Family – we are born into it. It gives us a sense of belonging and security. That’s what the institution of family dictates. But each family has its own drawbacks driven by societal norms at that point in time, so did mine.
My understanding of a family was limited to my parents, grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles. Then as I grew up somehow the notion of a family was further limited to just my parents and me. I understand the reason now – because family means financial dependence on each other, it means problems ought to be shared along with each other’s aspirations, goals and flaws. It’s tough to handle one person’s facets, imagine handling all of those in a house of four and also taking on facets of extended family members! No one wants to handle all that!
I went to the US for studies thinking that I was leaving my family behind, although I was really excited to study the course I had chosen. But I was in for a big surprise; a surprise that changed my understanding of a family forever!
Firstly I shared a house with three guys. I was warned against it, criticized for it and sometimes people looked at me strangely and so on. But the four of us, quite different from each other, were there for each other whenever the other needed us. Did we fight? Of course we did, and mostly because of difference in personalities, but we were there for each other, devoid of any expectations. This was the first time I looked at people as people, and not as a guy or a girl. People have flaws, people are lovable and people are vulnerable. You can live happily with anyone with diametrically opposite points of view if you do not expect them to follow your standards, because your standards aren’t universal.
Then there were other people who started off as friends but became the people who stood by my choices, encouraged my short films, ideas, composed music for me late into the night, encouraged my performances, waited at the hospital for fourteen hours when my cornea got injured, brought me food, carried equipment, stood as a guarantor for my education, helped me pack when I was coming back to India for good, cooked for me, took me around to visit places and the list is endless! None of these was expected of them, but they did it out of pure affection. I actually owe my life and sanity to all these families that I formed while studying in the US.
The first month was strange; because back in India I went back home to my mother and father. There was home, a sense of familiarity, people who knew you forever. But soon even in the US, I found people to go back to and people who looked forward to seeing me as well. In our birth families, several times, we take each other for granted, because we have lived there forever. We lose each other to TV or cell phones or to work, but somehow here, in spite of the volume of work, it became important to see each other with an incredible regularity.
The advantage was also that like I had several families, I am sure others did too; so if one family was busy, the other would be there to welcome me home. And the feeling was of oneness rather than anything else where we empathized with the other’s tensions, concerns, joy and other facets. Also, we didn’t agree with each other completely, in fact I wouldn’t be wrong if I said all my family members are dissimilar with distinct personalities.
In our birth families when we sometimes have to take the responsibility of our extended family’s goals or problems; we always have questions about our involvement. We want to know what we will get in return for taking on such a headache, we care about our security and suddenly this “family member” becomes “the other”. Even in a closed birth family, you can end up becoming “the other” if your ideas are completely opposed to your other family members, example parents.
So somehow familiarity didn’t translate to support or unconditional love; and in this case unfamiliarity did. Unfamiliarity somehow upheld “family values” of emotional support and unconditional acceptance because it was devoid of any expectations. Not even once did any of my new family members ask me, “What will you do for me?” or “How will I benefit from this?” or criticize me for my ideas or thoughts.
I am really not romanticizing here. One of my friends, an accomplished guitarist, did not like the theme of one of my short films for which he was composing music. He was actually salvaging my film by helping me out last minute in the midst of his exams, when my actual composer backed out. Along with me was another friend, an accomplished Carnatic singer. All three of us had a huge argument for a while because he didn’t empathize with my female protagonist and the story was from her point of view. So it was the two of us, my singer friend and I against him; both of us were trying to help him understand my point of view.
We spent a couple of hours over this and finally he said that he doesn’t agree with how I have portrayed the protagonist, but he was willing to compose the best music that he could to convey my vision. And we worked on it through the night, trying multiple variations with my friend signing different ragas to fit the picture and emotion! We were completely at ease disagreeing with each other, but they supported me. From the composer’s lens, he didn’t see any merit in my character, but he was there tweaking every bit to make it sound perfect! My singer friend took it upon herself to convince him, she cared that I accomplished my task well. She could have very well told me that I was wasting her time in the midst of her exams when the composer wasn’t even ready and he could have said he refuses to compose music for something he doesn’t even agree with!
They took it upon themselves to solve my problem. They put me first and I could have never understood what it meant to be a ‘family’ without people like them! Today we live in different parts of the world with our new set of families. But I remember my family values that I learnt from them when I stayed away from my birth family. I give my families in the US complete credit for helping me gain faith in family systems and for enabling me to practice these ideals in my new formed family.
My relationship with my birth family has also benefited from the family values I gained in three years of my stay away from them. And since then, I haven’t made friends, I have formed families and these numbers aren’t limited!