My relationship to my twin sisters has been extremely close. Despite living in different countries for many decades, we remain in constant touch and meet up at least once a year. Equally, there is a measure of happy conviviality with most of my dozen or so cousins — a bonding maintained through a family WhatsApp group. The easy familiarity is, of course, due to our growing up together in the Kolkata of the 1960s.
My son, who has lived in Delhi for most of his life, has a more detached relationship with his cousins. They know each other well and there have been holidays together. But growing up in different countries has involved different experiences and inevitably there is a distance. As for the children of my cousins, his relationship with them verges on varying levels of unfamiliarity. By the time another generation arrives, the sense of an extended family will, sadly, have disappeared altogether. They may be aware of each other’s existence and even have bonded at a family wedding, but that’s about it.
This isn’t unusual. My father, on his part, had umpteen cousins. As long as my grandfather was alive there was a feeling of being one big, closely knit family. However, after his death contacts became infrequent and today there is hardly any link between me and my third cousins. For me at least, the elaborate network of an extended family has shrunk immeasurably.
It is more than likely that this is also the experience of other urban, middle class Indians. Mobility, both within India and overseas migration, has played havoc with the family institution. The joint family began breaking up with migration from rural India and urbanisation, but family ties were still profound. Today, this has been further eroded by emigration. My nephews and nieces were brought up in the West. Their exposure to the family that remained in India has been superficial and for the subsequent generation it will be more tenuous. It will become even more pronounced with interracial marriages.
True, the past 50 years has witnessed the emergence of a desi community in — among other countries — the United States, Canada and United Kingdom. A sense of shared culture and nostalgia has created Overseas Indian communities where acquired identity has blended with inherited identities. For those well integrated into their countries of adoption, the familiarity with the spoken language of their grandparents may well be limited, but there is still a nebulous identification with the Old Country based on food, music, festivals and, sometimes, religion.
However, to believe that this loose attachment extends to the ‘idea of India’ and its larger aspirations is to stretch a point. For many families that emigrated till the 1980s in search of better opportunities, India is frozen in time. To their children and grandchildren, it has often symbolised unruly traffic, overbearing relatives, upset stomachs and bad bathrooms. Until fairly recently, an Indian passport often meant suspicious and rude questioning by semi-educated immigration officers. This was supplemented by a uniformly negative and condescending depiction of India as a land of permanent deprivation by the western media. Only Bollywood kept an idyllic association with the mother country alive and pride came with the success of the cricket team. Otherwise, India was a good place to get out of.
The explosion of pride in being Indian and celebrating India’s elevated status on the world stage is a relatively recent phenomenon. It may even have left those overseas Indians with only a perfunctory interest in the country unmoved.
An understanding of the mindset of many who bought one-way tickets to the West in search of better opportunities is crucial in dispelling the irrational euphoria over the selection of Senator Kamala Harris as the running mate of Joe Biden. Ethnically she is half-Indian and is full of admiration for her mother. Yet, her emotional identification with the Chennai her mother left behind to build a career in the US is probably confined to the keywords she used with symbolic effect at last week’s Democratic convention. For reasons that may well go beyond sheer expediency, her primary identification is with the other half of her ethnicity. Balancing the anger that is still simmering in American blacks with the fiercely aspirational impulses of the Indian-Americans may well prove daunting. But that has nothing to do with India.
For Kamala, India is just another country, not the mother country. She is more likely to personify the dilemmas and the choices of those for whom the US marks a new life and a new beginning. India won’t even be on the radar.