Shoba Narayan on how staying sanguine over the highs and lows of family life helps her to survive it.
My life: Riding the waves of family life
When you live in a foreign land as an immigrant or an expat, you are often haunted by thoughts of home - the sights, smells, sounds, friends and family. As an Indian, I missed that nebulous construct that we call home when I lived in the US for close to 20 years. I missed the thundering monsoon rain, the smell of jasmine, the taste of samosas and the touch of my mother. More than anything, I missed my family. I thought of my father when I spotted some new fruit in the grocery store, my mom when I saw blooming flowers; my grandmother's belly laugh whenever someone told a joke. I enjoyed the professional fulfilment and the stimulation of being in a foreign land. But I felt a certain emptiness inside, a deep, unquantifiable yearning.
Flash forward several years. I am back in my homeland, clasped deeply within the embrace of my family - and they are all fighting. Not everyone and not all the time, but enough to make me wish for my expat days when I created an oasis called home in an alien land, and the whole notion of personal space was taken seriously.
In many cultures - notably Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Indian - family is a loose construct and includes an extended web of cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles. My family is no different. Now that I am back home, I live close to my aunts and uncles. We meet frequently at weddings, funerals and birthdays. Everyone gets along, until they don't. Everyone knows everything and interferes everywhere. My aunt called me recently at dawn to complain about her son, my cousin.
"Your cousin-brother hasn't called me for days," she said. "We live in the same city and yet he can't find the time to call his old mother. Why don't you talk to him and tell him that he needs to take care of his parents? You need to water the roots if you want the tree to flower."
I try to tell her that most trees don't flower, and that my cousin has just been laid off from his job. But she has moved on to another favourite topic - her husband and my beloved octogenarian uncle, who taught me chess and badminton.
My problem is that I react. I engage. I try to fix things. When my aunt complains that my uncle watches too much television, I try to get him to take my aunt on a date night. "She is lonely," I tell him.
"Let her watch TV too," he responds.
These are people who are dear to me. Their joys are mine, as are their sorrows. They share my burdens. When all else fails, they show up. It is as it should be. I moved from America back to India to be captured by this web of family that enfolds and accepts. I believe that my kids will benefit from the village of elders and cousins who make up their childhood. And yet. And yet ...
The problem with being close to many blood brothers and sisters is that you feel pulled from multiple sides at the same time. It is hard to referee battles of the heart; it is hard to manage emotions among loved ones; it is hard to take sides when you love both parties. Recently, I have come to the realisation that the only way to salvage the situation is to shrug, to let the impassioned complaints and teary accusations slide off my back. When my aunt begins her tirade against the boy she loves more than anyone, I will not let my hackles rise. I will not preach western practicality that has no effect on this abundantly loving, emotional, volatile woman. She neither understands it nor (like me) believes in it. I will listen. And I will forget. For in the end, the underlying love among family is unchanging. The trick is to ride the waves.
Shoba Narayan is a journalist based in Bangalore, India. She is the author of Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes.