City City Bang Bang, Columns

Liberalising Families?

As the new year begins, one searches for something positive to say, something that makes us feel better about ourselves. In these divided and angry times, this is not easy. But perhaps we overemphasise the things that divide us, and there do exist common strands of experience that we can take hope from.

There is a puzzling gap that one encounters between the headlines and the trend lines in India. Reading the newspapers, watching electronic media or browsing through one’s social media feed, a certain kind of picture emerges. Of an India, riven by divisions, driven by anger, and deeply unhappy with the way things are. However, a different kind of reality is also on display when one travels across the country and interacts with the same cross-section of people that populate social media, which in one’s professional life as a consumer analyst, one is called upon to do regularly and on a fairly large scale. Here the mood is much more even, and has been for several years- there is a sense of continuity and hope; looked at from the vantage point of urban middle class everyday life, the world seems to be a more stable and contented space. Of course, there are pockets of unhappiness and anger, sections where everyday life is hard and the future feels bleak, but in general, the sentiment is more positive.

One of the primary reasons why the sentiment that drives urban middle class India is more positive than what we can discern from media representations has to do with the family as an institution and how it has evolved with time. There is a new kind of a template that is emerging for families today that is rooted in the codes of progress rather than scarcity. The rise of the Collaborative Family, where the family acts as a back-up band for the individual rather than seek to contain her can be seen in large parts of the country. The family here becomes a common resource, which uses its collective abilities to nudge each individual towards their own personal goals. This allows it to deal with change positively, by balancing the needs of stability and growth.

The family has always been a cornerstone in our lives; it has been a binding force designed for resilience in difficult times. But in an earlier time, belonging to a family was a given, and came along with duties and responsibilities. The family had a code, a way of doing things and submitting to these rules was an important part of the act of belonging. It offered great support and comfort, but it also asked individuals to sacrifice key aspects of who they were in order to belong. People had assigned roles which they needed to play and there were expectations that they needed to fulfill. Stepping out of line came with costs; families could be warm and inclusive but they could turn cold and hurtful. The exercise of authority, most often paternalistic in character, was an important part of how families functioned.

The collaborative family of today has a different character. The stories one encounters across towns large and small have similar elements. Of families rallying around an individual, surrounding her with belief and support, and encouraging her to do more. More room for the individual, more space for women to express themselves and pursue their own goals, looser exercise of authority, greater role played by children in decision-making, the family acting as a cheerleader for each member- these are characteristics that are part of this emerging template of collaborative families.

The many escape hatches that technology provides serve currently not to sever ties, but to make them a little more discretionary. Everyone potentially has more room to breathe, more places to go and more places to curl up and hide out as an individual for a while. It becomes possible to calibrate the connection one maintains with other members of the family, and several simultaneous intensities in relationships can be managed thanks to different kind of social media channels.

In this kind of family, the nudge is felt across generations. Parents find themselves more alone, having been separated from the kind of support that large joint families unquestioningly provided. They are somewhat lost; they are cognisant of their role as guardians of tradition but do not quite know what that translates into. They lean on each other more regularly, and include children in key areas of decision making. The younger generation finds the overhang of parental authority to be less stifling, and there is a greater sense of being on a common journey, as each member of the family navigates a new reality together. People are no longer locked in their roles- individuals breathe far more easily in families today than they did in the past. The goals of each individual get more attention and active support; the family imposes less of itself and its ways.

That is not to argue that all is well with families in India. There are dysfunctional families, even families that behave horribly with their own, as we have seen in many highly visible instances. The treatment of the elderly in India is getting shabbier, and parental pressure on children is seriously undermining childhoods. Women might have won some freedoms, but even in this emerging template for families, they haven’t quite won their independence when it comes to making decisions about themselves. The collaborative family is an emerging reality but is by no means the only one.

There might be a long way to go, but the evolution of the role of the family unit is a significant development. At a time when politics is so much about culture, it is important to note that in a lived sense, the evolution of a more modern sensibility continues organically. For now, at least, the implicit momentum of modernity runs deeper than the political climate of the country seems to suggest. Regardless of their political leanings, families are, quietly liberalising.

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