Honestly, I am stumped. I have thought long and hard all week and there is absolutely nothing spectacular about my family that I can write about. We are a rather normal (in the sense that we have our usual share of abnormal) bunch. Like most Indian families, (and this reminds me of that utterly hilarious and completely relatable movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding – ‘that’s totally us!’), we are a big family. And like all big families, we are a motley crew. And like most big families, we are completely into each other’s lives. However, in the spirit of the challenge that I have taken up, I need to come up with something that can be interesting read. So, I have decided to share a few anecdotes about my family and be warned, because “I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.”
There is a part of me that would rather not write about my family because I would rather keep that part of my life, private. Also, because I am more afraid of getting calls from family asking me why I did not mention them. It is hard to choose and I would rather not put myself in a position where I would have to spend an hour trying to first explain to a relative ‘what a blog is’. The conversation would go something like this:
“So you are a journalist?”
“No, I am not a journalist. I write a blog, a web log. You know, how they have logs in ships where they write about what happens every day?”
“So you are a writing a diary? I don’t understand. Why would you want everyone to read your diary?”
How do you answer a question that is so deeply philosophical and yet, so simple? So, you see? It is not as simple as that. My family is ruthlessly honest and straight as an arrow. They never mince words (sometimes I wish they would) and they never give you credit for anything you do because someone somewhere has already done it. In fact, the decision to start writing has been the hardest for me because I had to first tackle and then silence the voices inside my head that belong to my family. I had to shut out dialogues such as the one above or more pernicious conversations like
“You want to write? About what?”
“You know… Stuff…”
“So you don’t know what you want to write about?”
“Not yet, no. But I would like to give it a shot.”
“Sure, sure. One should always keep trying. Everyone is not born a Shakespeare or a Tagore.”
Before you start shaking your head in sympathy, you need to understand that my family have always wanted the best for me. They have kept me grounded. They have pushed me to bigger achievements by challenging me to greater heights. When my father refused to send me abroad for an international degree which I was utterly keen on, we had made a pact. I could cross the seas if I got a full scholarship for the degree. I worked extra hard for a year on the various exams, my Statement of Purpose and all other paraphernalia for admissions in the US and Canadian universities, and I am happy to say that I did manage to secure a place in York University, Toronto, with a full scholarship. My father could not have been more proud. I continued to fully fund my international degrees right up to my doctoral studies in London.
This was when a family member had said something like this, and I paraphrase; ‘You are getting a PhD because you want to stall getting married, aren’t you?’ It was hilarious, I tell you! I was deeply offended. I mean, who does that? Who would put themselves through endless, sleepless nights, poring over volumes and tomes of secondary material, trying to find the ‘right’ article or paragraph? Who would want to spend hours in libraries clutching their growling tummies because let’s face it, students are always hungry because scholarship or no scholarship, they live on crumbs. Sometimes, literally. Who would want to trade a life of relative luxury for one where you have to do your own laundry, venture out in the deathly cold of the night for a carton of milk (because without that cup of coffee you couldn’t possibly meet that deadline), or walk miles (because you obviously didn’t own a car) with tons of groceries (because you could only make so many trips in the monthly pass)? Who can sustain the rigors of academia unless you have a true passion for the subject? Who would sign up for months of agonizing fieldwork and even more months of analyzing the data, where at the end of it, your flatmates rush to you when you teeter out of your hole looking like the walking dead? Who can willingly go through those dreaded meetings with supervisors where you walk out of the room glassy-eyed and leaving a trail of red ink, like blood dripping from your write-up? Who does that? While I was offended by the suggestion, I could not help thinking whether there was some truth to it at the subconscious level. I was in my twenties and my parents in India were losing sleep worrying about my future. I was not the one to settle for an arranged marriage. So, to keep studying till the point when I would not be at the ‘marriageable’ age anymore, sounded just about right to them, I was sure; because certainly, the other option, of me wanting to get a doctoral degree because I love research, was unimaginable. Ten points for showing me the mirror. And ten more points for teaching me the value of self-doubt. How would I have survived my doctoral days without constantly questioning myself and my abilities?
And humility? Who can forget the lessons in humility? One should never rest on their laurels, true, but my family believes in questioning whether those are laurels in the first place. Got an 80% in Mathematics, your most dreaded and nightmare-inducing subject? ‘Pah, everyone does!’ You became the school prefect? ‘So you are the teacher’s pet?’ You are learning a classical dance form? ‘Why? You want to take up dancing as a profession?’ Someone complimented you on your leaner body? ‘Don’t pay attention. Looks are not everything. Besides, you still have loads to lose from around your hips.’ Your skin is glowing on one of those rare blemish-free days? ‘You are so blessed to have oily skin’. You get married to a kind, caring, and loving man? ‘You’re lucky someone wanted to marry you at all.’ Your child is well-behaved? ‘It amazes me as to how someone like you could beget such an obedient child.’ My family is very dependable. You can count on them to point out what is missing, till you reach a point where you are convinced that you are only made of flaws. Like Swiss cheese, you are more holes less cheese. And then it takes you decades to change that dialogue inside your head. It is a very useful exercise in introspection; of trying to find out who you truly are beneath all those layers of self-criticism, guilt, and negative body image, to name a few.
I owe it to my family to have made me who I am today. Who isn’t flawed, cracked, dog-eared, and frayed at the edges? But I am happy in the knowledge that no matter how damaged, I am still whole. All those years of standing up for my beliefs and fending for myself has stood me in good stead. If not for the priceless words of a cousin, who’d once said that we should never take ourselves too seriously, I would not have learned the value of humour. A good laugh, especially when you are able to laugh at yourself is the most valuable life lesson that I have learned. But most importantly, my family have equipped me with a map of Life. They have given me direction and have always helped me find the way (even without their knowing it) when I was lost. There have been times when I have been rudderless but their value system and their ideals have always been a beacon of hope in choppy waters. I love my family like no other and no matter what, they will always remain the cornerstone of my identity, the bedrock of my character.