in together, in isolation, in a joint family. The man still has the familiarity of his family and the woman too finds similarity in the different new relationships she finds in the new house and this is a huge booster in bolstering their relationship. The comfort of familiarity plays a much larger role in strengthening the bond between a couple than the privacy that nuclear families so proudly offer.
A rift between a man and a woman is inevitable but it scaling unprecedented proportions is what creates the first chasm in marriages. With many people around in the house itself, it becomes easier to find someone who would lend a ear. Sharing concerns or irritants becomes easy and one need no go scourging for strangers on social media to share a pain. And once it is out of the system nothing the other did or said is too big to forgive. Many tiffs in fact do not even get escalated for the fear of elders in the house.
A major bone of contention between modern couples is the child. This is where a joint family is the biggest support system a couple can get. With elders and so many others in the house raising a child becomes a cake walk. It is not an added stress that it has become for many nuclear couples but just a natural addition to the family who’s growth and development is everybody’s responsibility and everything goes by as smoothly as possible.
Most importantly, a joint family keeps a couple away from each other most of the time which in hindsight is a very good thing. Because this man-woman relationship is a very fickle thing. Over familiarity takes away the excitement from the relationship and breeds contempt. Amidst all the responsibilities and concerns that come to a couple as a part of the great Indian joint family they don’t get the time to be bored of each other, which I am told is a major relationship problem these days.
The ancestors were one heck of a smart bunch, undoubtedly. They knew much more about human psychology and its impact on intimate relationships than a whole batch of doctors today.