Indian joint families in UK: Bonds that tie

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Alamy stock photo

Most families in Asian communities have a much broader network of familial relations than a typical white-British family

By Prasun Sonwalkar

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Published: Thu 3 Jun 2021, 10:01 PM

Last updated: Tue 6 Jul 2021, 2:20 PM

Nandini and Ashok Sinha arrived in Britain soon after their marriage in Bihar in the early 1970s and spent their medical careers in the National Health Service mainly in the east Midlands. Now retired, they moved to London, where their Cambridge-educated chartered accountant son and doctor-daughter, and their families, live. The Sinhas and their children’s families are very close but do not live under the same roof. They bought three houses close to each other, with the retired couple living on their own, and the children and grandchildren interacting with them on daily basis. It is a model that a large number of Indian/south Asian families in Britain have followed, particularly those whose children were born and bred in the country with composite Indian and British values.

The stereotype of the traditional large joint family living together perpetuated by saas-bahu serials is under strain in India, particularly in urban centres, but it has largely been redefined in Britain. There are several examples of members of one family buying adjacent property and linking them internally, so that boundaries can be maintained and blurred along traditional lines when needed. Figures reveal that compared to the white British group, the Asian community still has a larger number of multi-generation households. Asian households are three times less likely to be cohabiting (“living together” as a nucleus); have higher rates of marriage; have half the rate of ‘lone person’ households compared to white households; and have incredibly low levels of pensioner couple households compared to white British households.

Says CB Patel, community leader and publisher of Asian Voice, who has seen the community change in some respects but retain cultural continuity in others since he arrived in 1966: “There are only few families here living according to the traditional joint family system under one roof. The children now usually live near their parents, but it also depends on how we nurture them. It depends on both — parents and children: how they want to live, and the extent of cooperation between them. The close bond remains but it is a different kind of bond compared to that in India. That India-style joint family under one roof model, with its conflicts and where the daughter-in-law is supposed to serve all has gone for good and I am happy that it has. Most Indian, Asian elderly parents here don’t expect sons and their families to live with them, but are close to them.”

It is common for extended families to live close to each other, working together and running businesses together in the community. Most families in Asian communities have a much broader network of familial relations than a typical white-British family and one individual household might be only one small part of a complex global network of kin relations.

Anshuman Chauhan, 22, graduated from Sheffield University and moved back to Leicester with his mother, Surekha, to start his own business. He says: “My late grandfather, Bhikhubhai Parmar, came to the UK in the early 50s with a degree in Economics and established a multifaceted business. My mother joined the family business taking the business over as CEO. My grandfather and my mother invested in Surat… The entrepreneurial incubation started very early on in my life. Whilst my mother’s generation had the dilemma of wanting to break away from the traditional family businesses, my journey has been to get back within the folds of the family, use the culture, experience, the contacts, the relationships to spin-off my own distinct business in targeting consumables to the Gen -Z.”

In terms of young non-white adults living with parents, a new Loughborough University study found that young people of Asian origin are more likely to live in the family home, especially in their late 20s and early 30s, than other groups. In their early 20s, around 60-70 per cent live with parents across all ethnicities. In their late 20s, this declines to around half or less for most but remains at close to three quarters for Asian young adults, and even in their early 30s, a majority of Asian singles are living with parents, compared to one in three overall.

The study may well validate what writer VS Naipaul once wrote about the Indian family: that it was a clan that gave protection and identity and “saved people from the void”.

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