Chapter 8: Joint Family Collapse
In front of me were 15 people piled onto a few cots. It seemed as though they welcomed their proximity… and they probably did, for they have been living under the same roof for decades. It was relatively quiet that morning because their children had wandered off to school. Still, the atmosphere was electric. The women chatted, the men teased, and the elder, who had grown numb to the commotion of family gatherings, looked on. Silence dawned when the family leader strained his voice to welcome the foreigner.
The joint family system was a tenant of Punjabi culture prior to the 1960s. Now, in Sher Pur Kalan, only one joint family remains. The leader of this household called the joint family structure “God’s Praise” for its host of benefits. They mentioned the festivity - whole families gathered at night to tell stories beneath the stars; kids circled around the cooking fire, competing to catch chapatis that the chef would occasionally fling into the air. They mentioned the ease of child-rearing - kids showering each other with attention; parents who attended weddings for three days at a time because each child had 20 parents on duty back home; elders who imparted the lessons of their lifetimes to those willing to listen. Then, there were the practical benefits. For example, the collective effort was ready whenever it was needed. Additionally, there was a division of responsibilities within the house, the leaders of each nuclear family occupying a different post.
In the 40-member joint family from scene 1, this division of responsibilities still exists. At the helm of the farming family, sits the John Hannibal Smith type character. He pulls all the strings, instructing the laborers on where and when to sow and harvest. He is also in charge of resolving all family disputes and distributing the family’s collective income according to need. Filling the H.M. Murdock role of the family is the leader’s uncle. As second in command, Murdock runs the operation if Mr. Smith is away on business. The uncle also keeps all the records in order and makes sure that commands are carried out. Then there’s Templeton Peck. This man is charged with the responsibility of wearing clean clothes and attending marriage ceremonies. As the face of the family, he walks the kids to school and escorts the women to the doctor. Next up is the family’s Mr. T. A self-taught mechanical engineer who can take a tractor apart and re-assemble it, Mr. T takes care of the family’s technical and electrical problems. Sunny explained that a few years back his family bought a new rice transplanting machine. Midway through the transplanting process, the machine broke down. After calling two trained engineers, who said that the machine would take several days to reboot, Sunny gave Mr. T a ring. In just 15 minutes, the machine was revived.
There are also a number of extras. For example, Smith’s father is very much involved in family affairs. While his son is out running the business side of the family operation, his father stays back and manages the homestead. This old man has terrible eyesight. What he lacks in vision, though, he makes up for in hearing. Thus, every night, he listens attentively to ensure that everybody in the family has returned to the house safely. If even one voice is missing from the cacophony of family banter, the old man will recognize the absence. Finally, there’s the driver. This younger man mounted his first tractor when he was an infant. By 7, he had mastered the John Deere. Now, there isn’t an implement that he can’t drive. The women of the family take little part in the family’s farming operation. Instead, they mostly handle household responsibilities such as cleaning and cooking. Don’t you just love it when a family comes together? Well, now they’re falling apart.
In the past, joint families only fractured when they grew too large. The joint family structures were stable because children had respect for elders. One participant attempted to illustrate this respect with a story. On Holi, a fight broke out among the village kids. When the parents found out, one of the neighborhood’s most respected leaders gathered all the kids together. Regardless of their role in the ordeal, this man distributed two beatings to each kid. According to the interview subject, the kids accepted their punishment and felt obliged to improve their behavior. The parents did not protest this form of punishment either, understanding that the elder must have sufficient rationale to castigate the children. Before the Green Revolution, no decision was taken without the permission of the head of the family. After the Green Revolution, however, the influx of money brought a new sense of individualism that motivated young adults to stray from the joint family structure. Every person thought that they were the head of the household, and they started to question “why is one person making all of the decisions?” That question was the root of the joint family collapse. From that seed of doubt, sprouted a generation determined to earn their own incomes and build their own homes. For example, one man recounted that he bought his own home in 1992 when a family dispute over which crops to grow caused a rift in the family. Even in the 40-person joint family, there was a small coalition that left our conversation at the mention of the joint family system. This crew is reluctant to continue their current style of living.
Though the newfound sense of individualism spurred the joint family collapse, this societal shift cannot be chalked up to one explanation. In actuality, there are a number of challenges associated with raising your family in a joint household. It requires tolerance and a willingness to temporarily forego your own individuality. It calls for patience and an understanding that tallying the wins and losses of family disputes only leads to schism. It necessitates respect for elders. Rather than feeling repressed, kids must learn to appreciate the insights of their elders, which is no easy task to undertake. Considering these hurdles to living in a joint family structure, I was curious why more people hadn’t rebelled against the structure prior to the Green Revolution. One 80-year-old man responded to this question, saying, “If you reared a child properly, they would not rebel against the joint family structure since the value of family would be strongly incorporated into their upbringing.”
Singh, Sunny. Organic farmer. Personal interview. Sher Pur Kalan, Punjab. 7 May 2019.
Anonymous. Joint family. Personal Interview. Sher Pur Kalan, Punjab. 17 April 2019.
Anonymous. Farmers. Personal Interview. Sher Pur Kalan, Punjab. 20 April 2019.
Anonymous. Farmer family. Personal Interview. Sher Pur Kalan, Punjab. 19 April 2019.
Anonymous. Farmer. Personal Interview. Sher Pur Kalan, Punjab. 21 April 2019.