Living in a joint family

A place where people from different cultures live in harmony and where the official language is love…

Joint family having dinner together

Not long ago, Chetan Bhagat wrote a book about two people from two diverse states of India overcoming all odds to come together. It was called The Two States.

It highlighted many issues that caused concern to my parents when I got married. You see, I am a hot-headed, tight-fisted Sindhi married to a simple, sober Tamil Brahmin boy. There were many apprehensions, some spoken and some unspoken, regarding the success of such a marriage considering my introvert and rebellious nature.

As far as I was concerned, I didn't know what I was really getting into [come to think of it, nobody does]. All I knew was that I had met this terribly handsome boy who pursued me diligently till I said, “Yes” and we were getting married! The rest…would have to wait.

Married life, at first, was an extended honeymoon as we set up home in Chennai on our own. Of course, the occasional visits to relatives who lived in the same city could not be ruled out.

I treated them with respect and wariness, while they indulged me as one would indulge a foreign tourist on her first holiday to India. After spending a year in Chennai, we moved to Delhi to stay with my in-laws. That's when the wheels started churning.

My father-in-law was a professor at the prestigious IIT, Delhi, while my mother-in-law was a housewife. My in-laws were aware that I wasn't looking forward to living in a joint family set-up, especially since I had lived in a home set up by me and my husband, which I had been sad to leave.

So they doubled their efforts to make me feel at home. From making place for my little knickknacks, getting some of my favourite recipes from my mother and cooking them for me to discreetly leaving my husband and me alone whenever possible, my mother-in-law left no stone unturned.

My father-in-law too surprised me by bringing home a pot of delicious mutton biryani when I was craving it one day.

A Brahmin family that had never even bought meat, willing to bend rules to gladden the heart [and stomach] of a 20-something daughter-in-law... how often do you get that? Never, if you go by the numerous soaps on TV.

After the break-in period, I discovered many more facets to their personality… their selflessness and willingness to please their children [and I was counted in them]; their readiness to give wholeheartedly and gracefully without any expectations or pressure to reciprocate; their simplicity and liberal, broad minded approach to life and people in general.

Soon, my husband was transferred to Mumbai. We returned to Delhi to deliver our first baby, a year later. My mother had to leave Delhi in a hurry for a family emergency just before my due date.

So, on that morning in July, when my water bag burst, I dawdled into the hospital with my husband and in-laws in tow. I can never forget the cheerfulness with which my mother-in-law chipped in when my baby was born.

She would run the house all day and sleep next to me at night. All night, we would take turns changing the baby, burping him and rocking him to sleep. While I slept it off the next day, she used to go about things as usual without once complaining of lack of sleep.

But it was not roses all the way [it never is, right?]. After the stipulated 40 days, I returned to Mumbai with mother-in-law in tow.

I was still coping with the loss of a ‘paying’ job [out of my own volition] to slave after my little bundle of joy. I looked like Godzilla, felt like a cow and zombie [alternately], and had only an uneducated maid and new-born baby to converse with all day.

The smallest of advice on baby care was enough to set me off. I'd read all the right books— how could they know better than me! From daughter-in-law, I transformed into monster-in-law with sharp fangs and hissing breath, waiting to snap off the head of whoever suggested that I was not giving it my best.

With the arrival of my second baby, however, things changed again. I was more mature, experienced and open to suggestions. I was in control of myself and my feelings. I could just ‘let them be’ from time to time with their grandkids without worrying about what they could be eating/watching/doing.

In time, we all moved on with our lives. They moved to Chennai post-retirement and we met every 2 – 3 months. Last year, my father-in-law suffered a paralytic stroke and lost his speech as well as the movement in his right side. And they had to move in with us.

Having lived as a nuclear family for eight years, apprehensions abounded as we knew a lot would change, for all of us.

It's been a year now that we are a ‘joint’ family—it was a year of ups and downs for all. I've made my peace with idli, dosa and sambar, while they've learnt to live with the smells of garlic and non-vegetarian food.

As I watch appa patiently cover my children's books with the hands that must've chalked out destinies of countless engineering under-graduates, I feel sad. As for amma, she is his nurse-companion-silent partner all rolled into one.

This is the ‘third state’—a state in which I am living in constantly. This state has nothing to do with culture, caste, language, food habits, ideologies or mental make-up.

It only dictates that if you have received selfless love, then you must re-invest and reciprocate it to keep it flourishing—it's an ideal state for all mankind I'd say.

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