This is the second piece in a three-part series on growing apart from families and rejecting the inherent discrimination so widely prevalent in India. You can read the first part here.
In Elif Shafak’s latest critically-acclaimed novel 10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World, the protagonist, Tequila Leila leaves her home – a home that did not understand her or her beliefs, a home that tried to tie down her thought process and her being – and runs away to the big city of Istanbul, finds her own family of diverse ‘misfits’ who share her beliefs, world views, and accept her and journey with her even after she dies.
The reality, however, is that not everyone has the opportunity, agency or emotional ability to leave families that are discriminating against them or others in the world around them. That privilege is only afforded to those far and few with the financial means to pursue a different lifestyle and break away.
For the majority, this conflict simmers – in passing remarks on the dining table, over disagreements on family WhatsApp groups over forwards, in the controlled silence while watching the news together, in skirting around political subjects, in failing to do so and in the screaming matches that follow – in the quiet dark corners of the minds of many who find themselves torn between living truthfully to their identities and keeping peace with their flesh and blood. And this simmering comes at an excruciating cost to one’s mental health.
“I come from a family that still latches on to internal biases stemming from gender and religion. In this sense, what happens is that my family members make problematic statements regarding stereotypes and prejudices against people belonging to a certain community or people who are homosexuals. There’s no disdain or explicit rejection as such, but these implicit biases are what perpetuate such thinking in families that might come off as liberal to a stranger,” said Radhika Roy, a lawyer from New Delhi who has been trying to address these underlying biases through conversations with her family.
“When it comes to conversations (mostly arguments) with my parents on these issues, I would initially speak from emotion and lose the plot; unable to make a point. Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that if you want to truly change someone’s mindset, you need to engage with them at a similar level. You cannot position your opinion as that of a morally superior person as that condescension merely pushes your family (specifically persons elder to you) away from the point you’re trying to make. There’s a great degree of unlearning that is required and you have to be patient because these are thought processes that have taken decades to cultivate,” she said. Radhika has found that being armed with facts and figures and a calm disposition can go a long way in trying to engage with ingrained prejudice.
But this environment of tension and confrontation can put a lot of strain on the family as well as the individuals, with impacts leaking into other facets of their lives. “Ongoing conflict in families can cause not only strife or rifts between members but also impact feelings of belongingness, feeling accepted & loved by family, and feeling pressured to conform. Regular conflict in the household can lead to lasting emotional damage for adults as well as children,” said Hena Faqurudheen, a Mental Health Professional at the Hank Nunn Institute in New Delhi.
While some people like Radhika choose to face the conflict head on, addressing and bringing up issues in hopes of changing the other person’s mind, others have taken to living double lives by ignoring the casual or blatant discrimination practised by one’s family members in order to preserve the relationship.
But this dichotomy can also take a tremendous toll on the individual. “I had long hair a couple of years back, and I faced a lot of bullying from my extended and close family. My mom said “Why is your hair so long, what’s next? Nail polish?” with all this already colouring my perspective on their biases, I don’t think I can open up to them,” said Neil*, a pan-sexual gender non-conforming person, describing the challenges one faces in being themselves in front of their families.
“Social interactions are centred around self-disclosure. The greater the self-disclosure the greater the intensity of connection we share with an individual. So, when we’re talking to a family member or actively hiding our identity for fear of being stigmatised, we tend to disclose less. This reduces the quality of the communication and directly impacts the quality of the relationship we share. When this happens with a family member or someone very close to us, it brings up tremendous feelings of inauthenticity. One may feel guilty or even responsible for the demise of the deteriorating quality of their relationships. This not only increases the likelihood of social rejection by others but also self-isolation. There is a lowering of self-confidence and consequently self-image. Self confidence lowers because the individual may have to constantly manage information about their identity, and this makes them doubt their ability to succeed in a given situation,” said Rahul Ghosh, psychologist and founder of A Light Mind Therapy, based out of Hyderabad.
There are thousands upon thousands of India’s young, who have taken to social media platforms to express similar predicaments about the pains of fighting constantly with their families, friend circles and colleagues. Adding to the inherent attitudes of prejudice is the barrage of misinformation – the doctored videos, the communally charged messages, and the misleading historical accounts that have created a formidable challenge in this pursuit of an equitable society.
The arguments, helplessness, and frustration can drain people out. While a few people retreat into their inner sanctums, some might move towards creative endeavours in order to work through their feelings, and some others find solace in seeking or building safe communities on a rock-solid foundation of similar beliefs and principles, where they can find acceptance for who they are sans the judgement. “Many seek validation and acceptance outside of the family; ‘found family’ is a common term nowadays to indicate relationships that can supplement or even supplant familial ties. Very often, members of marginalised identities (such as LGBTQ+, feminist-in-patriarchal-households, etc.) might work towards moving away from their family of origin due to the unbearable nature of the conflict,” observed Hena.
Regardless of the relief that comes with safe spaces, the dissonance caused by inexplicable emotional distance from your primary caregivers has grave impact. Hena concludes that “The first experience of the world for a person comes from the family, and such signs of familial dysfunction influences individuals facing identity conflict towards developing physical, mental and emotional health concerns. As human beings, we have a need to find connection and meaning in our bonds with others. When we fear rejection from our first experience of the world, ie. the family, we tend to conform in order to be loved and accepted. However, what does it feel like to know that we are not loved for who we truly are, but for the facade or mask we present, to be loved for who we are not? It makes us feel we are not good enough, that we might never be good enough to be loved as we are. That has a real impact on how we value ourselves, and what we think we deserve from others.”
Learning, unlearning, and living through these experiences is proving difficult for everyone, but considering the number of people who resonate with this should bring some solace to those feeling abandoned and alone. That this is a generational phenomenon remains to be studied, but there is enough prima facie evidence for one to classify this as a collective experience that countless individuals are sharing.
In the final part of this series, we will examine conflict resolution and innovative ways that industrious rebels have tried to deal with this persistent grey cloud looming over their houses, and their heads. This series is an attempt to examine, unite and possibly identify ways in which those in the same boat might be able to help each other row through this storm.
*Name changed to protect anonymity.
Lasya is the community manager at Belongg, a social venture focussed on diversity and inclusion. Shachi is an activist, writer and political consultant.