As yet another friend rushes off at the crack of dawn, to take an ailing parent to the hospital, the lid I have been trying to keep on my simmering rage gives way and leads me to type out a text message that reads, “I wonder if your father feels ashamed at all…” Oblivious to my anger, my friend replies with a sentence that reveals we are not quite on the same page about whom one should care for, how, how much and when.
From Sooraj Barjatya and Karan Johar to Harsh Vardhan and Sakshi Maharaj, our parents and grandparents have been and continue to be bombarded with notions about how the ideal Indian family should function. Of course, Indian society- like any group of people in the world- is not a monolith. Voices of dissent emerge and drive change in any nation, and the trajectory of Indian socio-cultural history has not been any different. As I write this, people, young and old, all over the country, are gradually redefining boundaries and negotiating with patriarchal, heteronormative structures to create spaces for new, more inclusive thought. The backlash, however, has been predictably heart-wrenching. And the extremely depressing reality of cultural conflict is that the nuclear or joint Indian family tends to come down most heavily on dissenting individuals, in ways too ugly to accept. Yet, we do, every day, more than accept this lived reality as the norm. ‘Honour’ killings, domestic violence, ‘correctional’ sexual abuse- the atrocities committed in the name of disciplining a family member and maintaining status quo, do not seem to deter us from playing happy family at the end of the day. We return, over and over again, to provide caregiving to abusive parents and act as good sons and daughters to those who did not bat an eyelid before crushing our dreams, hopes and bones to make us fit into the moulds of Bharatiya samaj.
I would like to clarify that I am not propagating cold revenge as a form of social justice. Responding with hate or indifference to an unwell or aging parent/grandparent/family member, does indeed make us no better than them. And one must also be careful not to see an individual as the enemy, instead of viewing them as products of society- themselves under immense societal pressure. No, I do not advocate for the classic eye-for-an-eye retaliation. I merely ask that those who have been at the receiving end of deliberate, structural oppression do not play a part in perfecting the rosy picture of the great Indian family that stays intact despite (and even because of) the absence of any scope for individuality. If you are in a position to provide resources that your family members need, by all means, go ahead and help them out. But do not grace them with emotional labour, if their actions over the years have not earned the same.
The politics of caregiving, in my opinion, is way more complex than “They took care of you when you were young; it’s your turn now”. Families that have meted out abusive treatment to members for any reason- alternate sexualities, the desire to pursue an infrequently trodden career path, marrying outside caste/religion/class, or simply existing in an equation where abuse is normalized as a manifestation of power- have not, in fact, ‘taken care’ of them. And now that it is ‘your turn’, the least you can do to not complete this circle of violence, is to make it explicit that you are here only to provide aid in case it is unavailable from other sources. Going out of your way to make your indisposed father feel comfortable, even if he has the means to purchase caregiving from a source that will not force individuals to feel obliged to indulge in emotional labour, is too painfully in line with the straight-jacketing nature of families as hierarchical units. After all, the belief that you owe allegiance to a group of people- no matter how toxic they are- merely because of an accident of birth, is what communalism, jingoism and murderous chauvinism thrive on. Resist the emotional manipulation as a gift to the younger-you who cowered under a desk, believing, even through the tears, that a better world, consisting of love given freely and not as a ‘duty’, was waiting out there for you to create and participate in.