About that Desi definition of family…

This week Uma Aunty passed away, and everyone in our family WhatsApp group offered condolences to our inconsolable Manjumashi, the last of my mother’s five siblings. “All my sisters are gone now,” she wrote to her nieces and nephew, from her home in the US and we all felt her pain. Each of us had many fond memories of Uma Rao because she was our ‘aunty’ in the way countless women-usually our mothers’ friends-are aunties for many Indians even today.

That she was not related in consanguineously was utterly irrelevant. She was a very close friend of my ‘real’ mashi (maternal aunt) as well as my mother, and all three were part of the sisterhood of civil service spouses. And as Uma Aunty was a sister in all but name, it was natural that not only the children of the other two considered her to be family, but so did the offspring of the other four siblings of the two ‘real sisters’. Indians would not find this odd or confusing.

Her genial husband was Rao Uncle for us cousins, and my childhood was replete with convivial evenings with them in their house, a neighbouring government bungalow, playing board games, watching Chitrahaar and eating hot-hot-hot Andhra food-accompanied by copious amounts of cold yoghurt. Years later, he even recused himself upon unexpectedly seeing my name in the list for his panel in the civil services interview, on the grounds that he was my uncle.
Most desis will still find easy to understand the Raos’ relationship with us because one of the most endearing and enduring facets of Indian culture is our propensity to strike family ties. Elders invariably become uncles and aunts: taya-tayis, chacha-chachis, mashi-meshos etc. And people of similar age become ‘cousins’, with or without a -sister or -brother suffix. Like the Raos, some of the closest, dearest people in my life even now are such “non-sanguineous” relatives.

My generation is probably one of the last to be familiar with the multi-layered relationships of yore in India. Time was when marriages were not merely between two people but two families. That meant every new bride or groom brought a complement of their relatives to add to the wider ‘family’, and these ties then extended to succeeding generations. In short, my cousins’ cousins are my cousins too, no matter what genealogists have to say to the contrary.

This custom of accepting actually unrelated individuals-relatives of people who became part of families by marriage not blood-as members of the ‘kutumb‘ has kept the Indian social fabric resilient through many pressures of modern life, especially migration. Closest friends become family too by the same custom, and are accorded the same courtesies, respect and love. No one quibbles about how an “aunt” or a “cousin” are really related; it does not matter.Family ties have always been far more narrow in the west, with even immediate siblings becoming distant within a generation and cousins being considered ‘remote’ enough to make marriages between them socially and legally acceptable. Now some younger, urban Indians influenced by western mores are inclined to hew to that less inclusive definition of ‘family’, unwilling to accept the linkages that people at least up to my generation regarded as perfectly natural.Rural Indians are far wiser. For them, even fellow villagers are part of their ‘kutumb’ and form a support system that sees them through thick and thin. Be it weddings, funerals, medical emergencies, jobs or disputes, they stand by each other. Urban employers bemused by the number of “family emergencies” that befall some people which necessitate frequent trips back to their ‘gaon’ should instead be heartened that ‘family’ ties remain a safety net in India.

Most of us had not met Uma Aunty for years as the Raos moved to Kakinada after retirement but we got regular news of them as Manjumashi and her husband Debumesho faithfully spent a month with them on their annual trip to India, the same amount of time they spent with their ‘real’ siblings. Advancing years put an end to those India trips; now both Raos are gone. But Manjumashi’s post reminded us all how precious our desi “non-sanguineous” ties are.


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