Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Language Stories (part 1): Why I simultaneously have millions of cousins and no cousins at all

On Friday, I partook in a surprise performance for my cousin’s wedding celebrations. Another cousin, a professional dancer, put together a routine that my entire family – imagine a lot of Homer-Simpson-sized bellies and one eighty-something-year-old grandma – attempted to follow. It was totally Bollywood (through beer goggles), and made me realise my family, and all families to an extent, are really, really weird.

We’ve called ourselves Tribe Shah since I can remember, and there seem to be an endless number of us.  There is no doubt that I’m from a close-knit family, but I still always struggle to describe what I mean by ‘close’ to my English friends. I don’t know what half of my family do for a living (and I don’t care either), I don’t know what their favourite colours are, but I do know that every single one of them would drive out of their way to collect me if I was stranded somewhere. And I’m talking extended family here: the partners of my dad’s cousins and further. Except I don’t think of these people as ‘extended’ at all.

In Gujarati, at least in the cobbled together dialect that I’ve learnt (which includes a lot of slang, some random Swahili words, English words said in an Indian accent, and a bunch of totally made-up words), there is no word for cousin. I call all of my cousins bhai or ben, which translate to 'brother' or 'sister'. The same goes for my parents’ cousins – I refer to them all as though they’re my mum and dad’s actual siblings. The surrogate ‘auntie’ or ‘uncle’ is a figure who appears in a lot of families – I’m certainly not unusual in the fact that I call my mum’s best friends ‘auntie’, but it’s not quite so simple in our's…

Conversely to the idea that all cousins, no matter how they are related to you, become siblings, the generic words ‘auntie’ and ‘uncle’ only tend to be used for those who are close, but not technically related either by blood or through marriage.  For everyone else, there are very specific words to describe the relation. If a friend tells me that she’s going to her masi’s birthday party, for example, I know immediately that she’s talking about her mum’s sister. Gujarati is my first language, and this means that I have always known exactly how every single person in my tribe is directly connected to me. I don’t need to know what they do in their free time; I just need to know that they’re mine. Just as the world stops seeming so big and unfamiliar to a child who has the words to describe the things around them, my family doesn’t seem so large and sprawling when I know exactly who everyone is.

I do have some bens who I would consider to be friends, but that’s an added bonus. I am close to them in two ways, rather than in one. Family – or lack thereof – plays a huge factor in defining who a person, or character, is, perhaps just as much as gender, or race, or culture.  It’s a word that has no definite meaning, that shrinks and stretches depending on how each individual interprets it, that summons up different feelings for different people at different times. I’m not saying language is enough to create a strong, close-knit family, but it has certainly made the people in mine more than strangers.  I hate them sometimes, but I’m lucky to have them.

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