Tell me a fun fact about yourself?
I initially came across this question when I was filling out my university applications. Now, I hear it regularly when I apply for internships, and I am certain that when I begin applying for jobs, it’ll be one of the first things I am asked.
On face value, it isn’t a very difficult question, especially for someone like me who enjoys talking about himself, but I was stumped. One of the biggest pressures that came with a university application was standing out; answering this question with something unexpected would definitely help in that endeavor. It took me a few days, but eventually, I settled on: “I come from a 150-person, joint family.” A joint family is one in which numerous different relatives including, but not limited to, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins “are considered as a single unit living in one house.”
Whenever I say this in conversation (as opposed to writing it on an application), I quickly follow up with, “And yes, I know everybody’s name.” It works like a charm and leads to some interesting exchanges. But it also serves as a reminder that the joint family concept is still alien to many in this country, because if I had said the same to someone in India, it wouldn’t elicit the same reaction.
I’m not here to compare family culture in the United States and in other cultures around the world. I believe there are drawbacks and benefits to both, and more importantly, I don’t think the ideas that family stands for — love, support, togetherness — discriminate between countries. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but think about how grateful I am for my family when I rewatched “Encanto” last week, because I am positive that there has never been a better advert for the joys of living in a joint family than Disney’s latest blockbuster. In “Encanto,” the Madrigal family is blessed with fantastical powers that range from controlling the weather to looking into the future. Barring these supernatural gifts, however, I found that my family was not too dissimilar from the Madrigals, and I would like to tell you about them. Without further ado, I present to you: The SK family.
Just like the Madrigals, my family migrated to a new city and ushered in a new era of success from their humble casita. My great-great-grandfather and his brother would begin a family business — which still stands to this day — in an India still under British rule, while also building a school in their community as a way of giving back, just like the Madrigals do in “Encanto.” Over the years, their children and their children’s children would help the family grow. While each new member was encouraged to bring their own personality and unique point of view to the table, they were also taught to live by the values of the family: treating others and your own with kindness and respect. They would grow up in an environment that gave them the best chance to succeed in the outside world but also with the assurance that whenever things got too tough, there would also be an immovable force to fall back on.
By the time I was born, we’d mastered the art of the joint family. Showing love and appreciation towards my relatives, whom I’d meet regularly, became second nature. Like Mirabel’s opening ballad, “The Family Madrigal,” I realized that the best way to coexist was to allow everyone to be themselves and not to focus on but to understand each other’s flaws. Looking back, I can’t think of a better platform to become the best version of myself than the one my family provided. I was surrounded by role models everywhere I looked, each of whom I was tied to by the memories and experiences we shared. Their unwavering support instilled in me the confidence and belief every child needs to realize their potential. And in a foreign country, halfway across the world, their unconditional love and affection is what gives me the will to keep going and make them proud.
Now, by no means am I saying that you need a 150-person family to have what I have. If we’re being honest, sometimes just one person, blood relative or not, can be enough. But how amazing would it be if a joint family were readily available? Joint families are an endangered species, even back in India, and if they cease to exist, I believe it would be a great loss to the world. Don’t get me wrong, joint families are far from perfect. Just as we see in “Encanto,” there are often cracks in what looks like a solid foundation. With a big family name comes the expectation to uphold the values it stands for. There come unwritten, and often archaic, rules that are tedious to follow, and seemingly never-ending social commitments that are mentally and physically draining. And with the sheer number of people, there are invariably a couple of black sheep — the Brunos.
There were times when I doubted myself. As the only Gen-Z member of the family, I didn’t always feel like I fit in with the rest. I felt like with every small mistake, I was disappointing a lot of people. However, as the Madrigals showed us in “Encanto,” if you have a family like mine, you can always count on them to do the right thing, because once I opened up about how I felt, things changed for the better. In a world where it can be extremely difficult to find something permanent, something that you can trust, a family that’s always behind you no matter what is priceless.
No matter how many fantastical and magical elements they add to their movie, “Encanto” and the Madrigal family aren’t all that fictional. They exist — and this 19-year-old kid from Mumbai owes everything to them because he knows that he wouldn’t be half the man he is today if it weren’t for them.
Rushabh Shah is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.