The word “family” comes from the Latin word “familia”, which means household. This was truly applicable to a joint family in India. Living together under the same roof with grandparents, their sons and grandsons, with their wives and children, is indeed a unique experience, especially in Indian villages. The earnings of every adult member go into a common fund or pool out of which all expenditure is incurred.
The final authority in family matters is the grandfather, but the grandmother has authority over all the younger women in the family. There was extended kinship in the real sense of the word. Family ties were close and highly commendable.
There is a common kitchen and there is no question of even newly married couples having separate arrangements for cooking and eating food. The parental hold on the children was remarkable; defiance of elders was unthinkable. There was total and genuine respect for all elders, and firm discipline was maintained.
Joint families, like the autonomous village community and the caste system, were distinctive features of the Indian social structure for centuries. Since all the members were joint sharers in the common property of the family, inheritance was by survivorship and the principle of primogeniture, the eldest son succeeding to the property of his father on the latter’s demise.
Women seldom enjoyed equality of status. In fact, they were all too preoccupied with domestic duties and chores to think of rights and privileges.
But the joint family system has been rapidly breaking up in India as a result of the increasing individualistic and independent attitudes of grown-up children. In a joint family there is no scope for individual initiative or enterprise. My experience has been that there is far too much of suppression, implicit, blind obedience to the eldest member’s dictates, even when these commands are irrational, biased and discriminative in nature and impact.
A joint family allows for no argument, dissent or discussion; it is all command on one side and obedience on the other. Disobedience is almost unimaginable. There is seldom any case of a rebel, defiant child.
After marriage, I found that we had all to eat what was cooked in the common family kitchen, whether the food was according to our taste or not. In fact in no aspect of life was there individual freedom. Personal choice in any matter was virtually ruled out.
It all amounted to a silent, rigid life. The women had hardly any liberty to move out of the house or dress as they pleased, or to establish friendship with other women of their age group. The social inhibitions were many personal liberties few.
The caste system further imposed social restrictions. Every member, male or female, was bound by the customs, traditions and culture to which the elders were habituated.
Little wonders that there was no opportunity for the development of individual personality. Life was dull and boring; there was no variety, which is rightly regarded as the spice of life. Nor was everyone happy and contented though the system had perforce to be accepted as inevitable, as if ordained by God.
There certainly was social and economic security for all members. No member of the joint family, elder and youngster, had to bother about food and shelter—problems which cause a great deal of worry to people who are living separately and entirely on their own limited resources.
Expenditure on illness also came from the common kitty. But this didn’t ensure happiness always. Each couple in olden times had a fairly large number of children, the belief being that there would be shelter and food for every additional pair of hands. The fires of the common kitchen would be kept burning all the day through. The feeding system was very much like the community kitchen.
As compared to the busy, crowded joint family establishment in sprawling though old-fashioned, badly ventilated and congested ancestral mansions, the small, separate homes of couples choosing to live away from their parents often look like “empty shells” when both husband and wife are away to work.
Under the traditional joint family system, women were never allowed to take up employment elsewhere, though many of them worked on the families jointly owned farm, small or big. But in modern times, women, both before and after marriage, take up employment in offices and factories to supplement the family income.
In joint families there was no incentive for supplementing the parents’ or husband’s not income; nor was there any eagerness to maintain or enhance the standard of living.
In the joint family one had to suffer silently; no voices were raised and no protests were made. Joint families are wholly unsuitable for modern social and economic conditions. As was inevitable, the system has broken up in most places under the mounting modern pressures of various types. There are very few exceptions of joint families now, and even these may not last long.