LONDONERS AT HOME: The Way We Live Now
Extended Family -
Gopaljeet Singh Bhachu, Ranjeet Kaur Bhachu, Sumeet Singh Bhachu, Pavan Kaur Emir, Murat Emir, Arun Singh Emir,
Eesha Kaur Johal, Adem Singh Emir &
Channi Kaur Johal
Date of photography: 14th October 2017
For many years. the Bhachu family comprised four generations of close relatives living together or in close proximity, a family unit that was the norm for much of humanity in the not-too-distant past. It is still seen by many as easily the best way human beings can live together. In more recent times, the nuclear family has been viewed by many sociologists and politicians as the universal, basic component of social organisation, and yet anyone who looks a little more deeply into history and anthropology will quickly discover that this narrow definition is largely a latter-day Western invention, greatly promoted by the Victorians, by social conservatives, and by many faith groups. Social creatures that they are, human beings have, throughout history, lived mostly in family units but these have normally consisted not only of parents and children living under the same roof but also grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, all living in a large household that we now tend to call an ‘extended family’.
The now-familiar term, ‘Nuclear Family’, was first used in English as late as 1941, to describe a family group that consisted only of a heterosexual couple and their dependent children, united by ties of marriage and parenthood, and recognised as a basic social unit. The nuclear family has long been viewed by many sociologists and politicians as the universal, basic component of social organisation, and yet anyone who looks a little deeper into history and anthropology will quickly discover that this narrow definition is largely a latter-day Western invention, greatly promoted by the Victorians (with the ‘Royal Family’ as an archetype) by social conservatives, and by many faith groups. More recently, it has been promoted especially aggressively by so-called ‘familialists’, social conservatives who form part of the Christian evangelical pro-family lobby, especially in the United States, but who exert influence around the globe.
Social creatures that they are, human beings have, throughout history, lived mostly in family units but these have usually consisted not only of parents and children living under the same roof but also grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, all living in a large household that we now tend to call an ‘extended family’. It would be wrong to assume that this model of coexistence obtained mostly amongst Asians, Middle Easterners, Latin Americans, Pacific Islanders, Australian Aborigines, and the Chinese; many Europeans lived in extended family units too. It is also wrong to assume that extended families were only associated with the least affluent layers of society; many amongst the upper classes and the aristocracy lived in extended families too.
Whilst industrialisation and the concentration of populations in towns and cities are amongst the factors that have brought about the transition from ‘extended’ to ‘nuclear’ amongst families in most western European nations, it is not altogether surprising that many of the immigrants who have settled in London have brought with them and maintained their extended family structures; these are not only familiar and convivial but are seen as a helpful means of maintaining a strong bond between blood relations and in-laws, thus generating a greater sense of security within what must, initially at least, be perceived as a new and strange host community. The extended family also has the great advantage over the nuclear family insofar as elders continue to be supported and cared for at home; they are not isolated and abandoned as are many widows and widowers in the West, seen as redundant once their children have grown up and left to make homes of their own.
It was my great pleasure to be invited to the north London home of Gopal Singh Bhachu, a home that at one time accommodated four generations of the Bhachu familyand which continues to be a hub for an extended family whose members continue to live in close proximity to each other. (I had the honour to feature Gopal’s mother, Ranjeet Kaur Bhachu, in my previous project, exhibited in 2015 - her portraits and interview are still accessible online, via Outsiders in London, Are you one, too?) It was Gopal’s kind intention to gather together as many members of his large family as he could, for the photo shoot, but quite understandably finding a single time that was convenient for everyone proved difficult so some individuals could not be there on the day. However, he did succeed in bringing together four generations of his extended family; in the photograph, from right to left, they are: Gopaljeet Singh Bhachu (62), Ranjeet Kaur Bhachu (88), Sumeet Singh Bhachu (25), Pavan Kaur Emir (28), Murat Emir (35), Arun Singh Emir (2), Eesha Kaur Johal (10), Adem Singh Emir (3), Channi Kaur Johal (36).
Family Bhachu is Punjabi by ethnicity and Sikh by religion. Both Gopal’s grandparents were born in India and were amongst that wave of economic migration from India to Africa which began with the construction of the East African Railways. Over 30,000 indentured labourers were recruited in British India, as well as many highly-qualified civil engineers and administrators, all of whom contributed to the completion of this remarkable feat of engineering, a feat that claimed four lives for every mile of track laid - a total death toll of more than 2,500 men! Amongst the many who survived, several thousands remained in Africa, settling in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, all then British colonies in East Africa, and invited their families to join them, thus infusing these new states with the culture, traditions and lifestyles of India.
Gopal’s mother, Ranjeet, who is now 88, was born in the mid-west of Kenya, and her father was a Civil Engineer. Following established custom, she married into another family of engineers, the Bhachu family, and moved into the home of her in-laws - not an easy transition for a young woman. Completely inexperienced, in a strange home, and surrounded by a new family mostly comprised of strangers, she was expected to embark upon an intimate relationship with someone she had only just met, someone she hardly knew. Of course, it should be acknowledged that young girls were groomed for years in preparation for this very moment in their lives, but navigating successfully through such momentous change can be quite a different matter nonetheless. “I was fortunate,” says Ranjeet. “Affection for my husband gradually developed and my new family was very kind and accepting towards me, though I was always aware that I was a sort of guest in their house and that my conduct towards my husband’s parents and siblings had to reflect this status.”
Having married a civil engineer and, just like her own mother, having to follow her peripatetic husband wherever his various assignments took him, Ranjeet’s life continued to follow the same migratory pattern she had grown up with. From Kenya, they moved to Tanzania and from there, to Zambia. Ranjeet had her first child when she was barely 16 and went on to have nine more children after that, of whom eight survived and prospered.
Gopal, who is now 62, started school in Kenya, continued his education in Dares Salaam, in Tanzania, and after that in Zambia. Unusually, he went to high school in Pennsylvania, in the USA, and then, largely at the insistence of his father, progressed to study Engineering in Delhi, a course which, because of illness, he was unfortunately never able to complete. Once Britain began to withdraw from Africa, new socio-economic storms began to build up in the newly-independent East African states and, even before Idi Amin determined on the forcible expulsion of Asians from Uganda, a considerable number of Sikhs had decided to leave East Africa and to seek a more stable future for their children in Canada, Australia and the UK.
The Bhachu family relocated to north London in 1974 where, with his father continuing to undertake work on major projects in Zambia and the Middle East, Gopal, as the eldest son, became the de facto head of the household. At the age of 20, he joined the UK Civil Service and 42 years later, he is still employed there. Gopal adds: “ Though recently divorced, I got married when I was 24, we had three beautiful girls and one boy - he’s the youngest but he’s an adult too now, at 25. All my children are university educated and are either working professionally or running their own businesses. All the girls are married and two of them have children of their own. My son, Sumeet, graduated as a business analyst and he has followed me into the Civil Service. My mum, who’s now 88, is still of clear mind, but her mobility has deteriorated greatly so I now only work part-time in order to care for her.”
Gopal continued his family story: “Milan, if you were searching for a house that is home to an extended family, you certainly are in the right place here,” he says with a smile. “Four generations of people lived here at one time, including my grandparents; all my brothers lived here until they got married, and some of them even had children in this house before moving away to places of their own. It was certainly a full house, so full at one time that it had to be extended in order to accommodate us all - it grew from a three-bedroom semi, to a six-bedroom house on three floors. My brothers’ children’s upbringing was in this house and all three of my married daughters live in the vicinity - well, all my family do, so the extended Gopal family continues. No-one is far from another member of the family and this house is at the centre of it all, and it continues to be open to all. So, just as I now look after my mother in this house, so I looked after my grandmother and grandfather here too."
I asked Gopal to tell me what he thought were the advantages of living in an extended family. “The main advantage is what you might call ‘togetherness’: we eat together, we sleep under the same roof, we do everything together. Other families come here to socialise too, so you gradually get to know other extended families as well. Whether or not my grandchildren will continue with his tradition remains to be seen; I have a strong feeling that my own children will but, after that, I don’t know. Personally, it’s not just that I love to live in a large family but I also enjoy being around older people - even at my age, I still learn from them. As you know, for many years, because my father was mostly working abroad, I had to be a sort of father figure to the others. As the eldest, I was expected to look after the wellbeing of the entire family so, quite naturally, I have continued in this role and now everyone knows that this is the house to come to. This is how it has always been, and how it should be. I know that you are keen to ask me what are the disadvantages of living in an extended family but, to be honest, I would struggle to answer such a question, I simply don’t see it that way. Perhaps it is something to do with the fundamental values we Sikhs hold dear and endeavour to nurture: we believe strongly in offering a hand to everyone and in being of service to our elders especially. If you pushed me, I should say that the only disadvantage I can think of is what one calls ‘privacy’. Once my brothers got married and their wives moved in and they had their children here, one was sometimes conscious of the privacy issue. My mother has touched on this in her own words.”
Sikhism originates in the teachings of Guru Nanak and his nine successors, and embraces his teaching that the “Realisation of Truth is higher than all else.” Sikhism emphasises the principle of equality between all human beings and rejects discrimination on the basis of caste, creed, or gender. It encourages an active, creative and practical life, conducted with truthfulness, self-control and purity. Whilst in the Sikh scriptures, women are regarded as equal to men, with the same souls as men - it was the first of the great world religions to proclaim this - it must be recognised that, culturally, the social constraints on women are greater than those placed on men. Before marriage, girls normally lived very sequestered lives, remaining largely within the confines of the family home and having very limited experience of life outside. Arranged marriages still remain the accepted norm in some families today, and such unions can produce satisfactory outcomes and happy family lives. And not just girls; one should not forget, of course, that young men too are forced to accept life partners who have been selected for them by their parents and that, in the nature of things, not all of these young men will end up happy.
Gopal continues: “Like my own mother and father, and like generations of my forefathers, I also had an arranged marriage, but Milan, in my family, all that has changed. All my daughters married men of their own choosing and I would not deviate from this when it comes to my son either. My children are, of course, Sikhs by faith but most of all, they are modern British citizens. My daughter, Pavan, married Murat Emir who is Turkish and they now have two children, Arun who is two, and Adem who is three. They are all welcome at the Gurdwara, the children have Sikh middle names, and my daughter takes part in Turkish social events. We don’t enforce Sikhism on anyone. Though some more traditional families have a strong preference for maintaining the traditions and marrying within the Sikh community only, I have always been a great believer in inter-faith communities and I would like to feel that my own family is a living example of this.”
Wishing to get another perspective, from the younger generation, about how it feels to live within an extended family, I also asked Gopal’s son, Sumeet, his eldest daughter, Channi, and Pavan’s Turkish husband, Murat Emir, for their opinions.
Sumeet, who is 25, observed: “I am the baby of the family and by the time I was born into this house, it was only my parents and us children living under one roof, with my grandmother. However, as the house was the place where the family always met, it quite often felt like living in an extended family. Living in a large family helps you develop an array of social skills which you can adapt and use later in life, in the wider world. You are simply obliged to learn, from very early on, how to interact with people whose personalities and characteristics are different from your own, so you begin to accept that others have needs and expectations that are not necessarily the same as yours. It moulds you as a social creature. I am therefore a great believer in a big family. If you are a single child and have communicated only with your parents, I imagine that when you encounter other children at school, or when you meet other people in the world at large, adapting could prove to be difficult. It is all about learning the knack of successfully coexisting with others.”
“Yes, there are some disadvantages but, to my mind, there are not many that really stand out. You could say it’s a bit of a struggle having to deal with so many people at the same time, having to fight to be heard sometimes, and perhaps trying to find a quiet time for oneself, to have a bit of privacy when you feel you need to have it. Until I was 10, I had to share a bedroom so, having your own room felt important to me, but even when you do have a room of your own, those four walls are no guarantee of independence. Closing the door would have been seen by others as suspicious; they would have felt almost excluded and they might have suspected that you were hiding something. I always enjoyed being an independent person, that was important to me, so yes, it was annoying when people barged into my room without knocking, and locking the door would have been seen as unacceptable. To be honest, I didn’t have anything to hide, well, not much anyway, and if I really wanted my own space, I could get it.”
Sumeet concludes with the following: “On the basis of my own experience, living in an extended family was largely positive and I will try to emulate it. Indeed, I would like to have a big family myself. I feel that having several siblings is important.”
Channi, who is 36, comments: “The most important advantage of living in an extended family is having around you a ready-made support network for all aspects of life. There is help with raising children, help with daily chores, and a sharing of household responsibilities, like cooking and cleaning. I feel that, if there are many of you, there is less for each of you to do - as the proverb says, ‘many hands make light work’. You can’t get away with being lazy or selfish for too long; you are expected to do your bit. Everyone is expected to participate and, generally, no-one needs to be reminded to do so. I now have two children of my own and I live with my in-laws. I have moved from one extended Sikh family into another and I feel I fit in well; I don’t feel like an outsider or a new arrival. My own parents were very modern, very outward looking, and so is the family I live with now. Of course, the bond that exists between mother and son is a very special one and a daughter-in-law can feel like an intruder in that special relationship; fortunately, that is not the case in our household, but one does hear of stories from others, which can seem a bit bleak.”
Channi continues, addressing the disadvantages: “Problems only arise when not everyone is understanding and tolerant of others or when someone behaves selfishly or is insensitive to others living around them. If you are an only child and you move into an extended family, I can well imagine that difficulties might arise. We used to share rooms as children - we had to, the house was not big enough - but to be honest, I loved it. Sharing was fun and I loved having someone around all the time - in a strange way, I missed that when I got married. We haven’t moved very far from my family home, we continue to see each other often, and we spend most weekends in each other’s company.”
Finally, I interviewed Murat, who is 35. He is London-born but ethnically Turkish and having married Gopal’s daughter, Pavan, he joined Gopal’s large, Sikh family: “Milan, I only had one brother and my parents divorced - my brother and I both lived with my mother - so I had no real experience of living in an extended family as such. So, as you can imagine, entering the Gopal family was certainly a novel experience and it took me some time to get used to it. While I see a great many real advantages in the way many Indian families live, I do occasionally wonder to what extent the close ties of such communities could be perceived as a obstacle to wider integration. Sometimes, self-sufficient communities, with a common ethnicity, can result in segregation, not by choice but by default. You could say that, in a way, the same thing is true of the Turkish community in North London: Turkish is spoken on the street, you feel comfortable in your own Turkish surroundings, you eat Turkish food, and you shop in Turkish shops. The same is the case with the Indian communities in Southall. However, the Gopal family is not especially traditional; they accepted me without hesitation, whereas a more traditional family would almost certainly have insisted that a Sikh girl should marry a Sikh man. Mind you, if I had continued to be influenced by my own father, who was much more traditionally Turkish than my mother, I might never have been allowed to take a Sikh wife.”
“For my kids, growing up as part of the extended Gopal family is an enriching experience; it is certainly good for them. They have the opportunity to connect with other children of different ages and to live alongside four generations of people; I hope this will give them a sense of where they came from, of where their roots are. It also socialises them too; it teaches them to recognise and to appreciate the other people around them. There are also some very real advantages: if parents need to deal with some daily practicalities and the children have to be temporarily looked after, a family member will step in and help out - there is no need to call upon a stranger or to employ some commercial organisation.”
Family Gopal have highlighted all of the most important advantages of living in an extended family and signalled their commitment to it; likewise, they have mentioned some of the disadvantages that seem to them significant. Four generations of one family, living in close harmony, can provide great support for one another, not only for the elders but also for the children, who can connect with their traditions and their family roots.
UK statistics seem hard to come by but in the USA, it is estimated that about 16% of Americans (ie some 49 million) live in homes that consist of three or more generations, and an additional 35% live within one kilometre of their children. It is believed that the numbers are comparable in Western Europe. Of course, these figures would be much higher in those parts of the world where the nuclear family is still the exception.
It must be noted, however, that the growth of neoliberal capitalism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has inflicted reductions in welfare and housing benefits upon the poor and upon migrants, forcing together many families who once might otherwise have chosen to live in separate nuclear family units; this way, they can support one other, share the income of those fortunate enough to secure paid employment, and share housing and other living costs. Similarly, in Britain, soaring housing costs have forced an increasing number of adult children who had flown the nest during their university studies, to return to it, sometimes being obliged to continue living with their parents for many years, sometimes together with their spouse or partner - this topic is explored in the companion piece, ‘ The Boomerang Generation ’.
Extended family arrangements will continue to be the preferred and much-enjoyed choice for some, but having to live this way simply for burdensome, socio-economic reasons, is never likely to be thought agreeable.
Text Edited: 5th December 2017
Update (January 2018)
We have to report the sad news that today, Friday 5th January 2018, Ranjeet Kaur Bhachu passed away; she was 89 and her health had been failing for some considerable time. Ranjeet will be greatly mourned by her family and by everyone who knew her.
May she rest in peace.
Page modified: 17th March 2019