Getting to Know Your Family and Discovering They Might Be Cool
“Have you tried the chicken tikkas in Delhi?” My husband asked my 19-year-old nephew.
“But he’s vegetarian!” I rushed in.
My nephew looked at me intently for a few seconds.
“I tried chicken recently, at college,” he said at last. “And I liked it!”
His declaration was defiant, confident, and brilliant. In his way, he was telling me that he wasn’t what I assumed he was. I had to get to know him, which I did for a couple of hours that day. I loved it. I loved him, as someone I had seen grow up from birth. Happily, I also discovered I liked him.
Declarations of selfhood are no big deal in my home; my three-and-a-half-year-old son makes them all day. (“Pink is my favourite colour!” “I hate amma!” “I will never speak to you again!”) But where my son’s declarations are a fleeting assertion of will, a rebellious flexing of muscle (at this moment, his favourite colour is purple), my nephew’s declaration came from a place of exploration and contemplation. Having left the safe and protected environment of his home for the first time, he was enjoying his independence, figuring out who he was going to be in the adult world. And that was someone who ate chicken, at least once.
You don’t often see the latter so candidly, at least in Indian families. We often hesitate to fight and hurt our elders. Instead, we toe the line in public and call it respect. I don’t swear in front of my parents, presumably because I respect them, but really, it is because I don’t want that lecture; I don’t want to argue – to what end? It would be a needless drama, when swearing can be done out of sight and kept out of mind.
Once you cross the belligerent teenage years, once you taste some freedom, you think, why bring this up and rock the boat? You know who you are; do your parents need to? Do your elders need to know about those KFC nuggets eaten stealthily, that outing to a club, the odd drunken night? Asserting our preferences, our vices, our beliefs — it feels self-indulgent, selfish and sometimes outright cruel. I felt like a monster when I declared, after much deliberation, to my conservative, 90-year-old grandmother that I didn’t want a traditional wedding. It mattered to her, and it was just one day in my life. I felt petty making such a point of it. But the wonderful thing was that, even though she felt a tinge of disappointment, she was able to find a way to look past it — to be happy for me because she, too, saw that it was only one day in her life.
And she got there because of generations of aunts/uncles/ cousins before me, who had pushed her, shocked her, argued with her, cajoled her, in the process getting to know her – and she, them. They created an easier path for me – and I, hopefully, for my nephew, as he faced a different generation of elders, on a different side of the family.
More recently at a family gathering, another nephew (same side of the family) shocked us all by presenting a scandalous version of some Hindu mythological story. He was a student of history at an American university with access to unusual texts and perspectives, and what had started out as a joke became a serious discussion on the intersectionality of history and religion. I suspect he wanted to shake us up a bit, even offend us, so that he could engage us. And we were engaged, even if we didn’t always agree.
We were also getting to know him better, and therein lay the charm. We learnt that he read a lot, that he was a confident and cogent speaker. We also learnt that, perhaps, he didn’t think very highly of any of us. (He, too, needed to get to know us.)
I am certain that, in a few years, a deeper understanding will develop between the generations. Relationships will become less contentious and the battles lines will become less sharp. We will more often than not agree to disagree and not argue as much. What will remain are just polite enquiries and loving platitudes as we deftly skirt around touchy topics and, in the process, miss the opportunities to keep getting to know each other.
Until the next generation comes along, young adults are called a lot of things — rambunctious, ambitious, arrogant, irresponsible, insensitive, incomprehensible, inscrutable, indefatigable, entitled, and worse — with reason and with a lot of disapproval. And yet we are drawn to them. It is because their rebellion – no, their little acts of selfhood – come from a place of idealism, hope, and positivity for the future. We need to let them be everything they are, we need them to be the quarrelsome contrarians to shake us out of our despondent stupor, our status quo, so that we can all move forward and evolve, together.
“What’s new?” I plan to ask my nephew the next time we meet, hoping to be surprised, shocked and maybe even appalled.