This Indian Life:

Where long-lost relatives are forced into camaraderie in the most artificial of environments

Shoba Narayan
Hindustan Times

My mother is turning 80. My brother and I are planning a grand celebration. We plan to invite all our relatives for a weekend of revelry — which, for a South Indian family of my mother’s generation generally means a vegetarian lunch, no alcohol, and sonorous Sanskrit chanting by countless priests.

My mother has a single point agenda in all this: she wants to prevent her offspring from spending more than a “decent” amount on her birthday celebration. In her case, this means about Rs 300 for the whole event. The way she wants to accomplish this cost-saving measure is by reducing the number of relatives to a bare minimum. As any parent will recognise, the more my mother nagged us to “simplify,” the more determined my brother and I got to do the opposite. To this end, we decided to do what we once considered unthinkable: we rejoined the family WhatsApp group that we’d once exited out of exasperation. We wanted to invite all our warring aunts and uncles to effect a reconciliation on the occasion of our mother’s birthday.

The trouble with WhatsApp groups

I don’t know if you are like me, but I am part of so many WhatsApp groups. They all follow the same pattern. A group of long-lost friends or relatives are forced into enforced camaraderie in the most artificial of environments: online. Some bright spirit or “enthu-cutlet” as we used to say in college, forms the group with a name like “IIMA Class of 1994,” or “GSN Family Cousins,” and drags (adds) everyone in the extended family. Everything begins optimistically, even joyously. People post their photos and introductions. Everyone exclaim over how the children have grown and how little the adults have changed, which in the case of men sporting bald pates, is a bald-faced lie. The trickle of messages soon becomes a tsunami, beginning with the first birthday. Pretty soon, all the 154 cousins are wishing each other happy birthday. Meanwhile, one uncle has become the “Good morning” expert, sending a variety of flowers, vegetables, stars and comets every morning, all of which sport one single line: good day. An aunt who used to screw the ears of every child in her vicinity meanwhile sends baby videos. Oh, the irony. Another uncle who used to chain smoke and stumble around drunk has taken to sending photos of every God in the Hindu pantheon, accompanied by slogans and mantras “guaranteed” to increase wealth. Soon, it is a free for all. Loving exchanges have degenerated into sanctimonious advice. Cousins abruptly exit the group. Into this lion’s pit did I enter. Oh, the things we do for our mothers.

The blow up

There is a reason why the whole world seems to be on WhatsApp (except China, which is on WeChat). These groups are effective if you are planning an event. They are great for rallying the troops and getting things done. In this case, announcing my mother’s birthday brought forth a flurry of photos of her from across the ages. Cousins posted images of them as babies with my mum. People began planning side events (with alcohol) around the main event. An informal group began to pool money to buy a gift. My mum didn’t believe in the line: “No gifts or flowers please. Only blessings.” We should have known that all this enforced civility would blow up in our faces. It began with an innocuous question from aunt to nephew.

My cousin, Subbu, had eloped with a Russian to New Zealand over three decades ago. Everyone in our ancestral village in Kerala was aghast and could not forgive Subbu for marrying a twice-divorced meat-eating Russian Jew and therefore Subbu had not forgiven the family for not forgiving him. A cold war ensued all through subsequent weddings of younger cousins. It took a death to bring the family together. When his mother died, Subbu came home to do her last rites. Upon seeing the once dashing young man look like death with his beer belly and bald pate, all the elders sobbed like babies. Everyone hugged each other and all was well. Subbu went back to Auckland and promptly issued an invitation to everyone over 60 to visit him. So they did.

In the newly formed “Amma’s birthday” WhatsApp group, a senile aunt by accident posted a message which ran thus. She didn’t know that typing in all capitals meant a shout. She must have meant it as a private message to her sister; a bit of gossip really. But the trigger-happy elders of my family spend more time on Facebook and WhatsApp than on watching the television serials that were once their mainstay. Aunty Ambujam had this to say:

Hope that buffalo (eruma maadu in Tamil), Subbu brings his cow of a Russian wife to Padma’s birthday. That meat eating Anglo-Indian will stop Shoba from showing off about her mother’s birthday. As if nobody has celebrated a birthday before. These two are acting like they have sprung from the heavens.”

I did the only thing possible. I disbanded the WhatsApp group.

(This column addresses the issue of parenting our parents, an integral part 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, October 28, 2018

BRUNCH Updated: Oct 27, 2018 22:27 IST

Shoba Narayan

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