Illustrations by Namithaa
In different stages of our lives, we hold many people dear. We enter into different kinds of relationships, and different kinds of loves with them. Though society might see some kinds of relationships as important, and some as unimportant, love has a way of slipping out of these neat categories, hai na?
Family is often held up as the greatest kind of relationship there is. We are taught to put family first, and our parents, siblings, children and spouses are the people we are supposed to be closest to. (Don’t believe us? Just ask Karan Johar and Sooraj Barjatya!) Family is important to many of us. But is it the only way we form close ties with another person, or a group of people? If you look around, you actually see that people form family-like relationships in so many different ways.
What makes a family? We all have our own ideas about this – for some, it might be the sharing of a living space and eating meals together. For others, maybe it is having a close emotional connection with someone you know who will always be there for you. Our relationships seldom stay static – some might wither away as you drift apart, and some might deepen with time, and a person you once met in a chance encounter might grow to be the closest person to you, whom you rely on and and with whom you share resources, or the ups and downs of life. We choose people to be our family and they may not always fit into conventional family roles, but we might see them as our nearest and dearest, nevertheless.
To explore the different ways in which people form these relationships, we spoke to people about their chosen families. Here’s what they told us.
“When my chela has chelas, I am their nani” – Sowmya Gupta, 39
I have two chosen families. The hijra community is my first chosen family. And the second is my colleagues. Because you spend more time in office than at home, so that becomes important.
I come from a small coastal town in Andhra Pradesh. At the age of around 18-20, when I started understanding my sexuality, I went seeking out my community.
When (given) family and society do not accept a trans person or a queer person, then you can find acceptance in the transgender community. Hum jaisa log, hum jaisa logon ko accept karta hai.
The hijra family structure is interesting, because you don’t only learn from those who are above you, but also from the newcomers. It’s like a chain, we support each other and learn from each other and grow together. The guru is the head of the family and everyone is under her. There are different levels though – the guru has chelas under her. For my chela, my guru is her nani, and when my chela has chelas, I am their nani.
In the early 2000s it was difficult for a transgender person to get a job, so if any of us got a job we would host a dinner or lunch. In fact, I remember that earlier on, I used to contribute a part of my salary to a common fund that we had created to be used in case of emergencies. So that kind of support is also available. I used to plan annual dinners and get togethers – say on New Year’s or something. Now, we have a family WhatsApp group where we keep each other updated about our lives. I share whatever I am doing, whatever key decisions I am taking, and the family in turn shares their views on it, discusses the pros and cons, and so on. This is what family means to me – a relationship of mutual support.
“One of the first people I saw as family was Chintoo, an amazing cat” – Shals Mahajan, 47
I am not sure about the word family. Do I want to use it in the first place? Because in society the only way to make family is by birth or by marriage. If you are looking at relationships beyond that and don’t want to follow those rules, you feel unsure whether you want to use that term. At different points we’ve used different terms – my familiars (after Alice Walker), or my intimates, or just my people or home or at one point, bubble.
I moved very often while growing up and generally felt alienated from most of my peers for the longest time. So for me, my natal nuclear family were the people I was closest to, and I only saw them as family. In my twenties, after I returned to Bombay and became part of a feminist and a queer collective, and felt a camaraderie that I had never felt till that point, I started thinking of people as more than just fleeting ghosts in my life.
Before this, the first other person I saw as family was Chintoo, an amazing cat who came into my life at a time when I was severely depressed as a graduate student in Louisville, Kentucky in 1993. He was then a tiny kitten, barely a couple of weeks old. He was largely responsible for bringing carefree joy back in my life and for my survival and eventual completion of my degree. Of course I had the support of a few beautiful friends, but he brought something different to my life. When I returned, he came back with me. I had committed to him for life, his or mine, whichever ended first. And this has been the only time I knew that my commitment was for life.
Later in Bombay, when I moved in with my partner, Chintoo came with, and the three of us became a household and family. Chintoo was ill and dying when the Delhi High Court judgement on Section 377 of the IPC, that beautiful judgement that gave us more than hope in 2009, came. He was sixteen then. There was a celebration in the city that night and most people I know were there, calling us, wondering where we were. The two of us were home with Chintoo, and there with us were our closest friends and queer family, the gang from our collective (LABIA – a Queer Feminist LBT Collective). We all sat around celebrating, laughing, eating, drinking, and also feeling sorrow for Chintoo, knowing he wouldn’t be around for the next meeting. He had been part of our endless meetings and hanging out sessions. I think somewhere that feeling – that being together, that is what home is.
“My mom thinks my grandmother and Masterji are emotionally dependent” – Damini*, 22
My grandmother lives in Meerut in a small bungalow. She was widowed at a young age but managed to raise two kids with the help of family and friends, and dedicated her personal time to her passion for classical music. As long as I can remember, Masterji, who is around my mother’s age, has lived in a tiny outhouse in the compound. He eats alone and has a separate washroom outside, but he has been an integral part of the family. He worked alongside my grandmother teaching music, and looked after her and the house much better than her children could. I always believed he was a member of my family, even if my mother now emphatically declares that he isn’t.
I asked my mother about how he came there. My grandmother needed a teacher as she was doing her Nipun – a masters in music, so he came there. His own efforts to find housing had not worked out, and as the security guard at the time had just vacated the tiny outhouse of my grandmother’s bungalow, Masterji suggested that he would make a better guard and moved in. Since my uncle was away at college, Masterji was considered protection, as there was a man in the house. My mom thinks my grandmother and Masterji are emotionally dependent on each other. Sometimes she has suspected romance between them, but has never been sure. She says he was a friend most of all to my grandmother, and that she considered him to be her guru. I feel their relationship at this point is deeper than just friendship or romance or any labels we might want to put on it, regardless of the lines other people in the family may draw as to who is family and who is not.
If it was up to me, family wouldn’t be just about blood. I’m not sure drawing these lines of family or not family even makes sense because those who care, stick around and become a part of your life anyway – in an unspoken unchangeable way. I think if someone cares about you beyond reasons of shared blood, you’ve got something better than family.
“In our neighbourhood, we refer to each other as brother/sister, and it really feels that way” – Raphael*, 26
I live in a community that is very close, like a large extended family. Here, we go to each others’ places frequently, and any kind of support that is needed, financial help, etc, is available. For example, if someone in my family falls sick in the middle of the night, even if it is 2 am, I can go to my neighbour who has a car and they will take us to the hospital. For that I am very grateful. It is strange that in many places people don’t even know their neighbours.
I am not as close to my other family members who don’t live here as I am to my neighbours. We share our lives together, our problems and joys. Every festival is celebrated together – if anyone is making mithai for Diwali, mutton for Eid or cake for Christmas, they make it for everyone. On Christmas I end up making cake for upto thirty families. When my cousins who live elsewhere hear this, they get very shocked because people mostly make things only for close friends and family. They ask me, why do you do all this for your neighbours? But though our community is big, it is tight-knight like that. Ours was the first house to have a phone, so the others would come and use it, and everyone used to come to our house to watch TV.
My granny used to accommodate everyone who came from our native place looking for work in Mumbai, for months she would provide them food and a place to live, till they found their footing in the city. Because of this, they refer to her as their mother and treat her like that. In our neighbourhood, we also refer to each other as brother/sister, and it really feels that way. We aren’t related by blood, but there is a lot of attachment and trust between us.
“My muh bola bhai and muh boli sister make up my family” – Sunita Sabarwal, 48
Bharti and I are childhood friends, it’s been 45 years of our friendship. Even if I had a sister, I don’t think I would be as close to her as I am to Bharti. We’ve studied together, grown up together. We have evolved over time, but our thought process has also changed ek jaise [resembling each other’s]. I don’t have to say much to express myself in front of her, because she just understands. My daughter did not even know that Bharti was not her real maasi till she was in the 4th standard.
My muh bola bhai Pawan (we were neighbours back in my hometown) and my muh boli sister Bharti make up my family. Recently, when my mother died I just had to make one call and they both flew in from their respective cities immediately, and stayed with me for the next ten days, without my having to ask. Now my mother and father are gone but I don’t feel like I don’t have a maika (natal family), because I have Pawan and Bharti.
It’s about who has been with you through your tough times, when you have been sad. I share a level of comfort with them. It’s not like your family can’t be like that, it’s just that everyone has to think thoda hatke. And it is possible, it’s not difficult. The thing is that acceptance is very important. If you chose that person then it’s not like they won’t have any negatives. But if you have chosen them, then you have chosen them with their negatives also, as you accept it with families you are born into.
“My parents and their friends signed up to be neighbours forever” – Shepherd*, 21
My parents and Arun Mesho and Mashi were together in the US doing their post-doctoral research. They weren’t so close then. My parents moved back to Pune after I was born and Mesho and Mashi happened to do the same when Shubho was born. They got jobs at the same university, and lived in the university housing society together for 17 years. At one point, everyone living there was thinking about the future and looking for property. So four or five people from the society decided to buy property and build houses together. But my father backed out to look for something cheaper. When he decided that, Mesho said where Ratan Da goes, I’ll go. They bought a property together, so both literally signed up to be neighbours forever. They got the same architect to build their houses on adjoining plots.
Shubho (who I consider my brother) – and I went everywhere together. Bengali class, music class, swimming. On Bhai Phota and Raksha Bandhan, he has to be there. The hardest thing for all of us to endure together was when Mashi’s mother died, because we saw her change after it. Mashi grew closer to my grandmother than my own mother was, so when she passed away too, it was like watching her mother passing away twice.
Since we are a probashi (not residing in Bengal) family, our relatives have always been far away. So Mesho, Mashi and Shubho sort of filled in that place. I guess they went from being friends and colleagues to family friends. And family friends are family only.
* Name changed