Like most traditional South Asian families, my paternal family happens to be huge. I don’t think my grandparents subscribed to the school of thought that believed that “less is more”. In fact, all evidence points towards the opposite. Judging by the sheer number of their offspring (10. There would have been more had medical science been able to achieve back then what it can today), I presume that conceiving, birthing and rearing children was a favourite pastime of theirs. Add to this their children’s spouses and their children, and in some cases grandchildren, the number of immediate relatives numbers just under a 100.
The population explosion can be best observed in the wedding portraits of my parents and those of my father’s siblings. As a tradition, one family photo is printed, framed and hung on the wall of my grandparents house. As you progress from the eldest sibling to the youngest, you can see the family growing bigger and bigger. As of right now, there has come a point at which the entire family cannot fit on one shaadi ka stage and the wedding photographer has to walk a great distance just in order to try and fit all of us in the frame. After the photo is printed and hung on the wall, we’re just short of using a magnifying glass to figure out which one of those countless round heads smiling back belongs to whom.
There are both pros and cons of being a part of such a large unit. The advantages could include the fact that there is never a dearth of uncles/aunts willing to babysit you, you’re never really truly alone in the world and there are people watching out for you. But most importantly, you get a lot of eidi on Eid. You also have a large number of first cousins to keep you company. It’s even better when they’re all born in or around the same year (I have seven cousins who were! Yes, judging by the looks of it, it was a very fertile year for the family). The cons can also include that you’re never, really, truly alone even when you really, truly want to be. Whenever our parents are away, we’re literally drowned with phone calls and visits from well-meaning relatives, all of whom want to make sure we’re fine, comfortable and not getting bored. The latter would be impossible especially considering that we often spend most of our time responding to them.
Coming to the communication in such a large ‘establishment’; as all grandmothers are wont to, mine also has a little black book full of phone numbers of every conceivable person who can possibly be called a relative. At times that includes people related to us in such a complicated permutation, it would take an experienced and highly-qualified anthropologist to figure out and remember just exactly how. Miraculously, embodying the memory of a matriarchal elephant, my grandmother remembers each and everyone one of them. She can rival any journalist when it comes to not only keeping tabs on family members but spreading any potential news there is within seconds of it actually happening.
One doesn’t realize the scale of one’s family unless one sees it from the perspective of an outsider. A couple of years ago, one of my khalas was visiting from the UK and we happened to take her to a family dinner. When it came time to leave, she first looked around at the number of people she would have to personally meet and say goodbye to. Then she stood in one conspicuous corner of the room, waved her hand in one grand sweeping gesture and said “Goodbye O kin of my brother-in-law”. While making sure there wasn’t a single family-member that I had forgotten to wish, and feeling very amused at khala’s behavior, I couldn’t help but think: how convenient!