How to uphold family values

This Indian Life:

Films tell us that families are about izzat and dharm, but isn’t there anything else?

BRUNCH Updated: Sep 28, 2019 23:50 IST

Shoba Narayan

Shoba Narayan
Hindustan Times

There is a phrase etched into my mind, mostly because it came from our uncle in the army. My brother and I would hang around Uncle Suri, listening agog as he told stories of war and victory. As he left, he always said these words: “Make sure you uphold the family values.”

This was a curious phrase because my brother and I had no idea what our family values were. Growing up in a Palghat Iyer home, very little was stated about what constituted family (anyone who walked through the door?), let alone its values. Random uncles and aunts showed up with wooden peacocks on their shoulders and bottles of manga-inji (mango-ginger) pickle in their pockets. Our life revolved around the 4 Cs: Coconut in all forms with the occasional jackfruit, curd rice with vadu-manga (tiny mango) pickle as a cure for all ills ranging from diarrhoea to depression, Carnatic music which played ceaselessly from dawn to dusk, and a healthy dose of chaos epitomised by family fights over property where cheroot-smoking uncles swore at each other in what seemed like a haze of cannabis. Family values? What were they?

A month ago, I sat my husband down and announced that I wanted us to have a discussion on family values with our children. “I don’t want them to grow up like us,” I said accusingly. “Do you know that in America some families have a ‘manifesto’ that they fix on the fridge?”

“That is my idea of hell,” said my husband. “Why can’t we tell them stories instead?”

“Because that is how we grew up and now, we have no idea of our family values.”

“I do. Respect for elders. Hospitality to guests. Don’t lie. And don’t disturb elders when they are watching cricket, especially if India is losing.”

The India I grew up in wasn’t very demonstrative. Family values about ‘izzat’ and ‘dharm’ were words that we heard in the movies, usually by a rich zamindar in a purple bungalow as a kind of taunt to the villain, who, in the case of Rajinikanth movies, happened to be the brother-in-law. How to translate these filmi dialogues into real life?

I took the plunge over Sunday lunch. I announced to our daughters that we were going to come up with a list of family values that we could all abide by. This was not the basic checklist to be a good human being that I had learned at convent school: Don’t kill or steal. Speak the truth. Do unto others what you would like done to yourself. This was more specific to what was important to the four of us.

They stared at me, agog and doubtful, wondering what the heck I was saying.

“Give us an example,” said the elder, helpfully.

“Well, for me, it is very important that we be transparent with each other,” I soldiered on. “I am not the kind of mother who doesn’t want to know all the bad stuff that happens in schools. I want to know your struggles so I can help. For example, I know that kids your age drink. And smoke. Weed….”

“No chance, ma,” they chorused in unison. “We can’t tell you all that stuff.”

“I think what your Mom means is that we can try to be open with each other,” said my husband.

“Agreed. We should engage with each other instead of simply being around each other,” I said.

My husband said that he had five personal values: curiosity, contribution, balance, family and fun. “What’s wrong with these?” he asked. “Why can’t they be our family values?”

“Because that’s what you told me when we got married,” I cried. “We need a new set of words to incorporate the kids.”

When my husband and I met, he asked me what I wanted from life. I repeated the serenity prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change those I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” He gave me those five words.

Now that the two of us had become four, what were our family values? Did Indians have family values? What were Indian values for that matter?

Next week: Indian values.

(This column addresses the issue of parenting our parents and other unique facets of This Indian Life and our culture. If you have stories about the weird and wonderful relationships that enrich or enervate your life, write in.)

This Indian Life appears every fortnight

From HT Brunch, September 29, 2019

First Published: Sep 28, 2019 21:38 IST