Is blood always thicker than water?

By Nandita Das

Nandita Das
As a little girl, I remember when I got into a playful brawl with a friend and ran to my father for sympathy, often I got a gentle scolding and my opponent a gentle apology. If that weren't the norm, I would not have felt bad then, and would not have remembered it now. As a child I often felt that my friends were fortunate to have more caring parents who took their side and made them feel secure. But only in later years did I realise the merit of values such as—a wrong cannot become a right just because a family member commits it. 

We hear about blood being thicker than water and how family, a fundamental unit of society, is more sacred than any other relationship. But my own value system is somewhat at odds with this philosophy. As children, my brother and I, freely questioned, argued, and disagreed with our parents, and over the years formed ties beyond blood that were deep and precious. I have to say, some questions at large continue to niggle at me. Why do we find it necessary to publicly uphold our family, even when we privately have fundamental disagreements? Why do we more easily sacrifice friends for family, when push comes to shove? Can merit not be the criteria for evaluating family members or is that blasphemy? Can they not also be seen as people we choose to be or not to be with? A disclaimer: lest I be misunderstood, I love my family and they love me, too!

A few years ago, I remember watching Feroz Abbas Khan's film Gandhi, My Father. For those of you who may not know the plot, it is about Gandhi, the Father of the Nation, for whom Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the world is my family) was a deeper dharma than the one towards his immediate family. His son, Harilal, for whom his father's neglect was painful and unpardonable, strangely walked away with more sympathy. Most people thought it to be unfair to neglect one's family, even for the larger good. Charity begins at home is not an uncommon or challenged phrase. But I distinctly remember feeling deeply troubled by this reaction and wanted Gandhi himself to explain his noble philosophy! Not that he would have found it necessary!

More a social norm, but before a person gets married, it's his/her parents and siblings that constitute the family, but once the knot is tied, things change. Of course, this is more so in the case of women, who leave their home, their parents and instantly acquire their spouses' family, including their last name. I recently thought of all this when a friend said, “Family is the most justified form of selfishness.” This came out in the context of sharing his everyday struggle in the crowded Mumbai local. He often courteously sacrifices his seat to the woman standing close by. Of course, she happily takes it, but the minute the seat next to her gets vacant, she calls out for her husband or relative, who is standing a little away, instead of offering it to the person who just gave her the seat! What fascinated him more was that nobody thought there was anything strange about it. It seemed a completely legitimate thing to do!

But not all is lost, as it is clear that over the past century, as ideas about equality have spread, human circles of empathy have also expanded. Today when a natural calamity strikes, it is not uncommon for societies in one side of the planet to both emotionally and materially connect with the other side. So the circle of empathy has expanded from family to nations across the globe. Of course, all of this happens unevenly and not universally and still too little. Wouldn't it be amazing if we hastened the process, at least in our lives? And expanded our hearts beyond the family to create a more just, ethical and unbiased world? I know my family will not take this piece amiss and knowing them, will smile!

NOTE— Nandita Das is an award-winning Indian film actress and director.

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  1. I can related many common thoughts of this article to Tibetans. No matter what family background you have, arguements and disagreements are always there but we uphold the family bonding to such a level that any situations in life cannot break the relationship.

  2. Many of the tcv students will agree with this, I guess