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The Enemy Within

Disintegration of Family Life in Gowda Saraswat Society and How to Check it

by Dr. Jyotsna Kamat
(Retired Station Director, All India Radio)

As a student of history, I have been watching with concern, erosion of values in our society. Saraswat identity which our forefathers over centuries, tried to preserve at the risk of their life and limbs, is on the verge of distinction due to our own indifference, ignorance and misconceptions, regarding 'free-life' and 'free thinking'. I am concerned mainly with disintegration of family-life, which has bad impact now and may turn worse for future generation as well. I am restricting myself mainly to:

  1. Care of the elderly or the senior citizens, mainly women
  2. Broken marriages
  3. Inter-caste marriages and dowry system

It is more than three decades now that the joint family system has ended and nuclear family has come to stay. When educated women started to take up jobs earlier, they welcomed elderly relatives warmly to their city homes. Mothers, mother-in-laws, aunts, and grandparents had good time with their sons and daughters in cities and occasionally visiting their own village or town homes. None were sorry for the break-up of big households which at times accommodated poor dependant relatives and orphaned children, as well.

Now even the nuclear families are breaking up! Sons or daughters usually are restricted to one or two per family, grow up independently, have education in English medium, imitate all Western life, dream or jump abroad, plan their own future in foreign countries, leaving their elderly parents behind to fend for themselves. A whole generation has reached maturity in Metro cities who have hardly seen their ancestral houses, or villages, wells, fields, rivers, sea or plantations! They have adopted western way of dress, thinking and language – Western culture on the whole. Nothing wrong with that. But Western society has evolved its own mode of catering to elders. Being highly individualistic in the West, no youngster wants to depend on elders for his education or future and parents do not want to be a burden on children at any stage of life. They have senior citizens' homes, senior citizens' villages etc, self-funded and aided by state or central governments, voluntary agencies.

In India, parents are expected to own entire responsibility of future of their children, huge donations, best schools, top jobs, high recommendations and what not. So it is all left to the guardians to arrange for big dowry, best bridegroom, leaving no responsibility to sons or daughters. This is only one of the several things which resulted in blind aping of the West – mistaking wood for tree.

In cities like Dharwad, Bangalore, and Mumbai I have met many elderly couples whose children are settled abroad. They have to manage their own affairs, old-age ailments, loneliness, and most of all, helplessness. If either of the partner is gone, the other's fate is miserable till death, very painful indeed!

1. Care of the senior citizens

The need of the hour is old peoples homes. Shri Chitrapurmatha of Shirali set a splendid example two decades ago by establishing 'Anandashraya' home for elders with no kith and kin. I am an eye-witness to the comfortable life the elders had in math premises. Food for body and mind, plus medical attendance  offered periodically, left the seniors have quiet evenings and carefree time till the end came. This was the scene is 1990s.

My loud thinking about future plans for our seniors is :-

Swamijis of mathas of Saraswat sub-sects, are requested to have homes for elderly citizens in their premises or under their administrative control.

Trusts may be formed in big cities to collect funds – mainly self-savings, donations and NRI (Non-resident India) contributions. Preference can be given to spinsters, widows, widowers. Modes of payment may be fixed. There should be no problem with funds for parents with NRI children. Only management of old age is a real problem. But for educated and enlightened community as Gowda Saraswats and Saraswats. Some voluntary service should take a long way.

2. Broken marriages

We cannot remain blind to an increasing menace of broken marriages in cities. As in earlier incidence (of joint family) we have progressed, and done away with earlier modes of arranged marriages without thinking of the alternatives. Boys and girls are treated alike among highly educated Saraswat families. They receive same type of education, love and care and develop proto type of 'ego' equally! 'Divorce' a word which was a taboo once, has come to stay. Any number of "newly married and separated soon" couples are seen these days. If they have kids, unfortunately, again it is additional burden to elders, since the separated couples would like to have new life in their own way, in spite single parent-burden.

What is the solution?

Marriage consultancy agencies are suggested. Already there are Marriage Assistance Bureaus in certain cities which help with boy–girl-horoscope-alliances. Experienced elders, advocates, respected women, etc may attach themselves to such bureaus whom the youngsters could consult. It is easier said than done. The fault lies in modern system of education and also expectations of parents and children. The old concept of  "what we can do for society?" -- has altogether disappeared . Instead everybody thinks "what do I get from this deal?" including job, public relations and marriage as well. When 'we' has to be replaced for "I", one has to positively strive for it. 'Ego' is to be subdued by either partner in conjugal relationship. Can I appeal to happily married, well adjusted elderly  Gowda Saraswat couples to volunteer their help in this regard? Each city Marriage bureau may conduct classes or practice consultancy! Help in needy hours in informal get-togethers for youngsters who are about to get married or get worried after marriage, is possible through voluntary organisations, or helpful individuals.

Third and last point I would like to touch is increase in inter-caste marriages and problems of dowry. I wonder whether two are inter-related. At times they are. Some times, the dowry demands force Gowda Saraswat young women to marry outside the caste. In some so called 'love marriages', it was this circumstance which induced the youngsters.

I am not against inter-caste marriages. In my younger days even 'Bhanap-Dorke' wedding was considered inter-caste ( I had one such and am proud about it !). It is no more and should not be. As far as marriage of minds is concerned, caste, religion, country, should not be a barrier to enlightened community like Gowda Saraswats.

But the impact of such not adjusted or incompatible marriages in the disruption of Gowda Saraswat culture.

3. Inter-caste Marriages and menace of Dowry

Among Bhanaps (a sub-sect among Konkani Brahmins) one in every ten marriages is inter-caste – a recent survey has revealed and should cause concern. That amounts to only 50% survival of Konkani language, customs, rituals or culture as a whole. At least, the home language in mofussil towns and cities, so far used to be Konkani, which survived the onslaught of different major languages over centuries. Now the kids pick up either language of the parents and/or mostly English. Konkani language is pushed in the background knowingly or unknowingly, by either Konkani parent of such kids. If we ourselves throttle Konkani at home where is the hope for this only spoken language?

Among Gowda Saraswats, the dowry system has grown into an unashamed vulgar greed and a threatening menace. The amount of money spent on jewelry, wedding expenses etc. have reached swooning proportions. No doubt pompous wedding celebrations have become status symbol. But why among Saraswats who proudly call themselves 'Saraswati putras' or children of Goddess of Learning? They are not 'Laxmiputras' like Gujaratis and Marwadis who worship wealth. But both the latter communities excel in charities and serve society in their own way. Rich Saraswats are way behind!

'Rags to riches' is a common concept among Saraswats, most of whom have come the hard way and succeeded. But when it comes to promotion of their progeny, they expect everything best – including (false) status and huge dowry. Let me again stress that this so called 'prestige' issue forces parents to marry off their young and talented daughters outside the community or they gladly accept such son-in-law if the daughter herself suggests such a young man outside the community.

But there is hope. If either partner works a little harder to retain some Saraswat traits after such an inter-caste marriage, that will make up the loss. Let the children speak both languages of parents. This involves love of language, food, god-fearing and pious living. Occasional remembrance of their Saraswat identity by visiting family deities at Goa. 

Religious and spiritual ties to one's heritage can make up for most of the material losses, in these days of globalization.

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