From “Selfless” to the “Self” – The Shift of a Generation

A few weeks ago, I was at my niece’s grand wedding and it also turned out to be like a reunion with all my cousins on the maternal side. Amidst the incessant banter and guffawing, we naturally drifted back to the childhood memories of many a summer vacations spent together. My most vivid memory of that time is a whole lot of people and their peals of laughter echoing in a not-so-big house.

Those times were different. Houses may have been a tad smaller but hearts were bigger. Each bedroom including the living room turned into a dormitory. And two of my eldest mamijis (maternal aunts) took care and cooked tirelessly for a family of thirty odd members. Not to forget, those weren’t the days of Swiggys or Dominoes, nor was there litany of cooks or serving staff. This might be a familiar memory for a lot of you and true of a lot of mothers, aunts and grandmas of that generation.  Ever smiling and joking, my mamijis rolled out soft rotis and crispy parathas on the sigree (a traditional cooking stove that uses coal) in the sweat soaking summers of Delhi.

Back then as a child my only occupation was playing with my cousins. It wasn’t our concern how machine loads of clothes were laundered, sinks full of vessels washed and arranged, pans full of milk, tea and jugs full of lemonade made for the bevy of children and relatives in the house. And this was apart from all the meals to be made. However, today when I run my own house, the work of my own family and children seems never-ending and demanding, as if encroaching on my space and time. When I paused and thought about it, a few things stood out in stark contrast for me, from then to now.

Why and how did we transition from a generous, kinder and selfless generation to a generation of self-centred individuals? How did taking care of families and loved ones suffice for my two aunts and countless others like them? How was simply running a household enough for their self-worth? Or they didn’t have such notions of self-worth at all? I am not sure about the last part but what I am pretty sure about is that they didn’t have strong opiniated notions of individuality. They took pride and found joy in managing the house and taking care of the families which involved a lot of physical hard work in those days. Not to mention the emotional and mental accommodativeness that living in large families entailed.

But I would certainly say that the transition of us from just being homemakers to multi-tasking, trying to balance roles as a mother, wife, daughter-in-law, professional and an individual is commendable to speak of. However, it is the underlying subtle reason for this change that prods me. When my aunts and their contemporaries were giving their sweat and selfless love to their families and relatives, I doubt if anyone really noticed? No one even acknowledged, lest appreciate or applaud their dawn to dusk hands-on availability and efforts. Its only now as we are managing and raising our own families, are we realizing the paramount importance of their work and selfless sacrifice of individuality.

Though I wonder, how and why over a generation did these values almost obliterate from us? My theory is that as education levels improved in women and opportunities opened, they became relatively liberalized and modern. The hitherto dormant notions of self-worth raised its head and gained ground. At the same time, no one especially the men folk, acknowledged or respected the immense work that women were putting in whether it was tilling the farmlands or rolling out rotis for the families.

It simply came to be expected of them to quietly look after households, relatives, guests and children. As if their existence should have no aspirations. And all her love, warmth and care were to be taken for granted. She was neither part of conversations nor decisions. This selflessness and sacrifice completely unacknowledged and side lined by the patriarchal society deeply pricked the self-worth of the educated and aware newer woman.

And thus, might have begun her struggle and resolve to prove her place in the world. To show that her flesh and blood is as aspirational as her male counterparts. She took up the gargantuan challenge of multi-tasking – moving out of the confines of home-making, finding her self-worth and establishing her identity. Over the course of time, she has proven her mettle in all fields and professions and deservingly so marked her presence and arrival. The wild fire of consumerism and processed food did have an over-arching stimulus in this chase.

However, as women were marching front and forward, the society as a whole was also progressing or so we thought. Little did we realize that this reformist attitude was slowly retrograding us as individuals. Both men and women raced ahead with the same fervour to find their independent footing but compromised their cores in the bargain. The self-centred individuality took centre stage in the society without gender bias. And this is unabashedly visible in our present lives.

Today our families are smaller, houses are bigger, facilities are better, convenience is higher, yet our hearts are shrunken. Guests, if not our friends, cause us anxiety. Arrival of relatives makes us fret. Preparing few meals for occasional guests or relatives or any change in our plans or schedules because of them hinges upon us. The diameter of our lives is sadly getting narrower and depth shallower. The march to find and prove our self-worth was right and necessary but the destination we reached in its wake is not. Change is an inevitable and natural part of society. But we changed our values. The selflessness, flexibility and generosity, even if superficial or coerced, was better than the internalized self-centeredness, adamance and stinginess that we carry today.

At first, the large joint families disintegrated – the brothers parted ways. Then the small joint families disintegrated – parents and children separated. Now the nuclear families are disintegrating – couples are separating. This is the trending graph of our progressive society nosediving into regression. Liberalized outlook should have given us bigger and fuller hearts, rather it scrunched our thoughts limited to ourselves.

Circumstances and situations demand and warrant change in the social fabric. But values are constant. Deceptively, we changed the values which have changed our culture. Embarrassingly, I am part of this society who every now and then feels anxious and irked about added responsibilities or chores or changes that impinge MY time and space. And then I remind myself of my mamijis, who first welcomed people in their hearts, then their homes. The love in their hearts made place for anyone and everyone in their homes.

~Radhika Mimani

Photo by Evie Shaffer from Pexels

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