Living with 23 others in one home

By Younas Chaudhary

Younas as a young boy.

When I was a young boy before and during grade school, my father moved from a city in Pakistan to a remote village, and we moved with other family members to a home called a haveli, a traditional town home surrounded by tall walls.

Very soon, I was living with 23 others, both adults and children, along with a bunch of animals, in this sprawling house built with bricks and clay. My grandmother, my uncles and their families, and my own family, each married couple had their own bedrooms and kitchens, but we all lived together in this one home, this haveli.

This haveli was built by my grandfather, the village’s original settler, so he could live in it along with his nine children. The home was self-contained—every day fresh vegetables were cut, fruit was picked, and birds and animals were slaughtered for our consumption. There was no power, no running water, and no sewer system.

Farming was our main livelihood, so at dusk, cattle, horses, sheep, and buffaloes would also join us inside the haveli, along with lots of chickens, pigeons, rabbits, and other animals. There were also several security dogs inside this home. The haveli had a main gate entrance and opened into a central courtyard that accommodated family gatherings, animal housing, a fresh water well, and a mosque all inside this large compound. My grandmother—a strong-willed and powerful woman—ruled this home along with the entire village.

Sample picture of a haveli.

As a young boy, I felt odd living in the haveli because wherever I turned, I constantly had to pay respects to my uncles, aunts, and all other elders. But later in life I realized the strength of family bonding and the importance of being part of a large family. I learned how to respect elders, how to sit properly in their presence, and other integral aspects of Pakistani culture that served me well in my later life. For instance, this sense of oneness taught me to be more patient and less self-centered. Moreover, we felt a real strength in numbers being part of such a large joint family.

There were of course a few disadvantages living with a large extended family. For instance, if someone made good chicken curry, other relatives outside their household had the freedom to visit that house and eat that chicken curry—after all, we were a joint family. Also, privacy was limited, and gossip spread fast.

My stay in the haveli did not last long, as my uncles started a power grab for the land they owned along with my father, leading to my grandmother ultimately ousting my father from the haveli. We were forced to move and to start living independently as a nuclear family in the nearby Farid Town Sahiwal.

This became a turning point in our lives, as we then got an opportunity to gain an education and other facilities from the city to move up in life.

Later, when I immigrated to Canada in the seventies, the first apartment that my wife and I took was a one-room studio that was not located in a desirable part of Edmonton. This cramped studio had just enough space for both of us, with a hide-a-bed, a small kitchen, and a bathroom. In other words, I transitioned from living in a large joint family in the village, to a nuclear family in the city, and later to a one-room studio in the West.

In subsequent years, my wife strongly advocated for the joint family lifestyle, though some perhaps consider it intrusive and believe it makes it more difficult to get along with family members. Thus, on her urging, when we moved to Houston, we purchased a big house, and she made me add additional independent units to it and build something similar to a haveli right here. Our children, even after marriage, stayed with us in that setting till mid-2014, with each family having its own privacy with separate areas in the big house. As their children became older, they started moving out into their own independent homes. Now we continue to live just minutes away from each other, though living in separate homes.

In a joint family, children get an opportunity to be with family members and learn from them as they grow up. They learn how to share, respect others, build patience, and become more practical and hands-on as they see family members share and solve their daily problems. Despite the inevitable feuds that occur from time to time, I feel that compassion, compromise, patience, empathy, hands-on involvement, and sacrifice keep a joint family together.

Further, grandparents who need the close company of their loved ones in a joint family also get to spend their golden years with their children and grandkids. This rarely happens in the West, where rugged individualism and self-centered freedom take priority over a joint family system, and grandparents get limited opportunities to engage with their children and grandkids, who are being raised in their nuclear families.

Here are few advantages of living in a joint family :

  1. Young children feel loved in the long run and learn respect and get direct support from both older relatives and those of their own age.
  2. People pitch in to share, listen, and solve family and other daily life problems.
  3. People feel that they belong and are part of a larger family unit.
  4. People feel more secure and protected.
  5. People become less self-centered and take a different perspective on life.
  6. Your children see you and how you treat your own elders, and they copy what they saw with their own eyes through time… Thus, you are able to harvest what you grow.
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The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article are my own and do not represent the opinions of any entity with which I have been, am now, or will be affiliated. Further, I make no warranty regarding the accuracy or effectiveness of my recommendations, and readers are advised to consult other advisors as well as their own judgments in making business decisions