Homemade Trauma: Rethinking the Happy Indian Family

My earliest memory of going to a cinema is from 1994. The film was Hum Aapke Hai Koun, and the buzz it created must have been such that even my otherwise busy and non-cinema going parents decided on this unprecedented family outing. That film was to mark a turning point in Bombay cinema and begin a trend of family and wedding films that proliferate to this day. Tellingly, it broke the box office record set by Sholay (that magnum opus of Indian bromance and ass-kickery), just as it broke the dominance of the 70s and 80s action flick. Underworld dons, dacoits and vigilantes were to be replaced by Saas, Bahu and Sanskar for an entire generation. Their grandchildren thrive today as the infestation of decked-up family tele-series pioneered by Balaji Productions, with their heady cocktail of puja, business and slow-mo closeups. 

But back in 1994, we were blissfully unaware of all this. We were just a happy family going to watch a film about a happy family. My parents tell me that throughout the film, the six year old me was terrified of the big screen and the thunderous sound. I don’t really recall being scared, but that’s probably because all my memories of family cinema outings are overshadowed by two extraordinarily awkward and impossibly long minutes of sex in Cameron’s Titanic

If we look back, two currents in 90s pop culture stand out: the maybe-sexual revolution of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kanta Laga on the one hand, and the revenge of the happy Indian family on the other. By 2018, they have interbred into the slut-Ma female body on screen, deployed to sell the Indian man both motorcycles and mamta with equal titillation. Who would have thought that the media explosion in the wake of economic liberalisation would crystallise into today’s mob violence over how Bhansali’s jewellery ad valorising mass suicide is not regressive enough for rajput pride? (that lost opportunity to terrorise the nation over the 3-hour long Ishh that was Devdas must rankle every bengali now) 

Our visual mediums today are overcrowded with good husbands, good wives, good mothers, good fathers and good children, stuck in a loop of pai-lagu, jai shri krishna, kartavya, balidan, puja-ki-thali, karvachauth, etc. On screen, the family is the very epitome of everything; it is the ultimate security net, emotional anchor, inexhaustible source of encouragement, and the root of purity and goodness in the world. Add never-explained but multi-million business empires to this, and you have your complete Sanskar-Karobar-Parivar trinity of Hindu middle-class aspiration. Intelligent alien life intercepting our satellite signals will have no doubt that the Indian family is the best thing this side of the big bang.

To digress slightly, I was re-reading a childhood book on Indian history a few days ago. On the subject of Ashoka’s edicts and their widespread presence in the subcontinent, the author remarks that their presence in far reaching areas should not be taken as proof of either the extent of his empire or the degree of control it exercised in those areas. Neither, he adds, should the emperor’s message of compassion etched in these edicts be seen as reflective of how life in the empire actually was. The proliferation of something, and its constant repetition, is usually less indicative of stability and more telling of some underlying anxiety that the proliferation is trying to counter or contain. The rapid and inexplicable disintegration of Ashoka’s empire after his death, the author concludes, appears much less rapid and inexplicable if we imagine his empire to have never been as unified, centralised or organised as his edicts would have us believe. 

If one takes a leaf out of this historian’s approach, the omnipresence of the silver-screen happy family might be a lot less descriptive of how an Indian family actually works, and have more to do with some deep-rooted anxiety. What are all the smiles and make-up hiding? What impact is this circulation of family-is-everything having on those whose lived experiences are unsuitable scripts for Karan Johar? What is the real Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki?

Just a few weeks ago, a video went viral in which a man in Bangalore is seen thrashing his ten-year old son for (allegedly) lying. The father is seen repeatedly slapping his son, then lifting him by the neck and slamming him on the bed- an action he does no less than five times, each time harder than before. Then he throws the boy off the bed and starts kicking him just under his neck with such force that the boy’s face repeatedly bangs against the floor. The boy screams and screams louder with each blow, begging his father to stop. The video was taken on a mobile phone by none other than the boy’s mother, whose only intervention is to encourage her husband. The purpose of the video? To show it to the child later; a reminder of the consequences of bad behaviour.

While you may be outraged and recoil at the graphic brutality in this video, I am fairly certain that no one is entirely surprised that this happens. In fact, no south asian person can feign incredulity about the system of ‘disciplining’ that the south asian family engenders and endorses. What is this disciplining? Physical, emotional and psychological surveillance and control. And it is not just for children; you never grow out of this panopticon. This oppression and pervasive erasure of individuality is sweetened with bribes and ‘rewards’ that follow a carrot-stick logic, normalised by ubiquity and convention, valorised by moral and religious instruction, and guarded and enforced by the threat of violence. 

Growing up, I wasn’t close to my cousins as we never lived in the same city, and I only saw them once a year, or even less. Our few interactions were also forced ones, where we were put in a room and compelled to interact because we are ‘family’. Needless to say, coercion doesn’t endear you to whatever you are coerced to do. But now, as adults, we have had an opportunity to get to know each other beyond pleasantries. For me, the last few years have been a series of shocking discoveries about the violence and trauma that the family is capable of inflicting, and the remarkable ways in which this gets covered up as ‘normal’.

Not all violence has to be physical, but there is no dearth of physical violence either. I recently came to know how the father of one of my cousins used to routinely come to his room, lock the door, and whip him with his leather belt. Most of the time he was never told the reason for this, and he says it usually mirrored his father’s professional frustrations. Another cousin told me how both her parents would lock the door and proceed to beat her to a pulp, and that once this happened purely because the neighbours’ daughter got through to a prestigious college. A third cousin was beaten so often in front of us that, until another cousin reminded me, I had quite forgotten this one time when his father dangled him over the terrace ledge and threatened to throw him two floors down. He couldn’t have been older than six.

Then there is surveillance. Most of my cousins and friends are shocked that I have been ‘allowed’ to lock the door of my room from the time I was old enough to have a room to myself. Some of them aren’t even allowed to do so now, because privacy is apparently the root of all evil/immorality. A certain cousin who stays away from her family gets a call from her mother every thirty minutes. She isn’t allowed to have male friends, or a non-hindu roommate, or be out on her own. “Delhi is unsafe”, works as a popular excuse. The moral panic is such that the mother of another cousin moved cities with him when he got through to an engineering college (a course he was forced to study), and even my own grandmother once harshly upbraided a female cousin for being with me in my room till 11pm. The fear in the latter case was the possibility of sex, and she got the shouting because patriarchy trumps everything. 

In fact, enforcing a sexual morality is fundamental to this disciplinary regime. And like all morality, its unequal, because “boys will be boys.” The middle-class family makes every effort to purge sexuality in the household by stigmatising sex as gandi baat. But the more sinister turn to this is the way it both creates a space for sexual abuse in the family while denying any space for individuals to talk about it. Did your uncle touch you inappropriately? I’m sure you misunderstood. Are you sure he did that? Anyway, don’t you dare tell anyone. 

We hardly need reminding of the south asian family’s invaluable contribution to the English lexicon in the term ‘honour-killing’. We are also the blessed nation where Maneka Gandhi, the erstwhile doyen of animal rights and current Minister for Women and Child Development, has gone on record to say that recognising marital rape is unsuitable for the country as this would destabilise the Indian family. One cant help wonder what kind of family is built upon legitimising marital rape. I suppose the same kind that normalises oppression as long as Hum Saath Saath Hai.

The primary instinct in any family is to silence anything that threatens its stability. Gharelu mamla is a byword for none-of-your-business. Families that fail to do this, whose ‘dirty laundry’ gets washed in the public because of the courage and bravery of those who dare to speak out, are instantly labelled exceptions the rule. The dysfunctional family is an aberration. We are made to believe that some families are bad where bad things happen because of bad individuals. Its an implicit #notallfamilies. Individuals can be bad, but the family is never bad.

What does this achieve? In drawing such a spurious distinction between bad families vs our family, the more everyday coercions and oppressions get normalised. They are peddled as being for your own good, and the moral duty of a family. What are these? Forcing you to pick a profession you don’t like; forcing you to meet prospective brides/grooms you have no interest in; forcing you to attend events you have no time for. Emotional blackmail and continuously burdening you with their expectations. All for your own good.

We never recognise this as trauma because we never recognise that it is not some families that are dysfunctional and oppressive, but that the institution of family itself is structurally oppressive and violent. Worse, you are taught to keep it to yourself, because its ghar ki baat. What do you do then? You either suppress it or convince yourself that its all ‘normal’. We sometimes venture to share our oppressions, and when we see that everyone has similar stories, it somehow stops being that oppressive. Its not just me. But most times you don’t share it, out of shame, and keep up the pretence that your family is the best. But what happens when you normalise such violence? Violence that is inflicted by those who you trust, respect, love? How do you move beyond such trauma?

You don’t. You carry it with you, and you unknowingly become your own oppressor. Every soap-opera is telling you that family is about self-sacrifice, devotion, loyalty- its bigger than the individual. To be an individual in a family is to be selfish. So you hide the violence and put on your make-up. Then you achieve your catharsis by perpetuating it. You graduate from being the site of violence to its agent. Did your father beat you up? Its okay, you can beat up your younger brother. 

The family is both law and morality unto itself. You can outlaw corporal punishment, but kids will still turn up to school with bruises. You can outlaw casteism, but we will still openly publish casteist matrimonial ads. You can outlaw domestic violence, but all my neighbours beat their wives so no one will report. You can outlaw rape, but we will still force my daughter to have sex with a stranger, because arranged marriage is a family value. 

Law and the constitution come second, because in the Indian family we have enshrined a parallel institution with supra-legal powers. What kind of an institution is this? Is it a democracy, a monarchy, or a fascist dictatorship? The leviathan in India isn’t the state because the true monster is the family that even the state dares not encroach upon. Perhaps it is not ironic that the genesis of the modern Indian state lies in a freedom movement that started out in backlash against the British outlawing Sati and Jauhar. Today, this culminates in our dire threat to the world with Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam– all the world is one family. Nothing escapes the family.

It would appear that the gloss of Indian silver screen families and their elaborately regressive ritualisation of family ‘values’ takes from the panegyric form of the Puranas. The same historian expresses his frustration with the Puranas. They are often the only written sources available to historians, but are also wildly inaccurate as historical documents because they selectively highlight the positives and omit anything negative. But that doesn’t mean they are useless, and neither are our modern-day Puranas. In their insidious lies hide the cracks in such forced narratives. It is a product of anxiety, and a closer look will tell you exactly what those fears are. For instance, it was no coincidence that we were thrust with a joint-family of Tolkein-ian proportions in Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi just as the urban Indian middle-class was rapidly embracing the nuclear family. 

But for any change to happen, we have to call a monster out by its name. The myth of the happy family exists not because of our actual experiences of family life, but because of our collective silence and our reluctance to acknowledge the abuse and violence inherent in the family. Unless we do that, we will continue to internalise such abuse and perpetuate it, and find ourselves unable to distinguish love from oppression, care from control, safety from imprisonment. It is only when we see the family for what it is, and not what we are told it is or should be, that we can begin to rescue our notions of care, security and love and recognise meaningful relationships outside this paradigm of family. 

It was on one of those nights when a cousin was telling me about her experiences of physical violence at home when my friend, who was also listening, spoke up about the need to change this and break this vicious cycle. It was only when he spoke out that I remembered he too has faced violence at home. He had told me, but I had forgotten all about it because I had normalised it. I could hear in his voice how that trauma still remains, and how it is a lifelong struggle to overcome it. I was suddenly struck by how all three of us in that room were survivors; that we had survived the trauma that childhood was, and are even now surviving the institutionalised trauma that the family is. But do we look at ourselves as survivors? I wonder how my cousin would have reacted if it had been anyone else and not her own father who banged her head on the floor.

I suppose we are very good at blackmailing ourselves with the fear of ‘losing’ this supposedly wonderful thing called family. Perhaps our ultimate masochism is in how we keep returning to, and recreating, the same idea of family that we also keep running away from. Even when we find security and care in friends and lovers, we relapse into telling them “you are like family to me.” Is that supposed to be an elevation of that friendship? Is that supposed to be a mark of a relationship’s depth and importance? Are we eventually doomed to this violence and oppression by our own lack of imagination?

But more importantly, when will we start speaking out about this institutionalised abuse? When will we be ready to have honest conversations about the family? When will we start talking about abuse at home- whether on us, by us, or on others? Will we see a day when #metoo is also #myfamilytoo?

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