Opinion | The cruel joys and casual miseries of family reunions
Relatives are a compendium of life-lessons in disguise. We learn retrospectively from one set of them and then practise our new skills on the next lot
Sometimes when a bunch of relatives leave after an extended stay with us, I feel like I suddenly don’t have a sense of purpose anymore. As if it got depleted in the whirl of small talk, pretend-fussing over food and obsessive worrying about nothing at all. Then I remember that I must login to my Facebook and Twitter accounts and block some of them. And you all know what happens when one goes online. Like my husband often says, “Your social media is even more distracting and destructive than my relatives." And we are back to bickering like good old times.
This is another thing about hosting family reunions. We try to look better than we feel and that just leads to passive-aggressive behaviour and misguided, ill-timed outbursts. Always a bad idea. Makes you look and feel a little mad. It is usually best to spread out your disappointment and despair instead of bottling it up for some kind of explosion later. It’s really bad for the skin and causes premature ageing. If you are a work-from-home, multi-tasking person, the presence of guests creates much mutual confusion. For example, just a little while ago, I was sitting on the floor of my bedroom with my laptop in my lap. I turned to the mirror on my left and read aloud one of the lines on this page, checking it for rhythm and meter. It was a perfectly harmless moment in the life of a struggling writer trying to amuse herself till a young woman who is visiting us walked past my door. Both of us were startled by the sight of the other. Both of us are feeling shameful right now.
Relatives can be confused about what they value. “Oh God," an aunt sighed recently, “even the youngest in your home has started reading books." She made it sound like the child had contracted a crippling infection.
Next she turned towards her own daughter. “Look at this little girl. You are so useless you don’t even read your own textbooks." My children and I exchanged notes about her later. We feel that people who abuse their own children and seem to be full of admiration for other people’s progeny are very dangerous. We decide to love their children and keep them at arm’s length.
But I must be fair. House guests give us a lot to laugh about also. They talk in hints and innuendos and it can be very amusing to misunderstand them deliberately. They get lost in the maze of shopping malls, tempting us temporarily to not be able to find them too soon. They bring sweets and chocolates and ill-fitting gifts, all of which have their uses and re-uses.
Relatives are a compendium of life-lessons in disguise. We learn retrospectively from one set of them and then practise our new skills on the next lot. Sometimes house guests are the last straw that causes our fragile house of cards to collapse. It is usually not their fault, they had no idea we were doddering on the edge in the first place. This state of becoming dysfunctional causes us to re-evaluate our choices, finally take our own needs seriously and get help. Fix the plumbing, declutter the kitchen, visit our own doctor and maybe even forget about it all and go on a holiday of our own.
In an essay titled, Naipaul’s India And Mine, Nissim Ezekiel has written: “...the communal way of life in India is hide-bound, inimical to personal development, fantastically ignorant and prejudiced about the world outside the community, and hopelessly uncreative in every conceivable area of life." I felt relieved to discover that it isn’t just my relatives who bring out my inner curmudgeon. Indian relatives can send off a sensitive poet on a rant too. The thing, though, is that we are all someone else’s relatives. We are all capable of filling others with a sense of dread just because we belong to the same extended family. We can be wonderful and fun-loving as friends, but as relatives, we all seem to be quick to be offended, hasty to pass judgements and unreasonably demanding in our expectations.
What is it about the peculiar circumstances of family get-togethers that can make them so oppressive for almost everyone involved? How come we become uncertain and performative in the same spaces we had become nostalgic for when we had been away? We are threatened by questions. We worry about how our children will be perceived. We become tight-lipped about what we do at work. We body-shame each other. Our jokes are laced with bitterness and our happiness is nervous about being rated. We call it harmless bitching but we know it is spiteful and hurts us all. The toxic cocktail of new technology and regressive ideologies has created fresh challenges. Obsolete uncles, childhood aunts and cousins who have rediscovered their caste, gender and race supremacy in the 21st century are persona non grata on my social media. I refuse to recognize those who have not upgraded their attitudes along with the apps they use to propagate them. I do not allow my new spaces of expression to be contaminated by those who have already ruined my conventional safe spaces.
The trouble with relatives is that they behave like agents of patriarchy with each other. The first principal of patriarchy is to never let you feel at home. To shrink the spaces in which you can breathe without fear. To break your sense of belonging and make acceptance so conditional that you reject your own self all your life. To pretend to be family but alienate and isolate you.
And we all know that it is time to smash the patriarchy. Practise this with those closest to you. Pick on an unsuspecting relative as soon as possible.
Natasha Badhwar is the author of the book My Daughters’ Mum, and co-editor of Reconciliation—Karwan e Mohabbat’s Journey Of Solidarity Through A Wounded India.
She tweets at @natashabadhwar