A household of 95 kinfolk - and four bathrooms

Meet the Samanta family, all 95 of them, living under one roof.

Granted, it's a big roof, with a four-story building underneath - and one bathroom per floor.

But even Indian experts say the Samanta family is unusual. In fact, they may be the largest "joint family" in India.

Like most families of this communal type, the Samantas eat from one kitchen, contribute their total salaries to a family fund, and never, ever have trouble finding a babysitter.

Not that they get out much. Their family constitution forbids family members from spending evenings out.

In a generation that focuses on "me," the Samanta family cast a collective vote, emphatically, for "we."

"With a joint family, you can't maintain it without idealism," says Anukul Samanta, family spokesman and head of the family company, A.B. Composites, which manufactures jute and fiberglass products and employs several hundred people.

In an interview at the Samanta's spacious home, poetically called "the Garden of People," he says: "If you are doing it just for the sake of maintaining a joint family, then it will fall apart. But if it is to help the needy people [through donations to charity], then it is possible."

In India, the practice of joint families dates back thousands of years. Today, they are typically middle class, and usually comprise some 15 to 20 people. Several generations of an extended family live together and jointly share their finances and familial duties. The word of elders is law. Sons obey their fathers, and often work for the family firm. Daughters and wives obey the chief matriarch, and struggle to find their place in a world where they will often be treated as children. All salaries go into a central pool, with each family unit receiving an allowance.

All this might seem like the ingredients for a fabulous prime-time drama series. It is. The top-rated TV program - ahead of the Indian version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" - is a two-hankie Hindi-language drama called "Kyonki Saas Bhi Kabhiee Bahu Thi," or "Because the Mother-in-Law Was Also Once a Daughter-in-Law."

At a time when the more compact, Westernized nuclear family is taking hold in cities around the world, many Indians could be forgiven if they considered the traditional Indian joint family to be something of a museum piece.

Small wonder. Setting aside individual desires for the good of the family sounds rather quaint when the next guy is elbowing his way into the brave new world of the global marketplace.

Yet somehow, the joint family lives on here, sometimes in crowded homes like the Samantas, and sometimes just in the aspirations of Indians.

"Deep down, most Indians cherish the idea of a joint family, but they can't manage it themselves. It's too tough," says Dipankar Gupta, an anthropologist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "Greater mobility is putting strains on the joint family because people have greater opportunity to move around in search of jobs. But at the same time, when the opportunity arises, you'll find people moving into a joint family arrangement for the simple fact that it works."

For all its potential for inhibiting personal freedom, the joint family has some distinct economic and psychological advantages, experts say.

Women, who are expected to take on the traditional role of housewives, can share the burden of housework, from cooking to cleaning to child-rearing. Siblings can pool their resources for major expenses, such as hospital bills or even college tuition. Older family members live out their lives in dignity and security, knowing that family members are there in times of need.

In addition, the family is able to donate money to improve the lives of impoverished people elsewhere, providing drinking water, roads, basic education, and medical facilities in rural areas.

"If you can pool what you have, you are in a position to enjoy a higher standard of living than you could if you live separately," says T.K. Oommen, a sociologist at Jawaharlal Nehru University. "Interestingly, capitalism has a vested interest in creating nuclear households, because each of the family units will have their own TV, refrigerator, etc. In a large joint family, the family may still have three refrigerators, but that will be in place of, say, 30."

Somehow, the Samanta family in Kolkata (as Calcutta now calls itself) makes do with just one fridge. That's because the head of the kitchen, Prativa Samanta, cooks everything fresh, every day.

Her daily grocery list reads like an invoice for a mid-size restaurant: 33 pounds of potatoes, 26 pounds of rice, 13 pounds of fish, 22 pounds of chicken, 18 pounds of wheat flour for chapatis, two pounds of lentils, and 2-1/2 gallons of milk. And to cook it all, one cylinder of propane gas for the four kitchen stoves.

"I'm very happy with this arrangement," says Mrs. Samanta, mopping her forehead in the large kitchen. "When there is no work, I don't feel good. But when guests are coming, I feel proud." Understandably, the kitchen runs constantly from five in the morning until midnight, with various female members taking shifts.

Even the family matriarch, 98-year-old Sonamoni Samanta, takes part, peeling pounds of potatoes each morning.

Special occasions such as birthdays and anniversaries demand special food, and in a family of 95 members, special occasions happen nearly every week. Following Samanta family custom, nobody eats outside at restaurants, and if some of the men want to play cards with friends, they are required to bring the friends home.

But what about quarrels?

"There are no quarrels in this home," insists Munmun Samanta, stirring a frying pan full of fragrant onion curry. "If anyone quarrels, they have to forget it right away."

For his part, Anukul Samanta, the family spokesman, says there's more to life than getting ahead, or getting your way. "What do we want in life? More and more and more. But that will not give you peace. You must reduce your desires, and you should be willing to sacrifice mutually, physically, and economically."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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