This book under review draws upon a wealth of talent to throw light on an institution that even as it is familiar remains been little examined. This book explores literary and cultural representations of the Indian family to examine the evolution of the Indian family from ancient times, through the colonial period to the present. Divided into six parts, each part focuses on a different era. Part One deals with Colonial families: Re-Visiting Tradition, Part Two with a Socio-Economic Perspective on Post-Colonial families; Part Three deals with Literary Representations while Part Four explores Cultural Representations. Part Five has Memoirs from writers including the best-known names of the Indian literary scene such as Shashi Deshpande and Makarand Paranjape. The sixth and final part of this book is an interview with Amartya Sen.
The first part uses literary texts penned by women writers of Bengal during the nineteenth century to show the tremendous oppression that intelligent women who had entered their marital homes as child brides faced, ‘such misery only because one was a woman! We were in any case imprisoned like thieves, and on top of that, reading was yet another crime . . . We suffered so much just to learn to read’ (Sarkar, 1999: 171).
The very condescending attitudes of ostensibly enlightened Brahmo husbands who sought only to replace the diktat of the joint family or elders of the family with their own with little concern for the woman’s own preferences is also brought out. Indeed, texts of various other parts of the country demonstrate that such attitudes very widespread. On p. 206, N. Venugopal Rao’s ‘Reflections of Family and Woman in Telugu Literature’ has this extract: ‘I am not suggesting you stop other works. Household chores are inevitable for women. Instead of wasting your time in talking to neighbours after your work, it would be better to study. In the world, the wife should always help her husband. Unless she gets educated, she cannot fulfill her duty completely’.
The book re-examines other supposedly enlightened measures such as widow re-marriage through a feminist prism. ‘It is because the husband is everything that widows should remarry. The husband is a woman’s “only boat” on the “ocean” of her life’.
This reviewer found an examination of more contemporary sources such as Rituparno’s films more relevant to our times and therefore more interesting. The re-examination of concepts such as chastity, fidelity, and molestation and rape, within and outside the sphere of the family make one better understand contemporary attitudes.
Similarly, the memoirs, some of which are personal rather than ideological, bring a fresh new dimension to this book. There is an evocative quality to some of these pieces that bring out the essence of family life as it was experienced by some: ‘Plays were popular but taboo for children . . . we stirred in our sleep when we heard them coming home “ssh”ing to each other as they tiptoed to bed. But children were taken to weddings. Family politics and kinship decided who went to which wedding, and adult whims decided who accompanied them’. This extract from Shashi Deshpande conjures up an institution and an era as perhaps nothing else could!
The Indian Family in Transition is a nuanced, sensitive book, basing itself on literary and cultural texts while also making use of a historical perspective and current sociological research to explore the current status of the family. It makes a prognosis about the future of the family taking into account current changes brought about by modernity and the changing role of the woman and the man both within the family and outside it. There are some comparisons with the situation in the UK and other countries in the western world.
The book is like a smorgasbord of delicacies rather than a substantial well thought out meal. There is an essay on Naga women and much material on the way that society is dealing with drug addiction and AIDs. There are insights on children growing up in single parent families. There is a poignant piece on how the rejection of an Indian immigrant’s offer of food to a neighbour reinforces her status as an outcaste. Some pieces add to one’s understanding of the family, the household and related issues. But perhaps it may have been possible to condense the book. Many of the thoughts on the status of the wife in colonial India are repetitive.
But then this is a complex subject and if this book has shortcomings, it will still be a very useful read to scholars who wish to understand the subject of the Indian family especially to those who wish to take note of the changing role of the woman within the institution of the family.
Gitanjali Prasad is the author of The Great Indian Family: New Roles, Old Responsibilities, Penguin Books, New Delhi.