Oprah, Indian Family Values and Widows of Vrindavan.

As expected the Indian media is quoting Oprah (while being interviewed by Barkha Dutt in Jaipur Lit Fest)

“Another thing that struck her as wonderful was the Indian sense of family and tradition. ‘I remember asking Abhishek and Aishwarya [Bachchan] on my show, I asked them — How do you still live with your parents, what’s that all about? And Abhishek replied, ‘How do you not — what’s that all about?’ It’s a glorious thing that in this country, families take care of each other.’ [link]

It’s all too complex for a foreigner to ‘get it’. Oprah didn’t (seem to) understand that the wonderful Indian family and tradition allows and expects only Indian sons (and their spouse) to live with their parents; and as a result daughters either don’t live, or if they do, atleast not for long with their parents. Daughters remain unwanted by their parents because they are going to care for somebody’s parents and not their own. And despite all this, ‘100 per cent of the elderly surveyed stated that their daughters-in-law abused them the most’. [Link] It seems Indian daughters are made to give up their self reliance, freedom, aspirations, happiness, even lives for a system that does not even work.

Oprah also visited the widows of Vrindavan and was appalled that our wonderful Indian sense of family and tradition did not stop us from disrespecting family members if they became  dependent on us. (These were not her words, she was too polite to judge a culture she didn’t quite understand).

She noticed that we seemed to have ‘no respect for nursing homes’ and prefer to care for our elderly ourselves. I doubt if Oprah sensed that our family values didn’t include the common sense in ensuring that widows had empowerment through financial security.

She also seemed to think excluding widows from festivities could be compared to their being treated as being less-equal in the West. Educated, middle class widows staying voluntarily away from religious rituals and auspicious occasions because they don’t want to give someone a chance to humiliate them by asking them to stay away would be difficult to understand for someone who doesn’t really know that the biggest blessing an Indian woman can be given is that she dies before her husband – i.e. dies a sumanagali. No widow, no Widow-ashram. That’s how India solves problems.

Related posts:

100 per cent of the elderly surveyed stated that their daughters-in-law abused them the most.

Dheeyaan dee maa rani, bhudhaapey bharey paani (A mother of daughters lives like a queen while the girls are young, but has to fill water in her old age, when the daughters are married)

If I made Baghban.

Sindoor, Tali and Mangalsutra.

43 thoughts on “Oprah, Indian Family Values and Widows of Vrindavan.

    • Not to add that it’s highly, very highly, unlikely that Ash Rai is taking care of or planning to take care of Big B and his wife in their old age. They’ll have their dozen maids and servants to do that for them. Probably not the best family to use as a representation of typical middle class Indian family dynamics.

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  1. For someone looking in from the outside, the complexities would not be evident. Of course, it is wonderful to care for family, but one wishes that “care” were extended to all, and not a few favoured folks!

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    • In general, I feel it’s a poor idea for anyone who’s married to live with their parents. Older people should really have enough of a retirement/savings buffer so that they won’t need to go live with their sons and daughters. The current generation is probably a cusp, in that we still have older couples who are penniless because they gave all or most of their savings to their kids’ education/wedding/expenses etc.

      But this will change. Modern Indian parents will hopefully know not to waste their savings on superficial things for their kids, that the kids should really be paying for, and then they won’t have to depend on anyone in their old age.

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      • It is normal in western society to take care of parents financially in their old age. Normal middle class american families carry these values however parent’s do not take it for granted. Also what I have found is that in Indian marriages many times husband and wife drift apart emotionally and physically as they get older. This leads to piling on kid’s for emotional support.For this reason, parents often don’t want to let go of kid’s after they get married. This behavior ultimately leads to interference in kid’s marriages. This is one of the areas where the family system in the west differ from Indian family system.
        The other reason is extreme poverty. People many times can not feed a person that can not work. even men are abandoned in their old age by kids.
        I noticed that most of those abandoned women were old. 2 generation back India was a newly free country, poorer and less literate than now. I am not saying widows have better lives now than 40 years back but it is not as disdainful unless they are very poor, illiterate or physically challenged.
        Also I truly feel in a society like India girls and boys need to be empowered to make informed choices. young people should not get married for wrong reasons like social pressure, age, parental pressure or sex.

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  2. For someone who is not familiar, it would be difficult to understand the complexities of the Indian culture. Where I live in Bangalore, in a community of over 350 houses, there must be just about 10% who have parents living with them (from either side). Many parents do wish to live on their own too. And, many of them have the girl’s parents living with them because they need someone to be babysitting the kids when both are out to work. There are cases where the mother and father from the girl’s family are living separately because somehow it is the duty of the girl’s family to look after the upbringing of the girl’s child or else the girl will have to quit her job. It is extremely selfish of the girl too to put her parents through this torture.

    And, I totally agree about the widow bit. Women who are at the forefront of all pujas and festival celebrations are the meanest to keep out widows and even menstruating women from these events. I want to take my mil along (she is a widow), but she resists because of the snide glances that other women might throw her way. The whole system of asking a woman to give up her life just because her husband passes away is sickening to the core. At least, women of our generation should raise our voices against it and empower the women closer to us to feel the power to defy society in such issues.

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    • I am not sure if we can call this torturing the parents by the daughter. If daughters need support from parents, and if parents can provide it I think it should be okay. I know of families who do this and the grandparents seem very happy, they feel they have become years younger.

      What is sad is when it is assumed that children are a mother’s responsibility and hence her parents are responsible for their care. The responsibility should be shared by both the parents, that might make it easier for the couple to care for their children and their careers, both.

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      • Keeping your own mother and father apart for years feels very cruel to me.

        That other part is right too. If the in-laws wish to come and stay, they have the first right, but if there is babysitting to do, it is the prerogative of the girl’s parents.

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      • I’ve got friends in the US who do this: guy’s parents are here for 6 months (max stay on a visitor Visa), then the woman’s parents come for 6 months. And the cycle is repeated. The primary role of both sets of parents is baby sitting the kids. And based on what I’ve seen, while everyone involved sacrifices some amount of privacy, overall everyone’s happy (from an outside perspective anyway).

        Personally we (my wife and I) wouldn’t dream of doing anything like but to each his own I guess.

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      • Nish,

        That would be acceptable if both sets of parents are happy to come and stay, have things to keep themselves busy and enjoy babysitting. Lot of times parents are caught in an alien climate, don’t have friends and are miserable looking after young kids that involve a lot of legwork. Why not factor our parents’ wishes too? After a lifetime of work, perhaps they want a few days of solitude. My point is take their wishes into account too and keeping them away from each other is so wrong.

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  3. They actually live WITH the parents?!o_O

    And since when does living together with someone meant taking care of them? They are two separate things. You can live separately and take care of people, and live with people and totally ignore or use them. Basically Ash and Abhi are a load of bullcrap, but then I already knew that.

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  4. Many westerners have a romantic notion of Joint family system still persisting in the East. It is like a city dweller visiting a remote beautiful country side and saying how nice it is to live here. They won’t be able to with stand a single day stay.

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  5. Hi IHM
    I’ve become one of your regular readers now🙂
    I left India 25 years ago and every time I visit, I feel that the present day India is far different than the one I left behind. I come from a large extended family and thought that the nuclear family is slowly overtaking the joint family system of the past. The presence and popularity of senior centers in many parts of India is proof that more and more parents are choosing to live independently from their children, be it son or daughter.
    You are right. Westerners cannot fathom the fact that we can live with our parents or extended family for that matter. We just had a huge family get together of 5 families for Christmas and my American neighbors could not comprehend that 16 of us managed to eat, sleep, and live together under the same roof for two weeks🙂
    The point you made about widows being shunned by society is true. Hopefully this will all change in the coming generations.

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    • Depends on where you live. There are lots of American families who would not have anyproblem with living together for 2-3 weeks during a holiday. Not all Americans are anti-family so to speak.

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  6. As a country we seem to deal with all our problems the way an errant teenager would clean her room -by shoving the mess into a closet and closing the door on it. Out of sight out of mind. Oddly, we seem to deal with anything unpleasant in this manner, commonwealth games, the Delhi metro fiascoes, aging parents, widows…..We shove the mess where its not easily discernible and then invite the world to come and see everything that’s ‘wonderful’ about us.

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  7. So many westerners are enamoured by the concept of the joint family. It doesn’t help that so many Indians try to project it as proof of being a ‘family oriented’ society. Although I have to say, that even in countries like the UK, I have seen children helping out their parents and vice versa, without actually living with them. Most Indians who actually live in joint families would prefer not to, but may not even be in a position to voice their opinions, for the fear of being termed ‘uncaring’.

    As for widows, I can’t help wonder why our wonderfully caring system can only care for the powerful or the potentially powerful components of the joint family.

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  8. Well this is has become such a norm that celebrities come from abroad, visit and leave their remarks on Indian culture, traditions,poverty, etc etc etc… as if we are record keeping to work upon them..

    Jokes apart… I agree with one of the comments above…”Living together simply does not mean that they are well taken care…” what’s the use..if parents stay together or it’s a joint family and there’s so much bitterness among each other..?

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  9. I used to love watching the Oprah Winfrey Show. I always found her extremely candid but still sensitive to others feelings.Maybe that’s what happened here also. Maybe she is too decent to say anything but positive, about the Indian culture.

    I was amazed to read that 100% of the aged said they were ill treated most by their daughter in laws. I wish I knew what they meant by ill-treating. In our culture as IHM rightly pointed out the lady of the house has to take care of her in laws whether or not she is allowed to take care of her parents. So, 100% is unbelievable for me. Then what is the point of even taking care of them; in sacrificing your time and energy and maybe career too, when it is not even making a difference.

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  10. i saw a couple of her interviews as well and somehow get the feeling that she is intelligent enough to understand the paradoxes and the ironies that make up the Indian value system but she was just too polite and diplomatically correct – that could also stem fro the fact that she is conscious that she does not understand India and its cultures completely so hence ends up reserving her comments…

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    • I think she was wise.

      Remember the poo-poo poor Richard Gere got into for sweeping Shilpa Shetty into his arms and planting a peck on her cheek a few years ago.

      We Indians are a funny lot.

      We routinely turn a blind eye to women being groped, touched and bottom-pinched on our streets, but we froth at the mouth when a major Hollywood star playfully pecks a fellow actor to lend some glamour to a cause he cares about.

      Why is it that we are more outraged by consensual displays of PDA than we are by non-consensual acts of sexuals harrassment?

      As woman, I’d rather have Richard Gere sweep me into his arms than have some man rub up against me on a crowded bus.

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  11. Oprah is just being safe and polite. Who wants to rub shoulders with the rowdies and goons in India by speaking her mind? She is here for a short time and it is best she gets back safe and sound to the US. We have seen how the media and social thugs react when someone criticizes India. Anyone in their sane mind would shout that the plight of widows or the poverty pervading our slums is nothing short of hell. A whole lot of Indians like to glorify things that ought to be condemned. If a foreign national points out our sanitation, particularly, the lack of toilets, people are ready to rise up in arms. Keeping that in mind, it is too risky for Oprah to speak her mind. It was Oprah who gave a platform for a gay prince from India to vent out his mind. Our own media may have been shy and afraid of letting him speak out.

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  12. What others think of India is based on what has been projected in the media and movies. The very few who have traveled to India, knows that India is not about poverty and cows on the streets and colorful clothes. My American friends freaked out when I told them my in laws are visiting USA for 3 months and they will live with us.

    Another friend found Ramayana a great story and he told me he was impressed by Rama. He was shocked when I told him I use Rama as the example of how a son should not be as he was neither there to support his parents nor support his wife. When someone bad mouths your wife, you do not divorce her, you either slap the badmouth-er or ignore the comment.

    They don’t understand how you could arrange a marriage. They don’t understand why we are all clothed in a beach. They don’t understand a lot of things about us, but are shocked that we don’t understand it either🙂

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    • Don’t you think it’s the same with every country? Isn’t our perception about foreigners based on their movies?

      I recently started following blogs. Among them were some US based ones too. Their family system seems to be as strong as ours though maybe they do have a different way of expressing it.

      Personally the movie “Hotel Rwanda” was eye opening for me.( though it is not a movie on America). It made me realize, that human emotions were the same everywhere.
      On the lighter note:
      Have you seen “everyone loves raymond”. Many a times has my hubby off-ed the TV in disgust. He turns to me and asks.” Am I as bad as him.?”. Basically if one removes the outer layer, there seems to be not much of a difference in the life of a married woman.🙂 be it here or there

      ofcourse I may be wrong🙂

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      • I assumed a lot of things about the western world based on the movies I saw. I guess I still do, only difference is its not just movies, but its the lifestyle, travel, food shows too. And most importantly I take them all with a grain of salt🙂

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        • From where I live and based on my observations of American parents I think the difference lies in expectations from family members.

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  13. A system which leaves no room for questioning and opinions and change is not a sustainable one. Just like joint families. This system while works for some, absolutely suffocates the others. And if the ‘others’ have no say in what system they want to live in or even suggest changes, how is it “good” ? Caring for the elderly is required. Definitely. But one does not have to be a part of this joint family system to care for the elderly. And more so, the elderly associated with just the guy. The system should be open enough for everyone to experiment the arrangement which works out best for them, where both the guy and the girl are comfortable with the amount of support and care they are providing to either set of parents, and where both the guy, the girl and both set of parents have a say in the arrangement. And when this is done, let not the society jump and put the characters in definitions of selfish, selfless, a good DIL/son or a bad DIL.

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  14. Oprah is just being politically correct. She just mentioned all things that really shocked her, using euphemism.

    This happens a lot in America. If person X wearing something strange enters the elevator, Y already in the elevator stares at her, X catches her staring and Y proclaims “I love your outfit”, which basically means I am shocked by it.

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  15. Why did Oprah ask ‘ Abhishek and Aishwarya’ how they lived with their parents and what that was all about– Abhi -Ash were not born of the same set of parents, were they?

    And why did Abhishek have to hit back with ‘How do you not?’ He need only have put the question to his own wife–how does she find it possible to not live with her parents? How,indeed , does half of all India–the women–not live with their parents. Or is it just one of those things only women can( and hence,should) do ?

    I am sure someone as keenly perceptive as Oprah understands the ironies inherent in our strange culture much better than she is willing to admit. She is just being polite and taking care not to offend the sensibilities of her touchy hosts

    And I am surprised they took her to visit a widow-home in Vrindavan. They usually take care to keep such eyesores out of reach of high-profile visitors. Was it at her own insistence? Was Oprah trying to send a message by making it a point to visit Vrindavan? Something like, if this is what you do to your widows, just how good is your ‘family-oriented’ culture?

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    • @scribblehappy Lol, Abhishek must have thought that was a cool retort, not realising that his “How can you not” applied to his wife as well. Just goes to show how Indians don’t give a thought to their ‘daughters’, the women.

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    • I have a feeling that visiting the Vrindavan widows was Oprah’s own ideas.

      I doubt that the Ministry of Tourism or Culture thought that the best way to showcase India would be show just how well Hindu society treats its widows:

      “Off you go to Vrindavan, you ill-fated omen of bad luck. So what if you’ve spent most of your life praying for your husband’s long life. You failed. Obviously. So spend the remainder of your life praying for release from your misreable existence. What? It’s not fair, you say? Well, karma’s a bitch, my dear.”

      I also dislike the “neutral tone” that many Western observers of Indian culture adopt when commenting on “women’s issues”.

      In his TV documentaries, Desmond Morris talks about the widows of Vrindavan in the most detached, morally neutral manner possible.

      The part where he talks about Hindu widowhood has gems like, “These Hindu widows must spend their lives praying for release from the misery of their existence.”

      While I understand his need to distance himself from the subject of his enquiry, it would help enormously if more world-renowned academics and intellectuals took a stand against gender inequality, as has Amartya Sen.

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    • how many widows of the entire widow population deserted by Indian families? 5% or 10% – so can that percentage be used to represent the majority of Indian population.

      Suprsingly, we are taking about family values where most women feel sick if their husbands take care of their widowed mothers and love them, they go to the extent of calling those widowed mothers as selfish,

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  16. Abhishek’s attitute while answering her question is exactly whats wrong with our educated, independent Indian men- not acknowldging that the wife has a set of parents too, acting virtuous about staying with his parents (and indirectly putting down sons and dils who dont or dont want to).

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