I think Karan Johar is to blame.
“It’s all about loving your family” was his promotional line for Kabhie Khushi Kabhi Gham, a Bollywood blockbuster in 2001. The line touched a chord and soon became a mantra that bombarded our collective conscience, begging to be adopted. The movie came in much before family selfies were in vogue, but it did set the ground for it, ever so slightly. I don’t know how much it contributed to us loving our family, but it certainly made photo-shopped and airbrushed families the next best thing to have, if you weren’t lucky or hard-working enough to have a real one.
If KJo’s mantra didn’t do the trick, the ‘like’ button did. Sons and daughters have become more effusive in their love, ever since it was invented. Now they don’t even have to make that trip or pick up the phone to show their parents they care. All they have to do is click ‘like’. And there, the love business has been simplified. Grandparents are back too. They are reclaiming their space in the family tree digitally, if not otherwise. Either they are liking, or they are being liked.
Something changes irreversibly in people in when they have children. They begin to feel grateful for their childhood, however chaotic and overpopulated it seemed at the time. They suddenly want their families back. Families look good in pictures. They lend ambience, texture, rough edges. They neutralise your gloss or your ineptness. Families make you feel empowered, they have a Botox effect on the lonely island that is a couple. Give or take a child even. People from families that were fragmented often seem to marry into close-knit families because it provides the togetherness they long for. And when we have our own children, we want them to benefit from the whole family experience – cousins, nieces, nephews, uncles and aunts, the works. A child does not add the equity you think it does unless it is backed by aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents. And pictures with all of them.
But then, most people start manufacturing family. They engineer confluences, adding touches so it comes closest to their image of a theme-park family. Because “It’s good for the children.” Some over-mixed couples go as far as to say, “Our daughter speaks four languages. I am half- Gujarati, half-Punjabi and my husband is half south-Indian, half Bengali.” How much of the osmosis is real and how much is fodder for social media, one will never know. As people become more hospitable on their timelines, we see less of their homes. As for me, the taste of a well-knit family is the food they share. It’s always the food. But who’s eating these days?
A friend of mine, M orchestrated her pregnancy after landing a job in Bangalore where her parents lived. She ensured her husband got a transfer too.They have a child and a dog now and lots of family pictures and willing babysitters. It’s exactly what she wanted.
K is an amazingly successful, bright intelligent Indian woman who lives in Chicago. She is married to an American and has three kids who look anything but Indian. Every year, she flies down to India for exactly three weeks, in which she fits in work meetings, something cultural for the kids (throw in a palace resort here, or a wedding, or Diwali, whichever promises great backdrops for pictures), and rounds it off with something by the sea (of course bubble-wrapped). She also manages to track down enough photogenic people from her family tree and captures them into her smart phone. She makes a photobook a year and they all stand proud in her bookshelf.
She also flies her parents to the US every other year, or whenever she is nanny-less. “The kids have to do grandparents,” she says. Except the grandparents don’t really know what to do with them as neither of them speaks much English and the kids don’t speak Bengali. So it’s six weeks of parents watching desi TV while the kids are on their iPads, with a theme-park or a ski trip thrown in for good measure. But there are always pictures.
When I see these theme-park families, I always long for shiny, happy family pictures from my childhood. There are none. We don’t take family pictures or hug or kiss or say ‘I love you” or celebrate Mother’s day or Father’s day. But we cook and eat a lot together. We fight, we laugh and we cry. We are just an ordinary family I guess.
The closest I ever got to taking a family selfie was a recent picture of the brother, the mother, the child and me at a park in California when we went visiting him. It took a lot of effort and it didn’t feel like us.
I think I’m going to alter the mantra to “It’s all about keeping it real.” Sorry, Karan Johar.
(This post first appeared as my column on parenting in Pune Mirror on 4th August, 2014)