Wednesday 8 April 2015

The Extended Family

The modern day upwardly mobile couples do live in smart condos and flats, and actually prefer urban living to country living.  However, it is not uncommon for people to live in an extended family under the same roof, often sharing the same kitchen.  So, traditionally, the elder of the household, and the supreme authority is the father-in-law i.e. the husband’s father, and the mother-in-law (saas) is the presiding woman in the family.  When a woman is married, traditionally i.e. a marriage arranged between two families, she moves into her husband’s home, and in every way, becomes the daughter of that home, considering her own parent’s home as very secondary.  Her own family including parents, would rarely visit her in her parent-in-law’s home as they would not like to be seen as imposing on their son-in-law’s home.  The bride/wife, would traditionally return to her parental home at the time of giving birth to her children, going back to her marital home after 40 days. 
The parents of the husband are regarded as the senior members of his home, and his other brothers, along with their wives and children would be sharing the same premises, albeit in separate living quarters.  A strict hierarchy does exist, with the eldest brother and his wife being the senior siblings, and so on down the line.  If a widow’s sons live separately, she has every right and expectation that she will live in the home of the eldest son, and distribute herself among all the other families by visiting them turn by turn for prolonged periods of time. 

Though each unit manages itself, and it’s own children, grand parents play an important role, and all the aunts and uncles, whose nomenclature clearly defines each relationship (they are not just ambiguous “aunts” and “uncles”, but very specific relatives), and the children of the house are fed and disciplined by all – more or less regardless of whose they are.  The kitchen and dining table is common, though each unit may have separate sub food arrangements, and very often the late evening meal is eaten all together by all members of the entire family.  Running the kitchen therefore becomes a team function of all the ladies of the house ---- all this is ofcourse, traditionally, but not necessarily the way it is today.

Most of our socializing is done among relatives, who thus also become our close friends.


Typical questions by readers of popular women’s magazines read as follows: 
“During Diwali, Holi and other major festivals, my husband always wants to visit his parents, siblings and their families, while I feel I would like to visit my own parents, sisters and brother’s families, and ofcourse mutual friends.  There is never enough time for both, and given the traffic and distances in a metro city, this is not too practical.  My parents-in-law, too, feel we should call on their immediate family.  What do we do, without offending anyone ofcourse?”

These are very real dilemmas, not to be taken lightly without causing considerable diplomatic offence to all concerned.  So festival socializing has to be sorted out very thoughtfully ensuring that all concerned are not offended, particularly not “samdhis” i.e. one’s children’s families-in-law.

Relatives should not be excluded from one’s toddlers birthday bashes.  Relatives must always be visited when they are ill or when they are bereaved.  And the entire range of relatives, residing in the country or outside, must be included in one’s family’s wedding invitation lists. 

In India, a visitor is an honoured guest, and is always respected as such.  He/she/they are immediately seated, and profusely greeted…every member of the family in the house is expected to come by to sit with him/her for atleast a short period of time.  The first offering within 5 minutes of arrival is a chilled glass of water, followed by a soft drink and some short eats – a display of atleast 3 varieties.  Alternatively, it could be tea and snacks.  To refuse, or to indicate that one has already eaten more than enough is not a good reason for the host/hostess to desist from laying out the paraphernalia, and good manners require that you do partake, atleast of a cup of tea.

Conversation proceeds on the lines of asking after all family members health – the wife and the kids, and ofcourse, the aged parents. 

Socialising at weddings includes introducing one’s entire family in detail to other families or relatives, explaining in detail how they are related.  It is also the forum to introduce young people to the parents of other young people in the hope of prospective matrimonial alliances. The perfectly acceptable gift is an envelope containing cash – crisp, clean notes, the denominations always ending in “one” i.e. Rupees One hundred and one, or Five hundred and one or Rs. 1001/-.  The envelopes are often very decorative, with that additional Rs. 1/- as part of the envelope.  This offering is called “shagun”, a good luck and good-will offering which is never refused as it is an essential element of blessings to the couple.

Party Protocol

In India, partying is not confined to week-ends.  Weekdays will do just as well, since household help is available to do the cooking, and many families still have home-makers who will market and supervise the details.

In metro cities such as Mumbai and Delhi, it is necessary to arrive “fashionably late” i.e. normally, half an hour after invitation time. Mumbai takes the cake in this regard where people often land up at 10 p.m. or later!  Not so at parties being hosted by anyone in the Indian Armed Forces when punctuality is correct protocol.  Otherwise, it is allright to come and go at almost any time.  The excuse could be the traffic, or that one had to/has to attend more than one event on the same evening. This is especially true during Diwali, when hopping from one card-party to another is quite the norm; and during the wedding season.  It is not done to hurt people’s feelings by not attending their “functions”, especially as entertainment is lavish with no holds barred in terms of extravagance.

 Often guests bring others in tow, hopefully having informed the host/hostess beforehand.  Unlike in the West, when an appertif  or two is had before the meal is served, in India, hard drinking is done before the meal is laid out, so for a party with an invite time at 8.30 p.m. dinner will usually be served between 10.30 – 11 p.m. And since most people are really hungry as they arrive, cocktail snacks are in great demand, the heavier, the better.  So chicken tikkas, sikh kebabs, paneer tikkas doing the rounds are literally devoured.   The other difference between socializing in the West and in India is that people, after they have eaten, will not wait to make after dinner conversation but KPK (“Khao, Piyo aur Khisko) – literally translated as, Eat, Drink and Move.  All the socializing is done before the main meal.  There are certain accepted patterns of socialising at a party, whether a business event, or otherwise.  When people are introduced, the men will shake hands with the men and say Namaste to the women.  The women will say Namaste to all.  The younger generation is comfortable with just a “Hi!”   Very often, the men will not make eye-contact with women at the time of introduction, if they have to shake hands with those women who do extend their hand.  “Sat-sri-Akal” is the standard greeting for Sikhs. You will often find younger people bending from the waist to token-touch their elders’feet – even today, a sign of respect for one’s elders, especially the –in-laws.  A teacher or guru is always shown this respect.  Often, just the phrase, “pehri-panna” is used to vocalize the intention of touching an elder’s feet as a sign of obeisance and respect.

 All the women sit together in a group discussing each other’s elegant clothes and the sourcing of these; discussing the difficulties of obtaining good domestic help these days; discussing the health problems of mutual friends; and talking about Bollywood films and TV soaps ; all this being regarded as  “gossiping”.  The men congregate around the bar or in all-male clusters talking cricket, perhaps politics, the stock market and ofcourse impolite jokes rule as the (alcoholic) drinks go down.  Ofcourse they gossip, but then it’s known as “management information systems”.

And now a word about imbibing alcohol.  At a cocktail party, you will find that hotel staff will pass around whiskey (most often good scotch) with mixers of sparkling soda water, plain water and ice, and also beer.  They will circulate among the men but rarely among groups of women, where the “soft” non-alcoholic drinks will be passed around.  It takes a brave woman to ask for whisky, or (these days) wine.  And it takes even more bravery for women to walk over to a group of men to join them for a drink, or for a man to leave his “cluster”of safe male companions to decide to join a ladies group, especially if it happens to be seated.  And seated it will be, since chairs are laid out in semi-circles, just so that women can be seated!

Men are not doing the party justice unless they down the first three scotch & sodas really fast, and then proceed at a regular pace.  Women are never expected to have more than one or two (alcoholic) drinks.  No wonder women are bored out of their minds while men are having ever such a good time!

The success of a  party is often rated (by guests) by the number of whiskies they had!

ÖK then,”or Äacha-ji”is quite the accepted way of saying “goodbye”in the north of India.

Social intercourse
The occasions: A marriage
                                    A business party, with or without spouses
                                    A death

The party sequence:    Not just week-end partying.
 Party hopping. 
Arriving late – often with children/elderly parents in tow.
Gifts – often money in decorative envelopes.
Women sit together, and men congregate together a distance away.
Women rarely drink while men imbibe! Smoking relatively rare,
especially among women, younger generation excepted.
Drinks first – whisky on an empty stomach, three before the main
meal.  Heavy snacks with drinks – chicken tikkas for non vegs.
And paneer tikkas for veggies. 
Heavy food, served late.
Immediate departure “ Khaye, piyae aur khiske!” (Eat, drink and move!)
Conversation:              Among women – domestic help, price of household stuff, health of
                                    self, in-laws and relatives, travel trips. Hindi movies.
                                    Among men – cricket, stock market, traffic, performance of their
                                    Cars, etc.,etc.
Typical self-introductions.  Hand shakes, eye-contact or the lack of it.  Hands in pockets stance. Brevity of cross gender talk. 
“OK then” or “Aacha ham chalet hai”( “we will be on our way”) is our way of saying “Good-bye”!