“Ye hai meri badi bahu!” my mother-in-law said for the fiftieth time, introducing me to her fiftieth relative. And for the fiftieth time, I bent down to touch someone’s feet. Stealing an envious sidelong glance at my husband, I saw him merrily hugging everyone. He gave me his wickedest smile and winked as if to say ‘Welcome to the family!’ At that point I did not know what living in a joint family would be like.
The Culture Shock Of A Joint Family
Marrying Amit, a Sindhi, was a noisy awakening of senses for me, a Muslim. It felt like I had been dragged from the pin-drop silence of an SSC exam hall into a full-blown baarat! My parents’ house was home to a nuclear family of four – two working professionals and two studious kids. Growing up, we led a life of discipline and moderation. With my parents away at work, I was used to being alone, reading in my spare time and generally taking care of myself.
After my marriage, more than religion and culture, it was the joint family system that required maximum adjustment. So here I am telling you now how to live in a joint family.
A joint family is all about people
When I say joint family, don’t think of it as a truncated version including only the husband’s parents. My new family had a younger brother and sister, too. It stood for a typical joint family in India. Plus, there was a whole league of extended family. Nanas-nanis, dadas-dadis, mamas-mamis, didis-jijajis and yes, a platoon of cousins. We were constantly in and out of each other’s houses (we still are!). In fact, I am writing this story sitting at Amit’s mama’s house. But I had no clue living in a joint family would be such an experience.
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Amit’s family was loving and caring, and Amit was very understanding, but inside me there was an endless struggle to adjust to everything. Our home was a busy port, with a constant flow of guests – some visiting, others staying over – there were people everywhere! Although I had started working within a few months of getting married, I was required to fulfil my duties as the lady of the house. Entertaining and socialising, often till late in the night, became the order of the day. I was also taking lessons in cooking and home management. All this was exhausting for me. But Amit came to my rescue. He made his mother understand my perspective and the demands of my work life. Thereafter, I was able to maintain a manageable schedule. So thankfully I did not have to grapple with the problems of a joint family because my husband stood by me.
In our house, parties, outings and holidays are planned at the spur of the moment. Meals are planned like a ‘daawat.’ Shopping sprees are actually expeditions. Phone calls last for hours. Privacy is a luxury. The list goes on…
In a joint family love and interference could be same
Another aspect that I had to contend with was the constant interference from everyone. Used to be on my own, I simply couldn’t fathom the constant questioning and unsolicited advice. Every time I bought a dress or a bag, I was asked all the details about it and in the end, was given the verdict – ‘you got an expensive deal.’ And if I were to mention any ailment, I would instantly get assailed by home remedies and ‘nuskas’. Not only the immediate family, but even the extended family members would get busy offering advice over the phone. I understood that they were concerned about me, but it was quite overwhelming at first.
There wasn’t a single thing that I could do without being critiqued. From my sartorial choices to my career moves, everything was up for scrutiny.
Once the honeymoon period was over, everyone started expecting ‘good news’ from me. As time passed, the enquiries became more aggressive. This was annoying me and I decided to voice my thoughts to Amit.
“Why are all your female relatives after my life to have a baby? I am only 22! Every conversation is about baby and baby-making. It’s getting on my nerves now. If I hear ‘kab de rahe ho good news’ one more time, I am going to scream!”
“Calm down, sweetie! I know this constant questioning is annoying, but they are doing it because of me. They have nothing against you. But I am the firstborn of the family. Everyone has high expectations from me, regarding my career, my wife and kids. You don’t have to retort to anyone, just give them a polite reply. We shall plan our life on our terms, but we can’t stop our well-wishers from asking questions.”
Adjustment and approval in a joint family
Although I wasn’t completely convinced, I realised that his family loves him a lot and sometimes love can be a little interfering. I gradually started learning how to live in a joint family.
The pre-requisite of a joint family is that you think of everyone and go with those plans that are approved by everyone. It’s not easy to compromise on every step.
For instance, I had to delay my plans of buying a house, as initially we could manage only a 1BHK apartment. Even a hint of the idea of moving out was vetoed. It had to be a 3BHK or nothing!
It’s also not easy to have a fight with your husband in a joint family. His parents are often witnesses and can’t help taking sides. Luckily for me, they always sided with me! I usually got miffed with him for not spending enough time with me; even weekends were spent with friends. We had quite a few showdowns because of it. That’s when his parents stepped in and explained to him the need to balance his time between his wife and other social commitments. Adjustments in a joint family are not easy but if you can the benefits are immense. There is nothing like a happy joint family. And joint families like this do exist in India.
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Loving the chaos in a joint family
Your coping process really depends on how adjusting your family members are, and mine was very supportive. I was able to learn everything in a fun way.
Like every time my mother-in-law saw my messed up culinary effort, instead of scolding me, she would tell me anecdotes of her own to lighten up the moment and impart the much-needed gyan at the same time.
The most important lessons were in relationship management – dealing with my mother-in-law who is a matriarch of our family as well as a set of extended families, caring for my father-in-law who is my strength and being loving toward my husband’s younger siblings. As time passed, the kids arrived – two naughty boys – and my life changed completely. Through it all, Amit was my pillar of support.
Besides the regular perks of living in a joint family, like having a strong support system, sharing of responsibilities and never being lonely, I have been lucky to have a unique benefit. Apart from Amit, I have made incredible friends in the family – my husband’s cousin Navin, his brother’s wife Krisha and his sister and my long-distance BFF, Tina. It’s been 15 years since I first stepped through the looking-glass and fell into this ‘joint family’ world. I have had my share of issues, I still do, but nothing will make me give up my sweet, funny, quirky fam! There are advantages and disadvantages of a joint family but I can only look at the advantages. The joint family problems don’t irk me at all.