Building Block of Joint Family ~ Lalitha & Mahaveerchand Bhandari

by on January 5, 2016

What does it take to keep a joint family together? Is it easy to create a sense of space as well as togetherness? How does one foster interdependence as well as dependability among the family members? Is it about sacrifice? Adjustment? Is it about an iron rule or being able to accommodate everyone’s needs? As I chatted with Mahaveerchandji Bhandari (72) and his lovely wife Lalitha (66), an Oswal Rajasthani couple from Chennai, the clues for a happy and healthy joint family started emerging.


As they said, “The idea of a joint family is to foster a sense of ‘us’ rather than ‘me’ or my family”. They were honest and open about sharing their experiences as well as life tips. Their love and respect for each other shone through the conversation and I sat there, riveted, enjoying the warm hospitality at their beautiful home in Chennai.


Lalitha & Mahaveerchand Bhandari

Namaste. To begin with, is it true that at one time, you have lived with 50 family members under one roof?

Mahaveer: 52, to be exact. All of us lived at our ancestral home in Mint Street, known as the Bhandari Building. My grandfather, Mangichandji Bhandari was the head of the family. Actually, there were three houses adjacent to each other which were interconnected and treated as one large house.


I wonder, how was the housework divided?

Lalitha: My mother-in-law as well as my husband’s aunt allotted the work between the daughters-in-law and the other members. It was extremely systematic and all of us easily abided by it.


Was it the womenfolk who did the cooking?

She: We were married in 1965. I was sixteen at that time and did not know much cooking. With the help of the elders, I slowly found my way around the kitchen. We always had a cook. In fact, when he went for his annual one-month holiday, my mother-in-law appointed a substitute in his absence.

He: Our main cook, Hobaji, has served this family for five generations. From my grandfather up to my own grandchildren. He was like a family member.
She: He prepared very delicious food. He made ‘baatiya’ which are thick parathas roasted in ghee. His ‘besan ki poori’ – a thick roti with gram flour filling – was much appreciated by guests.


Lalithaji, do you remember the first time you cooked an independent meal after your marriage?
She: In 1986, I think! That year, when the cook went for his vacation, I told my mother-in-law that we could easily manage since we were a much smaller family then. The family division had just taken place. As long as we were all together, we helped in the kitchen with the chopping and the serving while Hobaji did the main cooking.
He: There was a strict rule about vegetables. All chopping and washing of vegetables was done by the women folk only.
She: Yes, to this day. My mother-in-law said that it has to be done very carefully. For instance, lady’s finger and leafy vegetables often have worms. So we paid great attention to this task. After cleaning greens, we would sieve them before washing.


Sieve! Why would you sieve greens?

She: So that if there were any worms, they would fall down through the sieve. Also, most of the mud and grit also got sieved. My mother-in-law really taught all of us how to maintain cleanliness in every aspect of life.
Asha (daughter): Attention to detail – my grandma and now my mother really have this quality. So is my father. He also has a keen sense of taste and is a food expert. He can effortlessly tell who has cooked a certain dish – whether it is cooked by my bhabhis or my mother or me!


Mahaveer-sa, from whom did you inherit this penchant for taste?

She: He has always been interested. Coming to think of it, his father was also a very good ‘paarkhi’ (meaning judge) of good food. In this house, there has never been a compromise on taste.
He: I think cooking is an art. But it is also an intuition. If you are truly interested, you can experiment effortlessly. We have also grown up in a family where good food and taste have always been considered important. Food definitely binds a family together.
She: For us, ‘maan-manuhaar’ (meaning hospitality) is very important. We love it when all our near and dear ones come over for a meal. We manage parties and get-together of about sixty people at home itself. We have large family and friend circles. Festivals are an occasion to celebrate together.


What are the favourite dishes you prepare for guests?

Mamta (daughter-in-law): It depends. If it is a festival such as Bhaidooj or Diwali, then we make traditional dishes such as ‘kheech’ and ‘dal baati’. Otherwise we enjoy doing chaat parties. On other occasions, we like mixed menus such as two salads, tarts and one traditional dish.


Mouth-watering! But tell me, with many people around, whom does one turn to for anything?

He: At a personal level, if I wanted something, the link was my mother and grandmother. We never approached father directly. Once I told her, my mother would decide whether she must consult my father. Sometimes, if it was a money issue, she would simply inform the Munimji (accountant) and he would do the needful.
She: This practice has continued. If the children want something, they will not approach their father. They will come and ask me. In fact, let me share a small incident. When my sons got married, their wives wanted to wear salwar kameez at home instead of sarees. But my mother-in-law was alive then and hence I refused because I knew she would not like it at all. A couple of months after she passed away, I spoke with my husband about this. He was initially hesitant, but when I explained to him, he agreed. I told him that since my sons and their wives had listened to me previously, I must be broad-minded and grant them their wish.
He: Let me tell you honestly. She is the binding force in our family even now. She is in touch with everyone and is always ready to help. She is from the Marlecha family which is known for their warmth and hospitality. Her mother, Mangikawar Marlecha is one of the warmest human beings I have ever met. In both our families, caring and sharing are foremost values of life. At this time, when Chennai has been badly hit by floods, my wife has ensured help for many of our relatives and friends who are in trouble. Many have come home and stayed with us until the water level in their area receded.
Asha (daughter): Mummy really keeps in touch with everyone. Her PRO is a class apart.
He: I can claim confidently that all the members of our large extended family is just a call away. Sons and daughters and nephews and nieces, and their spouses, we keep in touch. We meet regularly for family get-togethers and that helps even the youngsters to know each other.


That’s wonderful. So apart from caring, is it financial comfort which allows people to stay together?

He: Wealth is important, but it is not the key factor. When I look back, I think the most important quality is impartiality. As long as the elders treat the youngsters equally, there will be very little reason for friction. My grandparents and then my parents never favoured anyone. The same rules applied to everyone.
She: Even now, when we get something at home, we get it for everyone. We have two sons Naveen and Nitesh, and their wives Mamta and Arpana. Our daughter, Asha, married to Pradeep Chordia, also lives nearby. Whenever we gift something to one of them, such as a jewel, we do the same for others.
He: I remember the first time I sought permission to travel to Europe on a holiday with our Rajasthani club in 1983. My grandfather simply said – If you want to go, then you must go with one of your cousins and their wives from each family. No partiality! Even though it cost a small fortune, three couples from the family went on that holiday.


Wow! Incredible. Now tell me, to what extent do rules work when there are many people with many views?

He: Let’s make a segment between pre-marriage and post-marriage. Before the children get married, they have to abide by some restrictions. We have to watch over them closely – what they are doing, their whereabouts and what kind of friends they are making. But after marriage, they gradually become more responsible. After that, parental supervision continues but in an unspoken way. It is an important passage from adolescent to adulthood. Discipline and freedom have to be balanced.
Renu Chordia (cousin sister): Our relationships and bonds have simply grown stronger over the years. Even though everyone is not living together now under the same roof, we are very close. I think it is wonderful to grow up not knowing the difference between siblings and cousins.


I would like to ask your grandchildren. What is the advantage of being in a joint family?

Akshita (grand-daughter): I am pursuing MBBS in Chennai. In my class, I am perhaps the only one who belongs to a joint family. I think it’s the best thing in my life. To have everyone around you, especially grandparents, to know they are all there for you is a great feeling.
Mamta (daughter-in-law): I truly believe that the kind of bonding that children grow up within a joint family makes them better human beings. They learn to care and share, and to listen.


What about restrictions?

Akshita: There are no restrictions. I am free to do anything and I know my limits. I have to inform them, that’s it.


What do you think makes them trust you?

Akshita: I think it is because I first listen to them. Once you listen, then they are also willing to listen to you. That’s how it grows. You have your point of view and when you listen to their point of view, you can then arrive at the right decision. It helps.
Photo Courtesy: Harmony Magazine


Part-2 of this post is the recipe of Pachrangi Sabzi, a simple and sumptuous recipe from the Bhandari kitchen. Also enjoy the recipe of Pachrangi Achaar, an instant vegetable pickle.
First published in ‘Heart to Hearth’ – a column in Harmony Celebrate Age magazine. A series about elders who believe in nurturing the body and mind as the key to joy.


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