The big, fat Indian family: Global perspective and local reality

“In our lives, the presence of parents has been seamlessly adopted from the time we ‘launched our own family’. Any decision over the last so many years, whether about work or home, time-table or travel, has been taken with the knowledge that both his mother (who lives with us) and my parents (who visit us frequently) are part of our ‘Family’.

My family

The children’s dadi (as she is addressed by all of us), my mother in law, is a central member of the family from the children’s perspective as this sketch from my younger daughter’s school-work displays.  The term granny (here scripted with a mirror inversion of the letter g) is an expression clearly reserved for uniformity at school,  masking the word she uses for her grandmother that was initially misunderstood by the teacher as talk about “Daddy”. She now understands that “dadi” is a family term.

This fact of having a permanent additional member sets us apart from others around us, all expatriates from different parts of the world who have chosen to live in Dubai. As an Indian couple, however, we are not alone. Many of our colleagues and friends, both back home and abroad, share the responsibility of living with and caring for parents as they grow older. We all make similar adjustments in our lives.

Let us take the example of travel to other countries, especially Europe and North America. For the visa offices, dadi is considered to be an independent applicant and not ‘part of the family’, and her application is processed separately, evaluated on the suspicion of being a potential and permanent threat as a liability for that country! This makes matters painstakingly long-drawn to explain, through detailed interviews and repeated declarations on paper supported with endless documentation (bank accounts, property ownership, medical insurance etc.). To us, such encounters have implied a deep hostility towards older people and a fundamental antagonism towards any departure from the nuclear family as the best and only form of family recognized in today’s global world.

As we close in on our 40’s, settling down in some part of the world gets discussed more often than hiking and biking trips. We have to think carefully about the possibilities with due consideration to the availability of medical and other facilities needed for caring for our parents at home. We are looking to live in a place that welcomes all ages. Unlike policy in India, where medical security for dependent parents is available in many jobs, international companies emerging from the West do not provide any such benefits. The ideological differences in notions of family become critical when such choices are being considered, and we thought this would be an important topic for discussion on Masala Chai.”

– – Pooja Bhargava



Growing old as a crisis

In his serious indictment on how modern society deals with ageing, the noted physician and writer Atul Gawande[1] has argued:

“…….our most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer; that the chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life; that we have the opportunity to refashion our institutions, our culture, and our conversations in ways that transform the possibilities for the last chapters of everyone’s lives.”

This accusation is extended towards the world of medicine and family life in the West, but it is increasingly true around the world. The push for progress and global lifestyles has come at a price and this trend has had serious impact on family life across the world. In India, we cannot rest with the belief that our older people live in a safe haven of the joint family as increasing numbers of people live alone or in unhappy circumstances.

A recent article in the New York Times, Rachel Aviv[2] discusses several recent incidents of ‘guardians’ as carers for the elderly who have been found to become exploitative, even preventing family members from interacting with their elderly parents citing in court that the reason for the seclusion of the elderly from their offspring was to protect them from being exploited for their property. This news report has raised a huge concerns for the safety and well-being of older persons who remain vulnerable to such incidents, risking the loss not only of their life’s earnings, but also their self-respect.

Despite all the problems in living in close contact with a number of people, today’s post highlights some of the advantages of a system that permits the co-dependence of different generations. There are many important values that still sustain in Indian families (as in other parts of the world) where the elderly are respected and cared for, even when it comes with huge costs and compromises. Many of our elderly do experience the joys of living with their adult offspring and grandchildren, participating in domestic life well into old age. Yet there is imminent cause for concern. Old age is neither glamourous, nor is it popular as a field of study, Gawande remarks. As we surge ahead towards the different developments in our lives, we must consider the active participation of all ages and all stages of life as we prepare for death with the hope that it ends well for our loved ones.

The ancient Asian story ‘The Wooden Bowl’ depicts an interesting perspective on family relationships with respect to growing old:

The Family: Blended, extended and otherwise

The notion of family is as old as humanity and as widespread. And yet, despite this universality, family is not a uniform entity. While in most parts of the developed world we find that it refers to a social unit founded on conjugality, a marriage between two people that becomes initiated when they marry and set up a “family”, in other parts of the world, the family group is more continuous and inclusive. For people everywhere, family has personal, social, economic and political significance, as much if not more, when it is absent. Yet, the ways in which the family is organized varies profoundly. More recently, the concept of ‘blended family has entered the dictionary to refer to the growing number of instances of “yours, mine and ours” the eponymous title of a 60’s movie which was funny exactly because it was inconceivable. A popular Bollywood adaptation of the film called Humare, Tumhare was quite well-received.

Riding a bike versus living in a time-machine

In Western text-books, family life-cycle begins with an unattached young adult who is “launched” into the world. This is followed by marriage, children, the expanding stage and ultimately ending with the launching of the next generation and old-age.  The equivalent metaphor for the Indian family would be a ‘time-machine’, where simultaneously, many stages sort of merge and move to other stages, where one generation is experiencing old age, while young kids are being packed of to school and young adults are exploring their identity. From the perspective of a nuclear family, it is hard to imagine what this bustling, busy household would look like on an everyday basis. Yet all families are not joint families, the traditional patriarchal unit which implies the co-residence of married sons and their children with their parents. There are some families which have one or two members living with them, parents may move between their adults’ children’s homes, another form of adaptation of the joint family in current times. But this refers to family structure and co-residence. If only this dimension is considered, we are missing the main point of the Indian family system, its psychological jointedness!

For people unfamiliar with the complex functioning of the joint family, the bustling dynamics of a joint household can raise dramatic responses ranging between enchantment and despair. The reality of family dynamics in fact does range between these two extremes. People look out for each other, children grow up together with their cousins, no one has to worry too much about how and where children get their nourishment because there would always be food in someone’s kitchen. At the same time, people can be exploited while others laze, children can face subliminal resentment, and one has to measure one’s words in relationships from early on. Older people can sometimes find themselves quite alone and young ones can feel suffocated with the excessive intrusion in their lives. The family is a microcosm of the community, and children witness this vibrant theatrics every day.

Accepting dependency, duty and obligation: Dharma and family life

“Acceptance of dependency within a society that observes the norm of reciprocity creates the most decisive support for the favourable attitudes towards the elderly. The emphasis on mutual obligation throughout the life cycle coupled with the necessity of repayment eliminates the need for the elderly to justify their need for care and respect on an individual basis. As a result, dependency in old age is viewed as unpleasant but inevitable” (Davis-Friedmann 1983, p. 13).

In the global world of today the emphasis on autonomy, independence and self-reliance has transformed itself into a hubris of sorts. “I don’t need anyone” is a label that is worn with pride. Wanting someone, or needing something from another is construed as weakness and to be shunned.

The ideology of family life in India is almost in exact opposition to this principle, where dependence is seen as reassurance, and autonomy as a threat. Being obligated to parents for their care is built into this framework of a person’s dharma (righteous action), and something that every person is urged to fulfil. Despite this ideal, there is much variation in the way family dynamics plays out in everyday lives. News about abandoned parents and exploitative children attract important print space in the news, and editorials lament changes in family life. However, even traditional families harboured enduring resentments, and not everything about the past is pleasant. Change is inevitable, and a fresh perspective on family life is an enlightening experience.

Our new team member Anita (welcome to masala chai, sister) writes that the mutual benefit that are seen in planned and spontaneous interactions between young children and the elderly is a perfect match and being needed as an older person provides people with dignity and purpose. Volunteer efforts of such visits (where children and older people can meet even if they are not related) can prove to bring much value to both generations.

Reshu’s perspective

Childhood (75).jpg
Children and older people spend a lot of time on the street in rural areas

“I remember one of the families in a village with whom we spent time during our research. The sight of the great-grandmother was typical of the elderly in villages. This was a large joint family engaged in farming, where four generations lived together. She could always be found in the open courtyard outside the house, watching the children, others. Sometimes she would walk about to arrange her hookah, at other times she would simply lay down on the string cot, sometimes chatting with the children, watching over who was her daily unspoken responsibility, especially when the adults were away at the farm. Often, the kids would just run up to her cuddle or demand a story. She was the favourite sleeping companion for one of her great-granddaughters, Manu. Food was always served for her on the cot and one of the children would run up with the plate, and sometimes get a few tasty bites as a reward. She did not speak unless someone spoke to her, and was always given a lot of respect, she seemed marginal to the daily schedule, but if you looked carefully, she was central.

A string cot on which an old man spends his day. Carrying village practices to the city

Recently I went to Rohtak and saw many villages on my way and witnessed several elderly men and women sitting on charpois in groups or alone, smoking the hookah, always in the broken shade of a tree. I think ‘taking care of elderly’ in a joint family in villages is not even a thing, it is a natural process and is not viewed in isolation, it just goes on.

I also believe that all our happiness and our sorrows come from our family, the bigger the family the more ‘masala’, more restrictions, and paradoxically, also more freedom.

A new element in this dynamics is the ‘family whatsapp group’. I am not sure if it happens elsewhere, but I imagine it is quite peculiar to us Indians. I am a member in two such groups, my maika group (natal family) and sasuraal husband’s family. So, wishing birthdays, anniversaries, sharing achievements of children, getting updates on who is in hospital, who is out of it, what has happened in the pados (neighbourhood), sharing new and inspirational messages, views, fighting over different opinions and above all sharing pictures making this virtual group as intense and immediate as a joint family even when you are living separately.

Childhood (87).jpg
Playing a board game outside the hut

If you ask me, I am quite confused about whether I like living in a joint family or not. When I am living with them, I feel I need freedom, when I am living away, I miss them and want to be with them and receive the attention and affection, being loved and cared for. I like the ‘chahal pahal’ (hustle-bustle) we have because of this and most importantly, I love that my daughter is so lucky to have this joint and extended family to be with from whom she receives so many different kinds of love and attention. Just to give you an idea about how ‘joint’ we are: there is a grandmother and grandfather, one paternal uncle and aunt, cousin grandmothers and grandfathers, cousin uncles and aunts and their children, cousin’s cousin grandmother and grandfathers and uncle and aunts and their children. I hope this has confused you, but let me assure you, my daughter knows everyone and addresses them correctly from a very early age!”

A critique of family life

As we mentioned earlier, whatever the notion of family, this remains a formative group in the identity and circumstances in which people grow. Nowhere is this more evident than in the absence of family, foster care and institutionalization. No society has been able to find an enduring and adequate solution to family life for the functions of reproduction, education, economic and emotional care.

The anthropologist Edmund Leach has claimed that the shrinking family size places intense and unbearable emotional burden on members of nuclear families on account of the isolation “Far from being the basis of the good society, the family with its narrow privacy and tawdry secrets is the source of all our discontents. Further arguing that “……with all its narrow privacy and tawdry secrets (the family) is the source of all our discontents”

Similar arguments are provided by Laing (R. D.), the psychiatrist who based his dark evaluation of family life based on his reflections of people diagnosed with schizophrenia, claiming that the nuclear family grievously restricts the process of self-development and “generates both an unthinking respect for authority and an us-them mentality which contributes to harmful and dangerous distinctions.”

Feminists argue that family life restricts women’s participation in public life, but some examples from large families in India demonstrate the reverse. Day-care teachers prefer to leave their children home rather than bring them along if they have parents at home or nearby, arguing that “waking up and bringing the child every day has three disadvantages, it exposes children to infections, it leaves the older generation without gainful participation in the household, and it is tiring for the parent/s. Many Indian women are able to sustain careers on account of having grandparents live with or near them, as Reshu says in her comments, paradoxically, the joint family places restrictions on individuals AND provides freedom to them. Perhaps it needs more detailing, what the freedom is for and who from.

The sociologist Patricia Uberoi once remarked at a conference, that Indian family life is an exercise in living in close proximity with people with whom one has close relationships, but to whom one may not be very close! For most Indians, the notion of family extends to several layers beyond the conjugal unit and its offspring, dynamically reorganizing itself depending upon the context, on who is the audience. In family interactions, like everywhere, emotions ranging between deepest of affections and open hostility can become manifested precisely because these alliances are important. Indian families can be, Patricia Uberoi writes, “….at once a site of oppression and violence and a ‘haven in a heartless world’”[3]

Yet, as Salman Rushdie remarks in The Golden House: “For whatever thicker-than-water reasons, they feel bound to one another”[4].



[1] In ‘Being Mortal: Medicine and what matters in the end’


[3] Family, kinship and marriage in India

[4] The Golden House (2017)


  1. Very well captured. The only comment I have is – it’s a myth that only Indian families have this arrangement. As I have observed and learnt over years from colleagues, American families, definitely (non Indian) Asian families, also operate as co-dependents without too much intrusion and necessity of living together. And not as an exception. Luckily I am in a very diverse team with families who moved to US 1-3 generations ago. 3 of them actually live within 10 miles of their parent’s home as they were born and raised in this area. Yet grandparents share child care responsibilities and adult children take care of their parents without living in same house. One of my co worker’s mom comes and stays every time he has to travel (from East Coast), to help the full time employed daughter in law with their twins. He attends every cousin’s wedding and celebrates all American festivals and holidays with family, traveling all around USA. I have also seen families live in independent homes around us but yet grand parents pick the kids in afternoon and take them to their home. I have seen them come for every little performance in school sometimes even without parents since parents are in office. My neighbor, a multi generational American (originally European I think) bought a home for their married daughter few miles away but they are hanging together often. In fact, it seems to us she never moved out. And it’s not because she has kids. She does not. Another of my neighbor who is 85 with four kids, they live alone. their kids routinely fly in to take care of their house. Point is – we Indians have a bit of superiority complex that somehow we value family more or that everyone who lives in nuclear family doesn’t. But as societies evolve, people move for jobs, how people care for each other evolves too in every society. Each time I go hospital for kids doctor visits, I always see high number of Americans who bring their parents for checkup as well whether or not they live together. I forgot to add, I really appreciate the seniors here that they find activities and purpose in their life which is beyond just being involved in lives of their kids and grand kids.


  2. Very well written article,
    I have observed a similar kind of arrangement in Chinese /Korean families living in our complex. Most of the families are of young couples with one or two young kids. There usually one or the other grandparent (maternal /paternal) is staying with the family and taking care of the grandchildren.


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