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From the discomfort zone: Family jhanjat (mess)

No marketing book in the world has written about factoring in this kind of Indian social jhanjat for companies to get better business revenue.

Reuters Photo This stereotype social context cannot be handled with a statistical Excel sheet data. (Reuters)

“Jhanjat!” is how Akash, a 35-year-old living in Delhi, described his family living composition. He was narrating his rigmarole family life — from his joint family to nuclear family and back to the joint family which broke up eventually to become a neo-joint family with his brother’s home then turned into an extended nuclear family.

Akash’s father was in the Railways. His mother joined government service in Delhi where Akash grew up with his younger sister, brother and grandparents. Ten years ago, they arranged his marriage to Sunita, who was from a large joint family. She fitted in like a glove with his family, managing the home under directions from her mother-in-law. His sister subsequently got married and left home, while Akash’s unmarried brother started to earn. That’s when Akash’s office transferred him to Mumbai.

Initially, Sunita was extremely hesitant. Who will cook, clean and look after the joint family she was managing? Moreover, she was nervous about moving to unknown Mumbai — she had never lived alone before. What would she do when Akash travelled for work, as he frequently does? She procrastinated for a year and then joined him. Within eight months, she started enjoying her nuclear living style.

A son was born and she passed four happy years in Mumbai. When Akash was transferred back to Delhi, it was somehow obvious that they would return to Akash’s family home. In the meantime, Akash’s brother had married and his wife worked for a travel company. Akash’s father asked his first floor tenant to leave so that Akash could move in. In a few years, Akash’s brother was blessed with two children.

So theirs became a big joint family, two married brothers with wives, children, parents and grandparents all under one roof with one kitchen. Having lived independently for a while, Akash and Sunita had become used to the Mumbai lifestyle with late nights. Sunita was now pre-occupied with her child’s welfare and meeting her friends at daytime kitty parties. This seemed to upset Akash’s mother who expected the same docile service from her older, non-working daughter-in-law. The younger daughter-in-law evoked different expectations as she was career-oriented. Moreover, she had entered their home when the parents had become used to managing it without Sunita. So the younger couple lived resourcefully and displayed no untoward ways that the parents found unacceptable.

Returning home at untimely hours was starting to become the loosened hinge, especially as Akash’s brother’s wife was continuously reporting their late hours to the in-laws. A cold war developed between the two bahus (daughters-in-law), one a Mumbaiwaali with new attitude and the other exhibiting unstated superiority because of her earning ability, which put her in her in-laws’ good books. Sunita fell from grace because of her independent outlook. The two brothers were compatible, but Akash being the elder had to play the prophet’s role even though the cold war made him uneasy. The axis finally unhinged when Sunita ordered a refrigerator for their room, not the common kitchen, and took no one’s permission to do so.

Within a few days, Akash’s parents, wounded by the broken protocol, asked them to run their own kitchen. This severance started the neo-joint family — same roof, but separate kitchen. Leaving the joint family house is unimaginable, but separate kitchens are accepted nowadays. When I asked Akash why he did not move out, he paused and then frankly admitted that he wanted his disposable income. Saving on house rent was a great advantage; even Sunita did not want quit the in-laws’ house.

Later, Akash’s brother’s wife bought a personal room refrigerator too. She cleverly bought the smallest one, justifying that she needed it for the children’s milk; and so she faced no fall-out with her in-laws. Her money-saving strategy was clear: share the in-laws’ kitchen, get them as trusted baby sitters for her children and enjoy her disposable income. Ten years of this arrangement changed when she switched jobs and began to go to a far-off office. She convinced her husband to buy an apartment near her new workplace as they had enough savings to do so.

She got her in-laws’ empathy by explaining the sad necessity to move out. That started another nuclear family with both husband and wife working. So the two children alone at home would get pampered extra with material goods given by guilty parents who could not spend quality time with them. Soon, Akash’s brother’s wife brought in her aged parents to stay with them. According to Akash, it was her idea to bring her parents to stay with them, which is why she took the new job and moved far away from her husband’s joint family home.  This converted theirs into an extended nuclear family. That means that the house is run solely by the couple and where her parents have come to stay.

No marketing book in the world has written about factoring in this kind of Indian social jhanjat for companies to get better business revenue. The bone of contention in Akash’s joint family — the refrigerator — multiplied into three units.  So it’s clear that identifying the fluidity in family structures and connecting to their new needs is imperative for FMCG, white and brown goods, consumer electronics, real estate and kitchenware companies among others. India’s changing family compositions is not fiction; family splits from spats or otherwise is the way our society moves. These are real pockets of consumption.

Just consider the immense scope for product development concept to marketing: a joint family has one TV set, a neo-joint family will have more depending on the number of brothers with independent kitchens, a nuclear or extended nuclear family can have TV sets in different bedrooms. This totally non-stereotype social context cannot be handled with a statistical Excel sheet data. To get unending business growth, you as the marketer require a disruptive approach; you have to sleep amidst the market’s social breath.

Shombit Sengupta is an international creative business strategy consultant to top management.
Reach him at

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