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All in the Desi Family

May 2006
All in the Desi Family

Fourteen people at a dinner table. No, it is not a party. It's an everyday affair at this Patel residence. Every evening without exception, three generations of Patels living together congregate for a home cooked meal.

Surely this can't be a scene from suburban America, can it? Indeed. It's Thanksgiving every day! The extended family of Dr. Harshad Patel of Marietta, GA is one of the many that keeps this tenet of Indian traditions alive across the oceans. The norm of living together with parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts and cousins has transcended sanctions of time and place. Joint families are alive and well on American soil.

��� What's remarkable about such families is not only their willingness and ability to cohabit, but also the sense of togetherness that binds them as a collective unit. Dr. Harshad Patel's well-respected family, for example, is established as a unified entity in Atlanta's Gujarati community. They function as a group wherein each individual is perceived as a part of the whole.

According to an essay in The Family in India: Structure and Practice, in all north Indian languages, ghar (house, home) is distinguished from makan (building). The household is not merely a consumption unit; in fact, "it represents a variety of things, ideas and images, and is a locus of social relationships with some of the deepest sentiments and emotions in humans."

��� Numerous Bollywood films – from those set in the ‘60s to more recent productions like Hum Apake Hai Kaun – have showcased the perfect and the not-so-perfect dynamics within extended families. However, the nature of the contemporary extended family is continually evolving in response to industrialization and urbanization. In popular culture, movies like Baghban document the challenges of multi-generational living in modern times.

��� Two socio-cultural trends are visible in metropolitan India today. One is the compression of larger family units – like that of Dr. Patel (consisting of three brothers, their parents, wives and two children each) – into smaller, often nuclear, households. The second phenomenon is the more egalitarian distribution of power between the father and sons, in addition to an elevated position for women within the household. Naturally, given the pace of immigration, these currents travel to Western shores as well.

Tradition travels Westward

��� Large or small, various arguments warrant such living arrangements – the first being T-R-A-D-I-T-I-O-N – a la Topol in the Fiddler on the Roof. "It is the way it has always been," says 30-year-old Gary Sahni. An entrepreneur, he lives with his wife, Winnie, and his parents in Suwanee, GA. "I grew up living with my parents in India. When we moved to New Jersey in 1990, I did not see any reason to leave them." Gary admits the status quo works especially well because of his wife. Winnie lived in Mumbai before an arranged marriage to Gary brought her to Atlanta. "I lived with my parents all along," she notes. "Even after college when I started working, there was no question of moving out. And likewise, there was no doubt about moving in when she married Gary. "His parents are like my parents, why would I not want to be with them?" she adds.

��� According to Dr. Farha Ternikar, assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at Le Moyne College, New York, "when people are brought up living in an extended family home they are used to that pattern and it is not a big deal to continue living with parents after marriage or moving in with in-laws." The transition from one large family to another after marriage is especially smoother for women, as is the case for Winnie.

��� Twenty-three-year-old Archana Shah is delighted to be living with her in-laws in Lawrenceville, GA. Having grown up in Baroda, she believes life in America would have been too lonely with just a husband for company. For Dhaval, Archana's husband, continuing to live with his parents after marriage was never a question – it was simply taken for granted. Dhaval immigrated to Atlanta in 1996 with his parents when his aunt sponsored them. He now owns a Great Wraps eatery at the Perimeter Mall in Atlanta, which he manages with Archana. "I had met about eight or ten girls when I went back to India to get married. I liked Archana and I told her we would always live with my parents. It is my duty. She understood that."

��� The older generation also appears to subscribe to a similar ideology. Dhaval's father, Manhar Shah, a cashier at Cherians grocery store, says, "Dhaval is my only son. He has a good-tempered wife, so there is no reason to live apart. Even if we were in India we would have lived together unless there was a problem." The senior Patels concur. They wish to keep their family together and perpetuate their traditions and religion.

��� In the face of a dramatically different culture some of us become fierce proponents of ethnic dialogue and mores. We often hear about the first generation being frozen in time and perhaps more dogmatic than their peers back home. "Who better to educate the next generation about our heritage, our values and our languages than the elders amongst us?" is often their thought process.

��� Talking about how it actually works, Dr. Patel describes a typical evening at home: "The whole family comes together at about 6 o' clock for aarti (prayer) everyday – all 14 people. We serve mahaprasad (food offerings blessed by prayer) and then at about 6:30 we all eat together. At about 8 we all get together again and talk about religion and traditions – stories about Krishna, Ram, Prahlad. The children know all of them by heart. We teach them about Indian culture every day."

Lean on me

��� The oldest child in the Patel clan, 12-year-old Payal Patel revels in the family's socio-cultural activities and the Sunday congregations at the Swaminarayan Temple in Clarkston, GA. But more important, she appreciates the constant presence of her five cousins. "I am never lonely, there is always someone to play with," she says with a smile. Her father, a child psychiatrist by profession, picks up on the word lonely. "You see? These children don't need fancy toys like game-boys to keep them occupied. They are never at a loss of what to do; they always have each other for company."

��� In the exact same way Dr. Patel treasures the fellowship of his brothers. "They are my friends. I trust them." Dr. Patel sleeps easy knowing that if something unfortunate were to happen to him and his wife Ilakshi, their children will continue to be cradled by a loving family. "I have a will, but that is just a piece of paper. I know my family will always be there." An invaluable safety net is in place.

��� Dr. Ternikar observes that the second generation usually continues to stay with the first or moves in with them with the intent of providing emotional support. However, she also noticed that often the seniors provided as much assistance – be it in way of childcare or financial aid. Even in cities like Mumbai and Delhi, where women are increasingly stepping out to work, young couples struggle to acquire accommodation within the city. Living in Atlanta, couples like Dhaval and Archana, who are just finding their feet, stand to benefit from the comforts of a readymade home. Sharing the rent or mortgage payments in addition to utility bills allows for substantial monetary relief.

��� None of the families interviewed for this story had a common cash pool for daily expenses and monthly bills, the agreement being that family members pay for whatever they can. Admittedly, such a utopian arrangement may be a tad hard to fathom.

��� The opportunity to pivot around career and home is priceless for most women. "Archana would not have been able to come to work with me from morning to night; she would have to stay at home to do the housework. But now my mother takes care of most of the things at home and Archana helps her when she gets back," explains Dhaval. Archana also plans to go to school and acquire a professional degree in the near future. The benefits crescendo for working mothers. The scale most definitely tilts in favor of leaving children with grandparents in lieu of a daycare provider. It is not simply a matter of saving money but the comfort that your child is in the reliable, caring hands of a family member. Such peace of mind is liberating for any mother. Though the Shahs and Sahnis do not have children yet, they know they can depend on their parents in the future. Like many young women her age, Archana knows little about what to expect when it comes to pregnancy, childbirth and rearing children. "Mummy (Dhaval's mother) saath hoyegi to saab theek hoyega (everything will be fine with Mummy around)," she says. Anytime Archana gets sick she turns to her mother-in-law for home remedies and succor.

��� Gary draws on his father's business acumen for his enterprise. "He has 33 years of experience in the field. I learn more from him than any college degree ever taught me," Gary says, giving his father much credit for the success of his import-export business in Norcross, GA. Most families interviewed for this story bristled at the prospect of enumerating advantages and disadvantages of living together, as though it were a balance sheet. For Gary, though, it was never a cost benefit analysis; it is a lifestyle pattern. Ilakshi Patel does not even think of it as living in a joint family. As she puts it, "It is just one large family. I couldn't do without them."

��� "It is not about what you gain, it is just they way it is," says 30-year-old Surinder Pal Singh of Alexandria, Virginia. Surinder came to the U.S. in 2004 to be married to Tajinder Kaur, an accounts bookkeeper in a tax firm. "It was an arranged marriage and now we live with my wife's family." Even though he admits it is rather uncommon for a man to live with his in-laws, he says, "I don't think there are any advantages and disadvantages of living together. We all grew up living together and now we are molded that way." Though Surinder was reluctant to disclose the dynamics within the family, he said he was very happy with the arrangement.

��� To the majority society in the West, such large-scale households are undoubtedly odd. "An administrator from my school came home to check if we all (the Patel children) were really living in the same house," says a slightly amused Payal Patel. To her curious peers and teachers, Payal explains, "That is the way it is." She seems at ease with her environment and with the fact that her American friends do not visit the house. "She has a lot of Indian friends who come over," explains her mother, Ilakshi.

��� "The average American is usually amazed at the functioning of a joint family. There is a stigma," says Dr. Ternikar, "Once you are married your household should be separate from your parents. Ultimately the general consensus in American society is that young people need to be alone and separate. I think it starts with college – you should not go to a college in the same town; you need to go a couple of states away. After that find a spouse on your own. All families should be nuclear and separate from parents. The only case found acceptable is if the parents have health issues or one is widowed. It is a very individualistic thinking." Case in point is the recent Hollywood movie Failure to Launch, for which the synopsis is as follows: A thirty-something man who still lives with his parents falls in love with the woman of his dreams and begins to suspect she has been hired by his parents as a way to get him out of the house.

��� When Ashwariya Rai appeared on the David Letterman show last year, one of his opening questions to her was about how she was STILL living her parents. "Even when you look at a sitcom like Everybody Loves Raymond, where they live right next door to his parents, they are poking fun at that situation [and saying] how can you live so close?" elucidates Dr. Ternikar.

Another stigma to such joint living comes from how the community and the real estate markets look at neighborhoods where many newer immigrants live together. Such a practice is generally considered detrimental to real estate values in the neighborhood. However, few in the mainstream are able to perceive the fundamental difference between such "joint" living compared to the joint families seen amongst some Indians. The former is generally driven by the desire to share economic and other resources, while the later is generally driven by a traditionally rooted emphasis on family values.


��� Interestingly, the 2000 U.S. census data shows that multigenerational households (with three or more generations) increased by 38 percent, from 3.0 million in 1990 to 4.2 million in 2000. "Ariel Kalil, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Chicago, says researchers most often think of a three-generation household as a grandparent with a teenage daughter who is a dependent single mother," states an article in USA Today, adding, "But she says it's important to recognize that there are other such households where the middle generation is caring for both children and parents. The prevalence of multigenerational households varies by race and ethnicity."

��� Typically, multifamily housing is more common among immigrants. The trend, however, seems to be gaining currency with others. Here is an excerpt from an article posted on CNN.com: "‘Our own sense is that a lot of this (trend) is driven mostly by economics,' said Nicolas Retsinas, director of Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies. He believes the percentage of multigenerational households has likely increased over the past few years right along with home prices. ‘In certain markets where affordable housing is scarce this is much more common.'"

��� The prime reason for non-Asians to live together is often economic gain or assistance. Other benefits like emotional support are secondary. In her book Boomerang Nation, Elina Furman enumerates a list of reasons why young people should take their time to leave home, not leave at all or return to the nest when the going gets tough.

��� With a slew of questionnaires, facts and figures, the book illustrates the perks of moving back in, strategies to cope with parental chivvying and proffers other practical advice. Any Indian wedded to his or her culture would in all likelihood be appalled at the sheer self-preserving, individualistic nature of such books. And perhaps balk at the prospect of setting up parents in ‘in-law suites' or ‘granny flats'.

��� Boomerang Nation does however hit on one universal hot-button issue: Behind-the-scenes conflict. When any family member is on a different track, the whole thing looks like a train wreck. Consider the case of a widowed mother living with her son, daughter-in-law and a young grandchild. The aging lady is left home to single-handedly care for the infant and tackle household chores while the couple is at work. She feels used. "I know of an elderly lady in a similar situation. The family is in the process of separating," reports Dr. Ternikar.

��� No one likes to wash dirty laundry in public but there are issues. The success of TV shows like Kyoni Saas Bhi Khabi Bhau Thi is testimony to the pots-and-pans strife that festers within families. Many women across generations and geography can identify with the quintessential saas-bahu (mother-in-law/daughter-in-law) drama. I Married my Mother-in-Law by Ilena Silverman is an entertaining anthology of conflict-compromise stories that hold true across color lines.

��� "Khabi khabi maan motta karna parta hai (sometimes one has to overlook things)," says Geetaben Shah, Archana's mother-in-law. "Sometimes there are issues in the kitchen; mummy does something Archana does not like and the other way around. They are small things – it's very natural." Dhaval describes a scenario typical of every household. Talking about running a kitchen with two sisters-in-law and a mother in-law, Ilakshi confesses, "Sometimes we do have to compromise and just let it go; that is not a big thing as everybody means well." Research shows that the primary source of discord between the women in a household is over distribution and management of work and finances and child rearing techniques.

��� Atlanta-based Nilofer Ali (name changed) is a physician by profession, like her husband. Two years after her marriage, her father-in-law passed away. Her husband's mother and fifteen-year-old sister left Denver and moved in with Nilofer, her husband and their six-month-old baby. "Here I am with a newborn, and other new additions in the house. I am sympathetic for their loss, but I am very overwhelmed." Nilofer's biggest issues are lack of privacy, minimal private time with her husband and child and constant struggle with her mother in law – everything from what to feed the baby to the choice of tapestry in the living room. "I feel like I've married the whole family, not just my husband."

��� Seema Malhotra (name changed) has been living in Atlanta with her husband and children for over ten years. She cherishes her freedom and the close bond with her husband and two daughters, but lives in fear of the day her in-laws will move in. "My husband wants to bring his aging parents from India to live with us. I understand he is the oldest son and it is his duty, but his parents will have to stay in the house all day. They are too old to make friends or venture out on their own or even do much around the house. They have had servants all their lives. I will have to take care of everything. And I will suddenly become answerable for my actions, my whereabouts. His parents are very old-school."

��� Subservience to parental authority and lack of autonomy may goad the second and third generations to break away from the ‘family'. And research findings documented in The Family in India show that the family atmosphere is gradually becoming responsive to the aspirations of the younger members. The elders in contemporary families are attempting to maintain their position of status, not by awe and authority, but via understanding and affection. As the author puts it, "This is a healthy change because it ensures the stability and the perpetuity of the joint family."

��� Gary believes one of the reasons for the harmony at home is his parents' open-minded attitude. "For example, there is no restriction on where Winnie and I go, when we get back. In fact they (my parents) are always encouraging us to go out by ourselves."

Those who are able to resolve the glitches that are the byproducts of permanent proximity to relatives are unwilling to trade the joys of close-knit living.

By Reetika Nijhawan Khanna

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