Family matters

At my workplace the role of a team secretary is not insignificant. Setting up meetings and workshops, booking rooms and external venues, approving leave requests, handling business-travel queries: these tasks keep the secretaries busy, and the rest of us away from administrative affairs. Their office is a hub of activity, its traffic a barometer of the team’s progression. In August, when most Germans pack their bags and travel South, the room goes quiet; activity rises in September and peaks in early December when everyone is at work, waiting for the Christmas break. The secretaries, well aware how much we depend on them, usually plan ahead and ensure their vacations do not overlap. It is a steady job, a function that sees little attrition: they remain with the same executive for years, even following the boss to other areas of the company. So when I learned, not long ago, that our new team secretary would soon leave, the news took me by surprise. Less than four months had passed since E joined us. She got along well with everyone; her relaxed mien and her readiness to smile gave the impression she was happy with her job. What had happened?

E was in her late twenties or early thirties. Although warm and friendly while assisting us, she was not a sociable person. It was hard to draw her into conversation. When responding to ad hoc requests she indulged in no small talk, and soon after the task she seemed keen to resume her suspended work. I remember speaking to her for a few minutes only once.

We were on a team outing near Hassmersheim, a small town next to the Rhine. After a long canoe ride the team had returned to base camp, a secluded and shady riverside spot. The barbeque lunch was near its conclusion and people were lounging about, chatting in groups, playing badminton, or simply lying on the grass. E was sitting by herself on a bench, sipping coke; her companion, the other team secretary, was walking around taking pictures. I walked toward the bench.

We spoke first about work: her previous jobs, her impressions of the months here. Biographical trivia came next. Her parents lived near Köln, three hours away by car, and she visited them each weekend. She missed them a lot, she said; this was the hardest part of her new life. The other secretary joined us on the bench, and conversation soon turned to the photos she had captured. A minute or two later I said goodbye and moved elsewhere, but my mind lingered on the ‘missing family’ remark, something I found both unusual and sad. She probably did not have many friends here – her nature precluded this in a way, so did her routine of visiting family each weekend – and I was left with the image of someone spending long lonely weeks near her workplace, waiting for the long drive home on Friday.

I thought again about this conversation when I heard rumours of E’s imminent departure. Then, after her motivation was made public, it all fell into place: E liked her job, her colleagues, but she missed her family, and traveling each weekend was too hard on her. She was looking for a job near Köln.

* * *

Eleven years ago, when Wife and I were new to Germany, locals would inquire about our decision to move so far from home: you surely miss your family a lot, don’t you? In the beginning I assumed this was courtesy talk, that they were just being polite. Now I know better: these were earnest questions.

The German family is a nuclear unit, but the extended family isn’t far away. You get a sense of this closeness when they turn up, unexpectedly, in conversations. A co-worker recently told me over lunch that he receives, now and then, tomato plants from his mother-in-law. There isn’t a particular reason for this — just so, this colleague replied, a little surprised at my query. He plants them in his backyard, tends to them with unvarying attention, and when ripe he picks the tomatoes and returns some to his mother-in-law. The last batch had tough skin, he said, which made slicing the tomatoes a difficult task (his wife had complained); so his mother-in-law received most of them.

Events like Easter or Christmas are regular family affairs, but they also get together to help each other. On the days our apartment owner mows the lawn in the backyard, his father accompanies him. His mother drops in now and then with bottles of homemade jam (some of which he distributes among his two tenants). We see siblings and their families together on picnics and vacations. Stalls in fairs are run by extended families. Although they live separately, relatives seem to work and play together, not unlike members of a joint family.

All this became evident over several years in Germany, but growing up in India in the Eighties and the Nineties I was exposed to a different view of the West. Families there, we were told, are not as tightly knit as those in Asia. Parents drop their babies off at daycare centers, they encourage children to leave home at eighteen, sons and daughters do not call their mothers often enough, they indulge in extramarital affairs, divorce their spouses, and finally they put their elderly parents in old-age homes, leaving them to die among strangers. A distorted stereotype of the West emerged from sources I am now unable to recollect precisely – like all such stories about faraway places this too has acquired a mythical quality; but I suspect that my Brahmin relatives, high priests of Indian culture, had something to do with it. The stereotype fit nicely into the narrative many Indians were fond of: the West may be technologically advanced, militarily superior, and materially well off, but they lacked the “right values,” their culture wasn’t rich as ours (why, the USA, only a few hundred years old, didn’t even have one), and they had depleted their spiritual reserves.

It was an oversimplified image, an absurd set of beliefs that could be easily challenged with simple questions. But we did not ask them, and little we saw in the mainstream culture – through TV, movies, newspapers, and magazines – led us to those questions. A correction was needed, and when it came, at least for the denizens of fast-growing Indian cities, the irony was hard to miss: our society grew more like the West we had once sneered at. Daycare centers sprung up, children left their homes earlier, divorce rates soared, and there were billboards advertising old age homes. Globalization brought with it Western customs and values, exported alongside consumer products. These days teenagers in India celebrate prom-nights and the middle-aged middle-classes mask their aging skin in halloween parties; both concepts were alien to most of my generation growing up in India in the Eighties and the Nineties. In retrospect this assimilation of Western practices is not surprising: all the negative talk about the West was tinged with envy; a keen observer could perhaps have foreseen that when opportunity came knocking we would promptly abandon our ways and embrace Western habits.

Further correction of my skewed view ensued from a personal journey: I moved to Germany and found a society where family is a close unit, where people are conservative and follow rules with passion, where putting babies into daycare is frowned upon, where elderly men and women living by themselves are called on regularly by their children. All this could be gleaned from first-hand experience, but even the statistics were impressive: “For almost 90 percent of the population,” says a book on Germany, “the family comes first in their list of priorities. Young people also value it highly: 72 percent of the 12 to 25 year olds are of the opinion that being happy is dependent on having a family.”

* * *

Half way into the movie Tokyo Story, Yasujiro Ozu’s masterpiece from the 1950s, two elderly men in a bar are having a conversation about their children. One is vocal about his disillusionment: he cannot accept how his son has turned out, devoid of spirit, lacking ambition. He rejects his son’s argument that there are too many people in Tokyo, that getting ahead is not easy. “Young people today,” he concludes, “have no backbone.” The man’s friend, Shukishi, agrees when prodded but shows more understanding: “But we cannot expect too much of our children,” he replies; “Times have changed – we have to face it.”

Shukishi, true to his word, is facing it. He is in Tokyo, following a long journey from the South with his wife, to visit his children. But the son and daughter, busy in the hive of their lives, send the parents to a spa. They return early (the resort is noisy with young revelers), unexpected by the daughter, who is hosting a meeting at home that evening. So the elderly couple spend the hot afternoon in a park, and in the evening Shukishi visits his friends while his wife Tomi spends the night with her widowed daughter-in-law.

Through this delicately-crafted slow-moving narrative Ozu reveals the fractured nature of families in postwar Japan. The country is industrialising rapidly; family values are no longer what they used to be. But time changes the nature of things: life must go on. Mono no aware.

The parents, Shukishi and Tomi, bear all of it without complaint. Later, reflecting on the visit, Shukishi says to Tomi:

“I’m surprised how children change. Shige used to be much nicer before. A married daughter is like a stranger.” And then: “Children do not live up to their parents expectations.” He laughs, and adds: “Let’s be happy that they’re better than most.”

Tomi agrees: “They’re certainly better than average.”

“We should consider ourselves lucky.”

“Yes, we are very, very lucky.”

The children aren’t nasty; they mean well, they try and help. Some show more compassion than others. They are selfish in the way the average human is selfish, and they rationalize their actions as we all do. Perhaps this is what Ozu wants to tell us: in spite of our good intentions, we may never meet our parent’s expectations; and as parents, our children will always fall short of our own.

* * *

Last month, on E’s final day at work, her boss threw a surprise party. It took some careful preparation to ensure that E did not learn of this plan: she had access to our office calenders and even to some of our mailboxes. At half-past four a group of colleagues entered her office with a tray of champagne glasses and drinks. A small celebration followed: the boss gave the customary speech, we toasted to E’s new life ahead, and wished her luck. Later, she packed her stuff, tidied up her desk, and left.

Some days later I received a message from a niece in India. She had just graduated with a degree in computer science and was looking for opportunities to study abroad – would Germany be a good option? The move, if it happened, would take her thousands of miles away from her parents in Bangalore. Hers is the aspiration of the average young Indian graduate: to seek opportunity, no matter how far from home. And she would probably find it hard to understand E’s story, to see why someone would leave a good job for no other reason than to be close to family.

10 thoughts on “Family matters

  1. Why do your words tend to bring tears to my eyes, dear Parmanu? How insightful your observations are. As a young woman, I made the decision to give up my career to be near my mother, who was very ill at the time. Was it because I was the eldest child? Was it because of our German heritage? Was it because I simply loved her very much? Who knows. But I suspect that E discovered the depth of her love for family precisely because she travelled far, far away and experienced life away from them.

    1. I was moved by your response, R. When I wrote the essay, I wanted to explore that incident with E in the larger context of what families mean in different cultures at different times. There was a hope that this would resonate with someone, somewhere, but your response far exceeded my expectations. It reminded me that writing can make a difference. (As a reader, I know this, but as a writer I often tend to doubt it.)

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts here.

      1. I strongly believe that writers make a difference. They are the brave ones who commit pen to paper – words to software. Readers would be lost without writers.

        Thank you Parmanu for being brave!

  2. Strangely the perception of family life in the West still persists in India. I live in the South in the U.S. so here, the family ties are even tighter than in parts of India I grew up in.

    Once again, a beautiful read.

  3. Beautifully captured. Yes, its true…..I also realised how much my family mean to me …the day they decided to move so far away.

    But do you think that here parents are far more dependent on their children that the other way around?

  4. wow…how you make these three stories – which seem not quite easy to connect – into one, blending memories, observations, intuition and movie into one… incredibly beautiful. also, you seem to be a very talented observer of the world, of people and their emotions and feelings. observation without judgments – quite a difficult task to master.
    you made me a) want to start writing again and b) realize that thinking I was open-minded was actually quite narrow-minded, considering how deep and thoughtful, abstract but beautiful your writing on your thoughts of the world is. what a beautiful treasure I discovered on this website… thank you. please never stop writing. and if you ever publish a book, do let me know!

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