This Is My Family: the Neighbors Who Became Parents
“My neighbors have never let me miss my parents. I want to pay them back in the best way possible.”
In This Is My Family, we explore alternative family structures and the institution of marriage in India.
I lost my parents in a car accident when I was 10. I wasn’t with them, I was home with my grandmother because they were going to attend a funeral. I remember my mother telling me kids don’t go to funerals. A day later, I was at theirs.
After them, the only person I had was my grandmother. Now that I’m 22 and growing up, I have realized that she never really came to terms with the loss, but put up a brave face just for me anyway — my father was her only child. I had already lost my maternal grandparents and couldn’t expect any support from that side of the family. I have an uncle, my mother’s brother, who did offer to take care of me, but my grandmother said she’d be left alone. So, we thought it was best that I grew up with her around, and of course, I became her world.
One day, our neighbor came home. She said to my grandmother that as my father’s rakhi sister, it was time to pay back and play the role of a sister. My grandmother didn’t understand what she was trying to say. She thought it was just another neighbor trying to be nice in times of grief. But aunty was offering to do much more than that: to take care of us financially and extend her family to accommodate us. Obviously, my grandmother refused. But she couldn’t win. She told them they couldn’t pay for everything — they also had to use her pension money and the money she made by taking tuition classes. With these two sources of income, we were living a very basic life, but with our neighbors’ contribution, we could restore many aspects of the lifestyle we were living when my parents were around. Since then, aunty and uncle are my mamma and papa.
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They’ve taken care of us like we were their own family living in another house. Their children are like my siblings. And since both aunty and uncle lost their mothers, my grandmother is like their mother. They have celebrated all my birthdays, taken us out for dinner, movies, and everywhere else they would otherwise go as a family. I’m supposed to help around the house like their own children are, and if aunty and uncle need to attend a function or official events, my grandmother takes care of their children. We recently even went on a trip to Nainital together, and since childhood, we’ve been going on many such vacations. Many times, they’ve even canceled vacations on account of my grandmother’s health.
My grandmother was most touched when, for their son’s naming ceremony, they told her to do all the poojas because she was the eldest in the house.
Aunty has always attended my parent-teacher meetings in school; she even ensured that I shift to the school her children study in so it became easier for her to manage. She knew I was weak at science, so she found a tuition teacher for me, and for my board exams, she ensured that I have all the support I needed. There have been times when she’s also taken days off from work to help me with studies, or when my grandmother has been ill, and I often wonder what is it that makes her want to do so much for people who aren’t even related. She doesn’t have an answer for that — she says my parents were the nicest people she’s met with. Apparently, my mother helped her out a lot in settling down after aunty had just been married and had come to this house. She says my mother was always around like an older sister.
My neighbors even wanted to shift to a bigger house and when they asked us to shift in, it was too big a favor for my grandmother to take. She didn’t stop them from moving, but she refused to move homes. They were disappointed, but they said they wouldn’t move as well. It was a huge decision on their part, but they said leaving us alone when I was in my crucial years at college and with my grandmother dealing with ill health, it wouldn’t be a wise thing to do. Since then, they’ve never brought that topic up; we’ve all carried on with our lives, and today, they are helping me with funds to go abroad. While my grandmother is also paying a part of the sum, aunty is contributing a huge amount and the rest is being covered by my scholarship. I owe them my life, I am going to study very hard and can’t wait for them to attend my graduation day because they’ve done a lot more than my own parents or family could. They’ve never let me miss my parents. I want to pay them back in the best way possible.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. As told to Anubhuti Matta.
Anubhuti Matta is an associate editor with The Swaddle. When not at work, she's busy pursuing kathak, reading books on and by women in the Middle East or making dresses out of Indian prints.