Book Review

An Ode to the Family

An Indian family enjoy a stroll on Rajpath after a spell of rain as the sun sets over Rashtrapati Bhavan (Presidential Palace) in New Delhi. (Photo: Manpreet Romana / AFP-Getty Images)

One of the few living legends in the civilized world today is the great Indian family. Nowhere else in the world can one witness and be moved by the unconditional nature of parental love as in India. With a value system that is almost 3,000 years old, it is not surprising to see Indian parents striving to keep most of these time-tested traditions and ethics alive in their offspring.

Indians believe that the family is intrinsic to the development of the moral character of the young. Respecting one's elders, living peacefully within a community and giving back to the society are some of the principles ingrained in the very fabric of the society. Unlike their more detached counterparts in other parts of the world, average Indian parents still tend to invest their whole lives, in emotional and financial terms, in their children. The umbilical cord is never really severed, despite the passage of years.

Time was when this devotion was returned in ample measure, within the flourishing joint family setup. Rampant urbanization and the emergence of a young, modern middle class seek to take the sheen off this age-old institution. Although on shaky ground lately, with more young couples opting to go nuclear or migrating geographically, the phenomenon still lives up to its cliché.

Indian literature and cinema, through the ages and across the incredibly diverse regional spectrum, have held a mirror to the almost hallowed treatment of the family unit. Most of the popular soap operas on Indian television today continue to feed on the dynamics of a joint family unit, although some of them tend to go way over the top and render a rather caricatured version. The guiding principle remains the same: venerate the family over the individual and create a better tomorrow for the young.

Despite the growing tribe of cynics raising the convenient "Western influence" argument, there still exists a very strong bond within the generations, one that is not easy to dismiss. Call it a cultural offshoot, the fact is that we Indians are inherently an emotional people; family ties remain a sensitive issue across villages, small towns, and sprawling metropolises.

Against this backdrop of a thriving millennia-old value system and a generation in flux, I got the chance to go through what can easily be regarded as representative of the fascinating nature of the glue, the love, that binds an Indian family.

The Agony & Ecstasy of a Parent: A True Story (Red Lead Press, 2007, $9) by Deepak Verma is a poignant, straight from the heart account of what the author and his wife experienced as parents of an only son, Nishant, lying critically injured thousands of miles away in South Carolina. Hit by a speeding truck within the Coastal Carolina University (C.C.U.) campus while pursuing his bachelor's degree in 2003, 20-year-old Nishant lay in an I.C.U., with a severely impaired memory and a seemingly long road to recovery. His father, shattered but still clinging to hope, made the journey to meet his son and help him reclaim his life.

This 20-page account is a faithful retelling of the Vermas' life-altering experience, as well as an incisive look at relationships and how friends and absolute strangers often prove more helpful than one's relatives. The author recollects with gratitude Good Samaritans such as Neeru Behn in Conway and Sunita Behn in Myrtle Beach, who helped the author and his son unconditionally, despite being strangers. Beyond just the Indian context, the book also salutes the generosity of the American people in seeing the author through his time of crisis. The C.C.U. staff; the priest of the church that the Indian students (Nishant among them) frequented; the old American couple, the Beatys, who opened their hearts to the university students—the author remembers each friendly soul he encountered who strengthened his faith in humanity.

Told in simple and heartfelt prose, the book slips in and out of key milestone periods of the author's life, almost all of them linked to those of his son. The narrative also offers glimpses of the vibrant festivals and ceremonies that populate a typical Indian milieu. Like the river Ganges, a strong undercurrent of faith and philosophy runs through this heart-warming story, with the author and his wife's unshakeable devotion to Sai Baba and the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita surfacing at crucial moments. More than just specific texts and beliefs, there is an overwhelming optimism in the goodness of the human spirit and the oneness of humanity.

What shines through this account is the immense love the Vermas have for their son—a love that strengthens them to let go when it is time to for the sake of their child's happiness.

Deepak Verma is a forensic scientist and accredited fingerprints expert, and now also a practicing lawyer in the Delhi High Court and Central Administrative Tribunal in New Delhi. As a child, a palmist had predicted that he would write a book, a prophecy that has come uncannily true with this, his first-ever published work.

Reading this book can help young Indians, wherever they may be, reconnect with their families and appreciate the sacrifice and dedication that went into their upbringing. It might also help the rest of the world understand the Indian concept of family and thus, imbibe some of its positives toward molding a stronger global community.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Aishwarya Pillai.