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Family and Kinship

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Gujaratis/Rasesh Thakkar

In traditional Gujarati society the family is the basic social unit, and life is organized around a set of mutual obligations and expectations among its members. It is within the family that economic and emotional support systems are built and that values, roles, and rules of behaviour are defined. Canadian Gujaratis value their traditional family life very highly and try to preserve as many of its details as possible. The family thus becomes a sensitive arena where intercultural and intergenerational conflicts must be confronted.

The husband or the father is the head of the family, with ultimate authority and responsibility for decision making in all matters affecting the family and its individual members. In Canada, the wife, who is often the second income earner of the family, is treated with greater respect than in Gujarat, because of her financial contribution and also her larger awareness of the outside world. But ultimately the authority of the husband and father still prevails. The scope of his decision making extends over all matters, including family finances, housing, social relations, the wife’s job and her other activities, and the children’s education, their jobs, and their marriages. What from the Canadian perspective may be seen as undue interference in the individual freedom of other family members is regarded in the Gujarati value system as the basic duty and obligation of the husband and father. This creates a setting for conflicts, adjustments, and greater understanding, but also for strife, pain, and much resentment.

Although the concept of family that many Gujaratis still hold to emotionally is the multigenerational joint family, it is generally impractical to try to set up such a family in Canada. Even in rapidly urbanizing India, the joint family, defined by a common residence, common property, and a common purse, is fast disappearing. In both India and Canada, however, the emotional ties and strong bonding between brothers, cousins, and grandparents keep alive the idea of the extended family in which cousins are often introduced as brothers or sisters.

Although nuclear families are the generally accepted pattern in Canada, Gujaratis often sponsor relatives, who live with them for short or long periods until they are financially well established. An unmarried brother, even after he is well established, may continue to live with the family of his married brother so as to avoid setting up his own household. When sponsored parents come to Canada, they live almost invariably with the family of the eldest married son or rotate among several sons for reasonably long periods of time.

For the most part the resulting multigenerational family has worked happily enough, creating much-valued bonding between grandparents and grandchildren. However, in some cases retired parents, having lost their social group in India, find themselves not only economically dependent but also socially disoriented. Although they are respected as the family elders, they have no real authority over their own son, daughter-in-law, or grandchildren. Dismayed and frustrated, these seniors may want more freedom or more social space, and they may even wish to live with other Gujarati seniors.

The Gujarati community has creatively addressed this problem. Many organizations have set up special activities, outings, reading rooms, volunteer work, and so on for seniors. Also, the newly-built Sanatan Mandir Cultural Centre of Toronto is already proposing to build a Gujarati seniors’ home on its land. The Gujarati Mandal of Calgary and the Alberta Gujarati Association both have seniors’ wings in their organizations, while in Vancouver there is an independent association of seniors, called the Gujarati Hindu Senior Society of British Columbia.

The spirit of the joint family and the traditionally nurtured bonding among close relatives and kin are reflected in the practice of “chain sponsoring” Gujarati immigrants and offering them long-term economic help. Although they do not live jointly, the emotional ties do not weaken. Sometimes in fact, virtual joint-living is undertaken, as in one Toronto Gujarati family of five brothers who bought a row of adjoining town houses. In another long-established Gujarati family, the two highly educated professional sons, both born and raised in Canada, have chosen to continue to live, after their own marriages, in the household of their father, mother, and a younger unmarried brother, and their wives have happily adjusted in this rather remarkable example of joint living.

The modified joint family that functions as a unit economically and has joint financial holdings but no common residence is fairly common among business-oriented families. Business partnerships among brothers and cousins was a strongly established tradition among Gujaratis in East Africa, and they tend to reproduce the system in Canada. For those who have come from an agricultural background in rural Gujarat, the extended family that not only embraces cousins and close relatives but includes others of the same village is still alive in their thought processes. In a recent interview with a Gujarati woman in Toronto, for example, it was only after three sessions that it became clear that the man she had been referring to as her brother was not a blood relation at all, but someone from the same village in Gujarat. The practice of not marrying someone from one’s own village arises out of the custom of regarding the whole village as one’s family. These feelings are intensely felt and acted upon in Canada, as the marriage practices among some groups of Canadian Gujaratis clearly indicate.

Filial bonding between parents and children is highly cherished and is reflected in some child-rearing practices. In many families the infants share the mother’s bed for a fairly long period, although baby cribs are bought for daytime use. Young mothers often give up good jobs to look after their children until they go to school. The use of baby-sitters is avoided, even at the cost of the family’s social life. Parents try to give their children the best possible education, and many activities, such as classes in Indian music and dance, Gujarati language lessons, swimming, hockey, and so on, often dominate the social life and leisure time of the parents.

Beyond their genuine concern for their children’s welfare, Gujarati parents also desire to maintain control over them through close involvement in their upbringing. There is always the fear of losing one’s children to a totally Canadian way of life, a fear that conjures up a variety of problems, often exaggerated. These include loss of religion; loss of respect for elders and loosening of family bonds; social behaviour that would bring shame to the family honour; marriage to someone outside the acceptable circles and effected without family involvement; pursuit of a line of work that is unsuitable, undignified, or ill paid; neglect of duties towards family members and other kin; and finally a general drifting away from their Gujarati or Indian heritage. These fears are common to most immigrant parents, but, in the collective consciousness of Gujaratis, traditional values seem to be lodged even more firmly than in other groups. Thus, Gujaratis are often portrayed as adventurous in the economic sphere but conservative in their social and personal lives.

Although Gujarati parents are equally caring towards sons and daughters, a certain gender bias is built into their value system. Equal opportunities for education and other kinds of development are offered to girls and boys, but girls are still thought of as potential homemakers, mothers of children, and custodians of the family honour, while boys are cast in the role of enterprising breadwinners, competitors, and builders of family fortunes. The behaviour of girls must be restrained and untainted by moral lapses such as smoking, drinking, free dating, and premarital sex. Such behaviour among boys, although not encouraged, is far more readily tolerated.

Ideal marriages are still arranged marriages for both young men and women, but there are obvious differences in the degrees of freedom allowed to them in their arranged choices. Although marriage partners chosen by the young people themselves, sometimes without parental consent and sometimes to their complete disapproval, are not unknown in the Gujarati community, marriage choices generally fall within a somewhat conservative framework. There is a broad spectrum of preferred behaviour, ranging from marriages within a narrow subcaste through increasing degrees of openness and freedom to inter-caste marriages within the Gujarati community, and, at the other end of the range, to marriages within the general Indian community. In all cases, parental approval and blessings form the basis of normal marriages.

The Patidar caste displays the most tenacious adherence to its traditional marriage practices. The Patidars of Gujarat are divided into six major marriage circles, each circle comprising a set number of villages within which endogamous marriages have to take place. The practice goes back to 1697–98, when the Patidar leader, Vir Vasandas, laid down the hierarchy among Patidar villages and grouped them into circles within which caste members enjoyed equal status and thus the right to give and take each other’s daughters in marriage.

The most prestigious of these circles were the Chhagam (union of six villages), followed by the Panchgam (five villages), and the Chovisgam (twentyfour villages). These circles operate very actively in North America. Chovisgam Patidar Samaj of Chicago publishes a family directory of its members in the United States and Canada, listing their North American addresses, the original village affiliations, the names and dates of birth of sons and daughters, and useful information about other relations. The information is updated often, and is now available on the Internet. Toronto’s Chovisgam Patidar Samaj is one of the leading centres in the North American network. It is preferable for marriages within the Chovisgam circle to be arranged within the same geographical area, such as Toronto, Canada, or even North America as a whole, but marriage partners may be sought in England, other European countries, and India. Chovisgam young people from North America who marry into their circle of villages in India then sponsor their spouses for immigration to North America.

In rare instances, girls born and raised in North America have gone to live in India after their marriages. The tradition of the payment of a dowry by the bride’s family to the family of the bridegroom has not disappeared in North America, although its incidence is much reduced. Further, marriages outside one’s village circle into the larger Patidar subcaste, or even into the larger Gujarati or another Indian community, are also occurring with increasing frequency. What is true of the Patidar caste is also true, with variations in degree, of other castes and subcastes, such as the Brahmin, Vanik, Lohana, and Jains, although the endogamous marriage circles of traditionally specified villages are a distinctive feature of the Patidar caste alone.

Although generally outgoing and enterprising in the public sphere, Gujarati youth are more traditional in their personal life, as in their marriage practices. Given strong family cohesiveness, deep parental involvement in their upbringing, and their early socialization in kinship groups and the community, young Gujaratis from stable, middle-class families generally favour marrying within their religion and within the Gujarati community. Many of them, both men and women, defend arranged marriages. Most feel that marrying only within the caste or subcaste is unnecessarily restrictive in the North American context; they are nearly unanimous in expanding the set of arranged choices to the Gujarati Hindu community as a whole. Only a very few argue that young people should choose their own marriage partners. The situation is different for the young Gujarati boys from lower-class or unstable families who are not concerned about the Gujarati community and wish to marry white girls of whatever background.

In some areas there are departures from tradition among Gujarati Canadians. Many Gujarati women adopt Western dress, particularly in their workplace. Young people participate in social dancing in the Western style and indulge in a hybrid form called “discoras” or “disco-garba,” and girls may be allowed to indulge in chaperoned dating. A non-vegetarian diet, excluding beef, may be fed to children, although vegetarian food habits, even for children, are generally maintained in Jain families. Gujarati men, and sometimes women, indulge in more open drinking of alcohol than they would in India. As a major concession to their children and to their own Canadian life, Gujarati Canadians are increasingly allowing English to be used both outside and inside their homes, although most often they use Gujarati as well as English.