Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
TRANSITIONS : September 12, 1999
Transition of authority
The other day my husband, who had been bruised on the cricket field, told my 16-year-old son, "Check if I have temperature, I'm feeling awful."
My son didn't even look up from the computer. "Nothing wrong with you Appa, it's all psychological," he said decisively.
That single statement proclaimed that my son had indeed grown up. This was the beginning of a reversal of roles when the dependent offspring was growing his own wings. Conversely, we, the protective parents, were starting on a phase of dependence on their child.
This transference of authority from the old to the young has been a remarkable feature of human civilisation in every part of the world. But, when the old lack maturity, and the young show insensitivity, this natural process leads to heartbreak and misunderstanding. And it seems to me that the dizzying progress of technology in the second half of this century, has affected lifestyles so greatly, that the transition of authority between the generations has accelerated to a fever of bewilderment. It also seems that authority is assumed mostly minus the responsibility which goes with it.
Until well over the first half of this century, parents were regarded by their children as infallible. Parents took all major decisions for their children's choice of subjects in college, careers and marriage. Flouting parental authority was not common, and was accompanied by a sneaking feeling of wrong doing.
In earlier times the choice for the boys was limited to following their fathers' footsteps. But in more modern times, parents were often proved wrong in making choices for their children. Boys with an aptitude for the arts were forced into medicine and engineering because of the lucrative prospects in those areas. It was an exception and not the rule for a girl to enter college. Usually she was married off as early as possible to a groom selected by the family elders.
But the joint family fostered respect for elders. The Tamil scholar U. V. Swaminatha Iyer, records how he simply gave whatever he earned to his father, and pursued his research "without niggling cares." When the father died, the eldest son took charge. Younger sons handed over their salaries to the eldest brother (even if they earned more than the latter) who managed the family finances. If you failed to get a job or remained a wastrel, you still had family protection. Remember R. K. Narayan's "Mr. Sampath," where the elder brother tells the younger brother,
"You are past thirty-seven with a family of your own. Don't imagine I am not willing to look after them, but they will be far happier if you think of doing something for their sake . . .Don't think I want to relieve myself of the responsibility." It was a fact: his elder brother looked after the family without making a distinction.
Similarly, the mother-in-law was in charge of the household. Her word was law. Her decisions were made for the whole clan, not for the welfare of the individuals in it. If young bride Kalyani, well versed in music, began to practice after the evening chores were over, the matriarch of the family could tell her to put her tambura away forever, because her singing was an individual gratification. Permitting it would be a concession based on partiality.
Women had a lean time of it in the traditional system. Young women were expected to be dutiful and obedient. Self assertion, even in bringing up their own children, was blasphemy. Widows and those spurned by their husbands were assured of the family roof, but mostly as voiceless dredges.
But children enjoyed security of a kind unknown today. In the joint families, they were always assured of playmates and attention. Growing up under the joint care of adults made them feel responsible for all the extended members of the family, besides their own parents. It was not uncommon for an aged aunt or grand uncle to spend his/her last years happily in the home of a nephew. My grandmother tells of how her grand aunt, a ripe eighty then, stopped her being married off as second wife to a wealthy widower with this simple reprimand to the father, "The girl's bridegroom has already been born somewhere and will turn up in due course. No need for unseemly haste."
The attitude towards parents who had resigned their headship of the family was mostly one of respect. They were consulted on all important family matters, like building a house, buying property and arranging marriages. Grey and bald himself, the son still conceded that his father and grandfather were his wise and experienced councillors. The daughter-in-law was assured of the genuine concern of her mother-in-law (who might treat her harshly), in all matters affecting her children. The joint family did not allow the neglect or disregard of elders.
The beginning of the dissolution of the joint family in the second half of this century, has brought up many larger social issues as well as individual problems of a practical and psychological nature. Obviously, the latchkey children of working couples are strangers to the sense of security enjoyed by their own parents. Equally apparent is that the concept of the elders has undergone a radical change. They are no longer venerated as wise authorities of what is right and wrong, but dismissed as old fogies with no grasp of the changing times, behaviour patterns and values. Old age homes are no longer a bizarre concept in Indian cities. The demand exceeds the supply which gives rise to commercialism of the worst kind in running such shelters. And yes, juvenile delinquency is on the increase, for whatever reasons.
True, retired parents living with their children is still the common practice, especially in middle class homes. Not an unmixed blessing. Instead of the expected rest, most grandparents go through the busiest period of their lives, at a time when their resilience and energy are at the lowest ebb. With a working woman for daughter-in-law, they are needed for baby sitting and household tasks. No wonder then that the now ubiquitous television has become the anodyne of such grandparents.
Nor do they have the inclination to spin evening yarns or play indoor games with their grandchildren. They would rather watch the Ramayana on the small screen, and the latest soap. This deprives them and the school/college-going children of close bonding. Thus the young are bereft of their cultural inheritance. Soap opera ideals of the gods and human beings replace living oral tradition.
Youngsters have come to imitate their parents in regarding grand parents as burdensome. (Inevitably, this attitude is bound to continue later towards dependent parents.) No longer is crankiness overlooked as the privilege of the old. The new dispensation tolerates no dissenters and misfits.
Another cause of family disruption in our times is the exodus of the young to the West for higher education and jobs. Whether they marry fellow Indians or foreigners makes no difference in their opting for nuclear families. And when they do take their parents to live with them abroad, the result is usually not a happy one. Such transplantations cause traumas for the old and young. The old are particularly unable to come to terms with their grand children's lifestyles and values, so completely at variance with their own. This leads to greater friction and dilemmas. Some of these grand parents prefer to return to their homeland. When one partner dies, the loneliness can become more unbearable. Nor can they look to the extended family for support as in the old days. Nieces and nephews are scattered across the nation and the world. Their hectic life admits no one outside their own tight circle.
These major changes in the centuries' old family structure have redefined some roles. The social worker has to re-orient strategies to tackle the new problems of the older generation, and the increased alienations of the young. There is little time to relax, which means less bonding between couples and generations.
Despite her increased duties, the urban woman seems to have emerged as the stronger partner. She not only functions efficiently as a member of the first generation of women to whom white collar jobs are the norm and not the exception, but pulls her oars at home with amazing efficiency.
She connects to the roots of tradition while discharging her duties as a modern woman in the era of feminism. Her fierce concern for her offspring has turned her in a single generation from kitchen chief to the superintendent of her children's courses of study and extra curricular activities.
It is she who monitors their homework, tutors them in areas of weakness or laziness. Mothers dropping and picking up children - from school, or coaching classes in tennis and typing - by bus, moped, scooter and car, is a common sight today. True, fathers have also shaken off age old chauvinistic taboos and begun to help in housework and child rearing. But it is the woman who shoulders a "man's weight" in these labours and responsibilities.
The result is that in modern nuclear families, children look on the mother as a greater friend and intellectual companion than the father. "Mom, please convince dad, he won't understand," is a frequent cry from the young. Interestingly, centuries of male domination and sheltered existence have not suppressed the women's ability to move with the times. In many matters, she is far more progressive than the male, with a greater capacity in adjusting to change. She can even keep up with their pop/rap/jazz/rock and sports icons. Globalisation and the economic shifts across the world have swept away many of the safeguards protecting human relationships. And the modern woman has been quick to realise that children must be trained to face the world where hostilities are as much on the increase as opportunities.
My mother told me that her uncle never left his village home in the last four ailing years of his mother's life. He sent someone else for any job or family function outside the village. "I can't bear it if she dies when I am not beside her," was his reason. He was not aware that he was making any sacrifice, or doing anything out of the ordinary.
That kind of emotional support is not a practical matter today. Parents of this generation in India may have to get used to spending their last years alone, in the absence of their offspring living in other parts of the globe. The transition of authority from the old to the young, will carry with it less of that responsibility which was a part of most human cultures through many centuries of this millennium. Old age homes, and the young flying away from the parental nests, will become the norm as in the "progressive, first world" nations. The swift attrition of family values today is only the culmination of a gradual decline of the joint family through this century of frenetic advance in science and technology.
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