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The rulebook of family reunions


Reunions are fun but not too many of us are fortunate enough to make it happen. Here's a secret: Take time off to be a part of one.

It's the stuff of books and plays, movies and soap operas, the dreaded occasion where skeletons heave themselves creakily out of family cupboards; where multiple-hanky operas of miscommunications, recriminations and clasped-to-the-bosom forgiveness are played out; and where general mayhem and histrionics are the specials of the day.

In reality, coming from a generation that can count more cousins outside India than those living here, organising a family reunion —let alone one drenched in high drama — is a next-to-impossible affair. It's also a generation busy juggling the demands of work, email, twitter, text and Facebook, which leaves darn little time to actually pick up the phone, talk and plan overlapping holidays.

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But - dip into the Rule Book for Family Reunions, and Golden Rule1 says to set the Reunion ball rolling, you need an ‘occasion' to motivate large families. Timely, then, to receive an email from my cousin about coming to Trivandrum on a surprise visit for his father's landmark birthday. “Do you realise Appuammavan is turning Eighty?” I asked the youngest of my three uncles, with whom I was staying at the time in Kochi.

Rule2: No self-respecting Nair family can have enough members called Appan, Appu and Unni, and preferably enough of each moniker to create maximum confusion. Interesting trivia: I have three maternal uncles with each of those names. Getting into the spirit of the thing we said, a surprise party, why not, a sort of international family gathering. We figured, though, that we had better tell my aunt – just in case we all landed in Trivandrum and discovered the surprise was on us, as my uncle and aunt had decided to go on a holiday cruise, leaving us to party without the main man. Animated and furtive phone calls to my aunt followed over the next couple of months.

If Rule 3 is Think Big - rappelling down from helicopters armed with a birthday cake - Rule 4: is must have capable aunt to weed out impractical ideas, and actually do all the organising. The logistics of catering and menus, planning venues and guest lists was largely left to my aunt with endless – probably unhelpful – suggestions from us. It was decided that we'd keep the celebratory dinner intimate and manageable, and invite just the family; though “just the family” eventually translated to close to a 100 guests.

My mother, though, wasn't too keen on the whole surprise business; her brother, she said in tones that skillfully combined wistfulness with gentle accusation, would so have loved the excitement of anticipating how we were all going to his birthday. As it turned out, she needn't have worried. The next phone call to Trivandrum was answered by the maid who thought we ought to know that my uncle, unable to hold back his curiosity over all these sneaky calls, had taken to picking up the extension when we called.

Some dos and donts

Golden Rule 5: Destroy all unnecessary telephones in the house.

The day eventually dawned when we packed and boarded planes, trains and cars – Rule 6: book tickets early - and arrived in Trivandrum, some of us after such incomprehensibly long absences as 15 and 20 years. We congregated daily in the mornings at Appuammavan's place and it was quite a carnival – or railway station, given the endless comings and goings of friends and relatives. Kids ran around taking advantage of the hullaballoo, to demand – and invariably get –fistfuls of normally forbidden snacks. From each distracted adult.

The other adults did their best impressions of couch potatoes, allowing both the conversation and the endless cups of coffee to magically gravitate towards them. Stories grew more raucous with each retelling; favourite family anecdotes wriggled pleasurably out of the neurons of memory and lived again.

Rule 7: Family reunions are the bumper tombola of nostalgic indulgences – you have a willing audience clamouring for tickets into the game, rather than acquaintances dying to escape.

Still, Rule 8 did demand that reunions offer a surprise or two. Perhaps this could be a song-and-dance routine by the one talented cousin in our midst who could actually do both? Somehow, that praiseworthy proposal got brutally twisted along the way into the talented one choreographing the couch potato idea-givers into a Bollywood dance number. So many left feet in one chorus line must be some sort of record.

Rule 9: Sense of humour, most essential. Non- dancing cousins would video our rehearsals; practice needed to be halted at regular intervals while those viewing the recordings scraped themselves off the floor, laughing.

But we kept our eye on the prize: keeping it a secret from the aunts and uncles. We were rewarded, finally, when we burst into dance, by the look of stupefaction – horror? – on their faces.

Obeying Rule 10 – keeping reunions short enough to enjoy each other's company but long enough to want to do it again – it was soon time to leave. So, who's turning 80 next, demanded a visiting US cousin. I have to admit no hands shot up in eager acknowledgement of this milestone. However, high levels of enthusiasm were displayed about ways of organising another get-together next year from walking/ trekking in the US (not popular) to renting a villa in Tuscany and sitting around drinking wine (extremely popular).

Which brings us to the final Golden Rule: Making time. Even if you live long, life's short; and the older you get, the more aware you become that it's the people that matter, the rest is detail.

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