The Memes 2019

Modern Indian Families
New Rules and Relationships

“My parents have a big house to themselves (10 mins away) but I prefer living with my friends. I call it the ‘friends-like-family’ living. All three of us connect emotionally, and we accommodate each other’s lifestyle choices…it is easier to live this way. My folks are completely on board with this arrangement, and they too get their space this way.”

- Ishaan Gupta, Male, 26 years, Mumbai

The family has long been revered as the principle axis around which Indian social life revolves. However the journey of economic progress is causing shifts within the Indian family in fundamental and disruptive ways. Both in terms of demographics and psychographics, the winds of change are blowing through the homes of India’s 250 million odd households.

The stereotypical Indian family constructed around patrilineal lines with wider kinship groupings is being challenged in our big cities and towns. The rambunctious joint family with an ever-extending gaggle of relatives is a fast dwindling unit as city-ward migration has shaken up the age-old household structure of Indian families. Not only are nuclear families the dominant construct in India but 2011 census data shows that there is a whole range of household types between nuclear and joint. Numerically most salient among these is what are called `supplemented nuclear' households - that account for 16% of all households in India. These are households where an unmarried relative (a younger brother, elderly aunt or parent, and so on) stays with the family.

The predominance of nuclear and supplemented nuclear homes across India is also leading to the development of new power centres in Indian households. Kids are the new decision makers and early adopters when it comes to consumption in Indian homes today. Smaller homes have also helped loosen the tight social conventions that governed life in the larger joint families of a generation ago. Fewer taboos and easier relationships between generations, as seen in the runaway success of the recently released Hindi film Badhaai Ho (centred around the unexpected pregnancy of a middle-aged couple and their desire for acceptance from their adult sons) are reducing the age-old Indian pressures created by multiple hierarchies.

Senior citizens are being encouraged to enjoy their sunset years to the hilt, and the power dynamics celebrated in popular culture are shifting, from mother-in-law vs. daughter-in-law spats to more supportive and collaborative relationships across the board. A smattering of our GEC shows on television – from Patiala Babes (where daughters are the wind beneath their mothers’ wings) to DiyaaurBaatiHum (where her husband and in-laws support a woman’s career as a police officer) suggest changing family dynamics. Of course the individual is not yet more important than the family in most Indian households – but the stories we tell ourselves are critical indicators of the future direction our society takes. Hashtags such as #friendslikefamily or #familylikefriends suggest the reciprocity that is emerging within family units. Today children are responsible for keeping the family adept in fast changing times, while the adults are always around to lean-in on. Stories of rebellion are fewer as India discovers the comfort of friends within families and vice-versa.

As families open up to the idea of seeing life through the lens of their youngsters, as relationships are defined by greater reciprocity and respect, is it possible that we may see an un-rebelling of youth and a redefinition of old-age?

As is so often the case with India, we live in multiple eras at the same time. Already the early signals of significant social change are visible in our continent sized nation. In all a significant 16 per cent (and growing) of the population, comprise new pairings such as same-sex partners, single parents, blended families, broken extended families, as well as adoptive parents—all forming connections that are no less strong than conventional bonds.

With India’s judiciary taking an active role in striking down archaic laws governing individual sexual autonomy and social exclusion based on sexual preference, our urban society is likely to continue moving in the direction of greater inclusion and growing acceptance of alternate family arrangements.

As we live more and more untethered lives, moving to distant geographies to pursue career opportunities, the traditional Indian household is being replaced by ‘modern Indian families’. No longer is the family unit the only form of social support in our cities and no longer do families operate along strict hierarchies of age and gender. Modern Indian families – modular units that morph as groupings of men, women, elders and children pass through multiple life-stages and offer each other financial and emotional support – are here to stay.