The Namesake is a book I can never read without weeping. In one of its most affecting passages, after his father dies, as the train heads towards New York, Gogol remembers a time when he was a child and his family had driven to the beach on Cape Cod. Jhumpa Lahiri writes,
“They had driven as far out as they could, and then his father and he had continued walking, out onto the rocks, as far as possible. Unfortunately, his father forgot to bring a camera, but he tells Gogol, ‘We will have to remember it, then.’ He tells Gogol, ‘Try to remember it always... remember that you and I made this journey, that we went together to a place where there was nowhere left to go.”
Families anchor us, bind us, make us and unmake us. They teach us everything we know and everything we don’t want to know as well. For women, the family is both something that gives them freedom, and also something they occasionally want to flee from. Nowhere have I found this better expressed than in Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, a novel by Maria Semple. The novel is about a brilliant architect and MacArthur Genius Grant winner who retreats into a world of domestic anxiety after the birth of her daughter, and lives in a state of unarticulated rage. That is, until the day Bernadette disappears.
Raise your hands all of you who’ve ever had that dream – to leave your family behind, no matter how much you adore them, and start afresh, anew, all over again.
But of course, it isn’t possible. As we grow older, so do our parents, and our children, and so do our extended families. Globally, the effects of recession, property prices and the cost of care for the old and young have combined to revive the practice of several generations living under the same roof. It’s something India has known a little too well – multigenerational households, often with what the West now calls the “boomerang generation”, people in their twenties returning to live with their parents. As with most phenomena, it’s got a name: the “squeezed-sandwich generation”, of middle-aged people facing the financial burden of caring simultaneously for their older parents and their own children (and sometimes their children’s children).
Women bear the maximum brunt of this, and not only does this affect them financially but also psychologically and, as some reports suggest, even physically. A large study of 91,000 middle-aged and older adults in Japan found that multiple generations living under one roof took a toll on women’s cardiac health. The study found that women who lived with their spouse, children and parents, or parents-in-laws, were at an elevated risk of developing cardiac disease.
Compared with their counterparts who lived with a husband only, these women were about three times more likely to be diagnosed with coronary heart disease, and those women who lived with their spouse and children had twice the risk of heart disease. In contrast, there was no evidence that living with multiple family generations affected men’s cardiac health, the researchers reported in the medical journal Heart.
And yet there are women who manage to handle not only their own families, but also the families they marry into with remarkable ease. Film-maker Kiran Rao, someone I’ve known since the age of eight, is one of them.
It’s a well-known fact that in India, marriage is not only to the man but also to the plus one – his mother. But Rao acquired more than a mother-in-law when she married actor Aamir Khan. His children from his first wife, Reena, also became part of her extended family.
Yet, Rao says, “Acquiring Aamir’s family was the best part of the whole marriage thing! They are really quite wonderful, have given me so much love, and are much more fun than in-laws have ever been known to be. I actually spend much more time than Aamir does with his family, because I enjoy it. And it’s to Reena’s and Aamir’s credit that they have raised two lovely kids, and themselves maintained a warm relationship of mutual respect. Reena is an integral part of the Khan family, which is as it should be, and that’s something I so admire about the family. The children, Junaid and Ira, are more friends to me, and in the thirteen to fourteen years I’ve known them, I’ve seen them grow into fine young adults whom I enjoy hanging out with.”
Mother of a young boy, Rao also spends a lot of time with her own parents. So how does she manage it, given that she also enjoys going out with friends and meeting people at least three or four times a week?
Rao’s secret formula, apart from being much more social than her husband:
- Most of my friends are not from the film industry, so it’s actually quite relaxing. I manage to do all this, I suppose, because I enjoy it. It’s the formal social gatherings and parties that tire me out, and I avoid them whenever possible.
- When it gets to me and I feel overwhelmed by the expectations from me, I try and get out of the city as often as possible (sometimes more than once a month) to somewhere green, near water or mountains, and be quiet and breathe. That is my safety valve.
- I left home at eighteen to go to Sophia College, Mumbai, for my Bachelor’s, then went on to do my Master’s in Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi. I couldn’t wait to get out into the world, to be honest, and wanted to experience life with a capital L. I have lived in a hostel, shared barsatis with people and done all the fun things broke students in their early twenties do. I think sharing my life with all the people I did – apart from all the fun – made me richer for the understanding and confidence it gave me. I had to learn to get along, be flexible and less judgmental, and how to work with people, a skill set that stood me in good stead.
- I have no magic mantras. But since, like most creative people and artists I am plagued by self doubt, I keep telling myself to live without fear of failure because I don’t matter in the grand scheme of things, you know? That thought is just reassuring, that there is this enormous universe that exists in all dimensions of time and space, and I am a mere speck in its great churn. So, I intend to live and love and work to the fullest, since that’s really all that is in my hands.
Excerpted with permission from No Regrets: The Guilt-Free Woman’s Guide to a Good Life, Kaveree Bamzai, HarperCollins India.