We tell stories to make sense of ourselves, writes Jerry Pinto. But our origins, the people closest to us, are mysteries that resist explanation
This is where it began: when the human species decided to stand upright. The decision, we are told, brought the birth canal between the pelvic girdle and limited the size of the head of the human foetus. Evolutionary biologists say that every human child is thus born a month premature. And therein lies the secret of the huge amount of time and energy that the human baby requires. The institution of the family was built around the wee form of a child.
You could even say it was built around the idea of immortality, of throwing one’s genes over the fence of time. Thus the family is a construct that deals with the future. Almost everything that is said about the family, within the family, is about the future. Try the following for size:
“You’ll see what I mean when you grow up.”
“You’ll know why I am doing this when you’re older.”
“Just wait until you have children of your own.”
“You don’t have to think about it now but who will look after you when you grow old? That’s when you will regret not getting married and having children of your own.”
That is the ultimate argument offered for starting a family. The assumption is not based on any realistic expectation. Aunty M who tells you that you might regret not marrying because you won’t have any progeny to care for you in your declining years will also say, not even an hour later, “This new generation does not have the values we had. They do not respect their elders. I, for one, don’t think you should expect anything from them. They only look out for themselves. All of them are abroad now,” she says, unaware of any irony. “They do this Skype thing and send postcards and once in two years they come down. But of course, every week, they say: ‘You come here, no?’ They never ask, ‘Do you want to come here?’”
The family is therefore a construct of the future, built on the tacit understanding that there might be no shared future.
Family 2009 || Sudhir Patwardhan
In some ways, literature, literary writing specially, it might be argued, is a family matter. Jason Bourne, James Bond, Jack Reacher—the main male staples of masculine fiction have no families. Nor do the women staples of the same kind of fiction: Modesty Blaise, for example. In women’s genre fiction, the stories are about building families: romances, they are called, recalling the “roman”, the “Romantic”, and subsuming therefore almost all writing from the medieval times.
Yes, truly great writers can turn these stories into great literature. Cervantes and John le Carré are good examples of the first kind; Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer of the other. Yet, stop a moment and look at these fictional landscapes. Heyer’s most magnificent comic creations are the aunts and uncles, the somewhat gormless brothers and brothers-in-law with which she populates her Regency romances. Austen’s women live in real families full of freaks and foibles. In Pride and Prejudice, you see how the father, crafted so subtly out of his crusty responses to his wife’s matchmaking, suddenly crumbles as a figure when confronted with the reality of an emergency. Don Quixote has no family; they’re all dead, and when his house is ravaged by the well-meaning who destroy his books—saving some for themselves—he has no one to protect them. In George Smiley’s world, his wife, with whom he is desperately but mutely in love—and whom, we are told, desperately loves him—simply cannot be faithful. This perfidy, it seems, forms the terribilitas of Smiley’s life. It is what allows him to do what a spymaster must do. His home life is the fuel of his powerful stratagems and devices.
If we are to step out of genre fiction—and I hope I have muddied those waters enough to suggest my contempt for categorisation— great literature is about the family. The internecine war that leaves two families destroyed because of a pair of loaded dice; the woman who kills her children to avenge herself on an unfaithful husband; the man who feels nothing at the deathbed of his mother; the unfaithful wife who is denied access to her little Seryozha; the lack of expectations in Philip Pirrip/Pip’s family; the way Rahel and Estha interact with each other and with the world of Ayemenem, the savagery inflicted on the women who must rely on the kindness of strangers… Name the book and you will see that the psychodrama powering it lies inside the family.
That should be no surprise.
This is where we tell our first stories. This is where our stories begin. Then, having some sense of what a story is, we begin to tell our stories outside. These stories, the ones we choose to tell about ourselves, define us for others. And even if we do not tell stories, we let slip information, and it is only “human” for the listener to take that information to spin it into the web of a story about you. Do not try to evade the impulse. What you do not say is also part of the story. A net is made of string and space. Both come into play when you are telling your story or a story is being told about you. You should not be surprised to know that the story you tell has become only one strand in the story about you. When I was in school, a classmate, consummate liar, would talk convincingly and in great detail about the family ranch in Texas. We listened, mainly because he told his story well. But when he was out of hearing, it became another story we told about him and about ourselves; how we had conned him by pretending to believe.
I think of my own family and I see my responses as running over a strange graph. In the beginning, the family is unquestionable. No baby questions the family as long as its bodily needs are met and it is cared for.
Whether the family is in a penthouse or on a pavement matters very little, it would seem, to the overall condition of the child and its general quotient of happiness or lack thereof. It is when the child steps out of the family and comes into contact with others that it becomes aware of other possibilities. Comparisons, we are told, are odious; but we can scarcely imagine a life without such odium. The child soon grows into a state of discontent with its own family. These can be serious and terrible discontents—“Other fathers do not beat their children with a belt”, “Other mothers do not lock their crying children into cupboards”—or they can be those of which one will later be amused or ashamed—“I kept asking my mother why she wasn’t fat like all the other boys’ moms were”, “I didn’t want to go to school in my father’s old Fiat.”
And here we are, at the wellsprings of guilt.
I do not know when I divined that my family was not like other families. I think it must have been a few years into school because that’s where I began to see that other boys often came with tiffin boxes and I had none, mainly because my mother, tormented by the demons of mania and depression, could not bring herself to think of filling boxes for her children. She did not supervise our baths nor did she insist on any level of personal hygiene. My sister and I worked it out for ourselves: Daddy has a bath every day so we would. Mummy doesn’t but that’s because she’s not well. So far so good.
But then things get a little complicated. You are cast in a play. You will get the role of Lord Haw-Haw but only if your mother can stitch you a pair of breeches. Your mother laughs at the idea and suggests that the play be Indianised, set in Kerala and you should therefore wear a veshti. You cannot tell your teacher this. So you lose the part to someone whose mother simply buys a piece of black satin and stitches them up in an evening between making a five-course meal and her classical sangeet class.
No, everyone else’s mother was better than the one you had. You knew this for a terrible fact and you hated that you knew it.
For we all know we should love our families and love them well. We are told this again and again: by the textbooks, by the moral science/religious values teachers, by the myths and legends, by popular cinema and fiction, by the whole world, it would seem.
The rage builds up. The shame builds up
Love this family? This family?
But when can you say this? How?
Most children are voiceless. This is because for generations we have believed that children should be seen and not heard. Their silence was golden. Their acquiescence was taken for granted. But even in those rare families where children are allowed to speak, it is difficult for them to do so because their vocabulary rarely keeps pace with the intensity of their feelings. Ranjit Hoskote has a poem about a first haircut, Arundhathi Subramaniam mentions “a cosmic despair over algebra homework”, Nissim Ezekiel talks of home as the place where you go to gather grace, Eunice de Souza hacks her mother in her dreams.
But these can only be reached for in adulthood. You can go back to the condition of powerlessness from a position of relative power. Once the voicelessness has done its work, adolescence kicks in. It is a period we were told in sophomore psychology of “stresses and strains”. Your body is changing, your world is changing and your body is beginning to look uncertain and terrifying. Your parents are no help. In fact, they get in your way, embarrass you, offend you. You can’t be sure they will be good enough, you can’t be sure they will do…but what is it that you want them to do? You can’t be sure. They should just leave you alone. They should support you in what you want to do. They should try and understand who you are. They should forget about trying to understand who you are because they’re never going to get it, not in a million years, because you haven’t quite got it yourself and the self is a moving target.
When I was in college, it was fashionable to have a disparaging attitude to your own family, if not a downright negative one. A good skeleton made for good small talk and lent you an air of being interesting. Divorce wasn’t quite enough. You had to have something, how shall I put it, moodier? We were also already ashamed of this. (Guilt is almost always a part of family life and don’t give me any shit about it being a Christian thing. We all have guilt. We fetishise it, we valorise it and we name it, deal with it differently.) Guilt tormented us and pursued us.
One day, a poet friend I bumped into at the station invited me home. In Bombay, one encounters these offers often but no one ever takes them up. It is an important thing to be busy in the City of Strangulated Busyness, to be bottlenecked between multiple demands and to present oneself as being unable to get everything done simply because there are so many things to do. Thus if one is asked, “Come over, I live around the corner” one presents a terrible tragic aspect as if one is to give up one’s dearest desire to the demands of one’s schedule. But, as in all stories of this sort, I must present myself as a fish of another colour. So I said after a quick calculation, “Sure. I can’t stay long but I’d love a quick cup of tea.”
And so we set out to the poet’s home. Outside the door, he stopped. “My parents will be at home,” he said. And then,“Jerry, my parents are simple. They’re not very hi-fi. They don’t speak English. Please don’t judge them.”
I don’t remember what I said. I supposed I mumbled something about hoping that I was not so shallow as to judge people by their ability to speak Language X or Language Y. But I do remember his face suffusing with shame at having said what he had. The meeting went well; his parents seemed cheerful and contented and were happy to meet me. They were charming and spoke to me in Hindi and we got on well, I thought. But I didn’t stay long and I have never been back.
In adulthood, our birth families fall away from us. This is as it should be. “For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh?” says the Bible. A new family begins and it seems like an easy thing—a man, a woman, a home, a child, can hardly be rocket science, can it, the world’s been doing as much for centuries and quite simple people…
Perhaps that is the secret. Quite simple people may well be able to perform the complex social and psychological algorithms of family life while the more sophisticated and selfaware find them taxing to the point of rage and dissolution. That’s us I’m talking about, ungentle reader. Perhaps our expectations are too high, too romantic. Marriage is not a contract for us; there’s something terribly legalistic about that. Marriage is not a sacrament for us; there’s something oldfashioned about that and it smacks of religiosity. Marriage becomes therefore a huge bag of demands we make on each other and this, quite obviously and inevitably, ends in disappointment.
And yet the family survives. It survives because it looks to the future and believes in it. It is an institution based on hope which
Is a four-letter word
Is the thing with feathers
Thus when we despair of the family, we despair of the future. Christian iconography, more than any other, places the family at the heart of its worship. And yet if you look at the four accounts of the life of Jesus, the centre of this earthly family, there’s no detail there. The family life of Christ is missing. We have a series of flashes: the babe in the manger, the flight to Egypt, the astounding of the Elders at the time of the census…and then we fast forward to the Wedding Feast of Cana and the first miracle, a compassionate one and a terrible break all in one.
“Son,” says Mary, “they have no wine.”
This is no ordinary woman asking her son to run out and buy some. She has known that she bears divinity and we are told that she pondered all things in her heart. His answer at this moment must have broken her heart.
“Woman…” He says, and I remember the first time I read it, I thought: How could He call her “woman”? Surely, he should have said, “Ma” or “Mother” or whatever it was they called their mothers in Aramaic? But that was His answer: “Woman, my time has not come.” But He still made them wine, out of water, and a good wine it was too. In so doing, He took His first steps out of the family and into the world. In so doing, He moved from being her son to being her God.
“Woman,” He repeats when He sees her standing by His cross with a disciple. “This is thy son. Son, this is thy Mother.”
Legend rushes in to fill the gaps. The non-canonical gospels offer stories of the child Jesus turning the clay birds made by the children on the banks of the Nile into real birds. He plays numerous small parts, most remarkably in Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant and in a lovely story by Paul Zachariah where the inn-keeper’s wife regrets turning the young couple out of doors on a cold night.
But where will we find the picture-perfect family among the gods and holy books? Cain kills Abel and brings murder into the world with an act of fratricide. Jacob deceives his blind father to receive Esau’s blessing. Joseph’s own brothers conspire to sell him into slavery. Krishna must be hidden from the maddened rages of His uncle. The Pandavas have a brother who their mother, Kunti, cannot claim and her inability to acknowledge him has its own consequences for her, for Karna and for his brothers. And let’s not get into what Zeus does to Cronos.
Perhaps all these images are meant to console us for the inadequacy of our own families. For this is the most famous line that Tolstoy wrote at the beginning of Anna Karenina (in Constance Garnett’s translation), “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way…”
So let’s take Tolstoy and play for a bit. Let him begin to say the famous lines and we will heckle.
“Every happy family…”
Who are you talking about, Leo? Which happy family? Have you ever known one? There are no happy families, you know that well.
“These imaginary happy families then are all happy in the same way. Unhappy families…”
Do you not think you take a rather strange view of happiness, as if it were some common vanilla emotion shared at exactly the same temperature by everybody? Do you not think that, by contrasting these two, you are guilty of romanticising unhappiness, turning it into something sophisticated and interesting? When we know that every human being is unique, should not her experience of happiness be unique? Why would it all be the same? Those lines do not stand the test of logic; they are only a clever paradox. Good opening lines, that’s all.
We get no choices about being born. We come into the world inter urinam et faeces, as St Augustine of Hippo reminds us. We are magicked into being by other people, and we sometimes arrive against their will too. It is not particularly pleasant to be told one is a mistake but it might be of some consolation to think that many of us are simply happenstance, accidents that happen at the intersection of biology and desire.
It is around happenstance that we build the families. But what a happenstance it is. Anyone who looks at a pregnant woman, really looks at what is going on, sees a mystery. Perhaps that explains why the first mother goddess figures were always pregnant, full of life and meaning and stories.
Much like the family.
This article is part of the Jan-Mar 2017 issue, the theme of which is Family.
In the same issue Jai Arjun Singh writes about caring and communicating with an ill mother he is exceptionally close to. Paro Anand examines the changing nature of the family in the books she has written for children. Akshai Jain looks at the increasing number of genetics companies in India and questions the worth of the diagnoses being offered. Mandakini Dubey reflects on the nature of family ties, particularly hers with her grandmother and children. In her graphic story, Priya Kuriyan prises open the family closet to let the skeletons tumble out.