They sit there, alone and lonely, knowing that there is nobody to carry the tradition forward to the next generation.

There was a time when joint families were the norm in India, where the whole family lived together in one big house. In many or most cases there was only one kitchen, and everyone ate together. The head of the family was the oldest male. In matrilineal systems (mostly in Kerala and coastal Karnataka) it was the oldest woman. He/she controlled all the money, and everyone gave their earnings to her. She/he ran the house and with great parsimony and responsibility and ensured that everyone was taken care of. There was no question of one sibling who earned well, flaunting his or her wealth over the others. Everyone had a place, and everyone was useful until their dying day. The elders, as they got older and no longer took an active part in running the household, became highly respected and valued repositories of customs and traditions, storytellers, the passers-on of family history and the arbiters in any disputes among the younger generations. Nobody was useless or irrelevant or put out to grass. Everyone had a place and an important role and felt wanted and needed.

However, as time passed and times changed, so did this structure. Families broke up as children left the family home, city and country in search of jobs and in pursuit of their careers. Many migrated to other countries, America being one of the most preferred destinations. Even those who remained at ‘home’, usually moved away from the family home, ostensibly to be closer to the workplace or children’s school but really to get away from the control of elders. Cultural values changed, tolerance levels changed, selfishness increased, putting self before others took the place of putting the family ahead of the self. We in India, tend to blame all this on the influence of the West in our society and culture, forgetting of course that the West didn’t enforce their influence. We chose to be influenced. Be that as it may, the fact remains that the first people to feel this change were the elders. They lost significance. They suddenly became powerless, almost an unwanted nuisance that others were putting up with. And then as the younger generations moved away, they were left alone. What added to this was that many of the younger generation migrated to the West and their children were born and brought up there, often with little or no contact with the ‘home country’. ‘Home country’ for them was America or Australia or Canada; not India, Pakistan, Syria, Nigeria, Egypt or Bangladesh. Most children didn’t even speak their ‘mother tongue’, since their parents spoke English even at home and didn’t teach their children the language of their ‘home country’ and people. Language is the substrate of the culture, so when the language was lost, so was the culture, manners, poetry, history and connection with the elders.

The ‘solution’ that many well-meaning children have found is to set their parents up in their home country/city/town/village, often in the old family home, with servants and a regular income. There they stay, with their memories, each corner and wall with a tale to tell but with nobody to listen to those tales. They are repositories of the history of the family, traditions of the community and culture, teachers of customs and manners but with nobody to learn from them. They sit there, alone and lonely, knowing that there is nobody to carry the tradition forward to the next generation. And what’s more, knowing that the next generation doesn’t even care about this. They sit there, alone and lonely, knowing that they have become irrelevant. They don’t need material wealth. They want for nothing materially. What they need is warmth, respect and the company of those they love. What they need is to feel useful, needed and appreciated. What they need is to feel that they still have a place and a reason to stay alive. What they need can’t be bought with money, nor ordered on Amazon. I am not blaming the youth. This is perhaps the price we pay for the material wealth and wherewithal that we chased. A price that neither our parents, who encouraged us to sail to foreign shores calculated, nor did we realize that we would have to pay it one day. But life is relentless and extracts its pound of flesh.

With my friend John Iskandar in Aziz Bagh

I was born into a joint family in a house, Aziz Bagh, which my great-grandfather, Nawab Aziz Jung Bahadur built in 1899. His children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren all lived in their own apartments, but all lived together in every sense of the term. I recall my early childhood vividly today, more than 55 years later. The house is on three acres of land and during my childhood, had a formal rose garden, lawns, a tennis court, pigeon cotes, a terrace where family functions would take place, a dhobi ghat (where our resident washerman and his wife would wash clothes of our family and were paid for the service) and lots of huge mango trees. Out of all these what I recall most warmly is the love that I received. It was not only me but all of us children growing up, it was as if we belonged to every adult in the house. There was no feeling of strangeness. Any adult took care of you, corrected you, even gave you a smack on your bottom if you needed it. We ate with the family of whichever cousin we were playing with. Nobody told us to go ‘home’ to our parents to eat and believe it or not, the food was always enough for the unexpected guests that we were in that house.

Our elders taught us manners. Not in formal classes but through their own behavior. They knew that children listen with their eyes. They don’t care what you say until they see what you do. One of the informal rituals was that daily we, especially the little ones went to the main house where the head of our family, Nawab Deen Yar Jung lived, to greet him and his wife. One day when I must have been about five-years old, I went there to greet my grandmother, Begum Deen Yar Jung, with a rose which I had plucked from the garden. Normally this was frowned upon. Flowers were to be enjoyed on the bushes, not to be plucked. But I was five. As I went up to her, she said to me something which was so full of love (even if it was a reminder not to pluck flowers) that I recall her memory to this day.

Phool lay kar phool aya,

Phool kar main nay kaha,

Phool kyon laye ho sahab,

Tum khud hi tho phool ho

I don’t claim to have remembered the exact words, but my mother was with me and I recall hearing this story from her many times until I memorized these words. My grandmother and her sisters, brothers and their children; my mother and her siblings and cousins were all, each in themselves, examples of grace and dignity. We loved them, respected them and tried to emulate them. Our current success or failure in this respect is entirely our responsibility and not their failing.

It is not just sad but tragic to see the ‘interaction’ that happens sometimes between grandparents and their grandchildren who were born and grew up in the West. You can see both making a great effort but in vain. The older ones usually make much more effort than the youngsters who like most of their generation are short on patience, especially towards the elderly who they were never taught to respect and don’t really have any bonds with. Distance and cost of travel had a big part to play. Travel to America or Australia is neither quick nor inexpensive and not what children or their parents could afford at the time when the grandchildren were young and impressionable. By the time they have the money to afford to travel with the family either way the children are already grown and the only impact that the ‘home country’ has on them is, “O My God! Look at the dirt, traffic, mosquitos, cows on the street, smoke, power outage, Wi-Fi is so slow or God Forbid, No Wi-Fi.” Meeting grandparents, talking to them (about what? Old stories about people they didn’t know, long dead, whose names even they can’t pronounce?), eating food (It is so hot!) and then getting sick. Well, all that means is that one visit is about all that those children will do willingly. Then they are off to college and that is that. Believe me, I have seen this story so many times, that it is not funny. Parents going to live in the West is equally tragic. They don’t fit in; they have no friends and how much TV can you watch especially when it doesn’t have your favorite programs? For many it is almost like being in prison, albeit a gilded one. And for the children who went to the trouble of bringing them to live with them in America or Australia or Canada, it is a huge let down. Relationships sour and get strained. Misery all around.

What adds to the difficulty is that the grandchildren and grandparents don’t have a common language (especially the grandmothers) and where the elders speak English it is naturally with an accent, which for most Western youth is a matter of either amusement or irritation. Since the youngsters grew up in the Western culture, they are clueless about social taboos. Parents are either too busy to teach or don’t see the point as they have broken off from their ‘home country and culture’ permanently and have little respect for it. The youngsters are therefore ignorant about things that their grandparents may well expect them to know about. For example, I have seen innumerable times, grandchildren sprawled on a couch with their sneakered feet on a table on which there are also books and pointing towards the grandfather who is sitting across them. Even worse, I have seen children putting their schoolbags on the floor of the car or bus they are travelling in and sitting with their shod feet on them. I won’t go into the details of how many social taboos are crossed and how this behavior in our Eastern cultures amounts to gross disrespect. Those who understand what I am saying, will see my point. Those who don’t, underline and illustrate it. Gradually the gap between the older and younger generations grows into a gaping gulf, too wide to bridge. Too many compromises are called for; too much of new learning which there is neither the time for nor patience and people related by blood and genes become strangers to one another. Each is helpless in his own way. Each is lonely surrounded by his own family.

Life has now come full circle for our generation. Those who left their homes, cultures, countries and families and lived and worked in alien environments. It is now time to consider our own relevance to the next generation. Do they need us? Can we communicate with them? Do they understand us, and do we understand them? Are there any real connections between us apart from the fact that we share genes? Genes have no feelings; we do. What will happen to us when we sit in the chairs that our parents spent their last hours of life in, staring at blank walls? I realize that perhaps I am being a bit dramatic but better to be prepared than to be sorry.

There is a solution and I am going to tell you about it in my next post.

14 Comments

  1. Abdullah

    A very in-your-face-article that brings out the dangers of losing touch with one’s roots and those that planted the roots. Being guilty of half these “symptoms” that you’ve mentioned in your article, and with that none-too-pleasant scenario that you left us with, I eagerly await your next post.
    Jazakallahu khairan.

    Reply
    • Md. Javed Rasheed

      As salamu alaikum. Respected Sheikh, indeed an apt reminder to all of us….not only the seniors. Having seen my beloved mother pass away just two weeks now, i can relate to your words first-hand. I can no longer share the countless stories and memories I use to share with her, with my spouse or children. I can feel that they can not relate to those even if they try. The time me and my younger brother used to spend with our grandmother (my Dada had passed away when my father was a boy)…my children did not, with their grandmother. I could see the difference with my own eyes!! But was helpless to rectify.

      Reply
  2. Hawa

    I have learnt I rather be alone than to be in a big house with plenty of “family” and find itself still feeling ALONE!

    No point being in toxic environment and be co-dependent for the rest of your life.

    Loneliness kills, but feeling lonely whilst being with family is so so much worse for the spirit and soul.

    💔

    Reply
  3. Hamza

    Timely reminder for me, someone who is studying abroad and away from family.

    As shiekh Yawar said in his lectures, “don’t wait for a blessing to be taken away from you to truly realise its worth” Our elders are a blessing and we need to utilise them, not turn the blessing into a problem. Waiting for the next post.

    Reply
    • Abdullah Sujee

      I feel we don’t cherish our own learning circles of our elders because we feel what is out there is better. Sheikh has made me realize again the importance of appreciating the learning circles of our childhood years with the wisdom of our elders. How amazing is it that they knew life because they lived it and celebrated the moment. We capture the moment on social media only to envy what others are doing somewhere else.

      Reply
  4. Vinay

    It reminds me of our house in village . Simply could relate to each words . All young should read this and understand the importance of generations in the house

    Reply
  5. Aatif Nasim

    Wonderful article. Jazak Allah Khair for sharing

    Reply
  6. Syed Adeeluddin

    Salaam Saab loneliness kills , its an article which is like a mirror reflection of the society around us . Most of our family is affected by this . Even I have thought many many times looking at my phupu , Chacha who are living alone for many many years now , only waiting for Eid or bakrid when their children along with their grandchildren come for about 30 days and that is the time they look forward to but eventually as you mentioned they fail to communicate with their grandchildren.

    Alhamdulillah I have been fortunate enough to live with my parents In a joint family where my children enjoy living with their dada and dadi getting pampered and also learning manners and life lessons from them by seeing them on a day to day basis .

    As the saying goes the grass is always greener on the other side , we living with our parents always think of the lifestyle of our cousins who all living abroad all alone with their own little family with no taunting from in laws , parents, enjoying their freedom .

    . After reading your article Alhamdulillah we are better at least my children are getting the love from their grandparents and the price they are paying by living abroad is far high in long term in terms of relationships , peace of mind , containment , upbringing of children.
    The price we are paying by living in joint family is negligible compared to those living abroad . Ignoring the daily domestic issues which can be developed with patience and tolerance towards each other the benefits are much higher in terms of holistic upbringing of children, our own development, containment and satisfaction of living with parents and our children getting love and anger ( often to correct them ) from their grandparents .
    Thank you for the article at least I could vent my thoughts after a long time on this issue which constantly was on my mind for some reason or the other .
    Request to make dua for me and my family .

    Reply
  7. Dr. Ahmed Ali Khan

    As the famous quote goes, “Listen to your elders not because they’re always right, but because they have more experiences of being wrong.” My Shiekh got three birds with one stone. Addressed three generations with one article. Something everyone can relate to, reflect upon, and act accordingly. Self introspect instead of playing the futile blame game. May Allah give you a healthy life Shiekh.

    Reply
  8. Ashfaquddin Mohammed

    The lesson I took from this is that of valuing parents when they get old, spending quality time with them and the other elders of the family while we give them space to be themselves and at least make them feel authoritative.

    I have seen joint families in my relatives though we weren’t a joint family. They’ve had bitter experiences and split with bitterness against each other usually when the elders died. while the elders were there, they were used as a punching bag by the middle aged sons and daughters while grandsons and granddaughters wondered on how to react in such situations.

    Reply
  9. Farhana

    Good eye opener.

    Reply
  10. Naaz

    An interesting article but I feel there are other circumstances which lead to the joint family set up not being favorable to all family members. We should explore why is it that the younger generation flees the family home in favour of their own homes. Many in laws especially those hailing from the Indo-pak subcontinent make lives intolerable for their daughter in laws, which has led many marriages to end up in divorce. Perhaps as time moves on younger couples wishing to preserve their marriages have found this to be their only option. The sad thing is that when the parents age they are then dependent on the very same daughter in law who they ill-treated and ostracized. As the article says “life does come full circle”. I agree whole heartedly with Hawa. Many joint family homes are extremely toxic environments and we should not be giving elders the rights to abuse and oppress the younger ones purely based on their age. Joint families can only work where all family members are treated humanely and with respect.

    Reply
    • Mirza Yawar Baig

      As I mentioned, the reason joint families have become history is because of the abuse of the system by the elders. There are exceptions of course and that’s where elders have the wisdom to treat everyone with dignity and fairness.

      Reply

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