Not an Ordinary Joint Family: The European Union and the Crux of its Problems

ambuja“भैया ये दीवार टूटती क्यों नही?” said one brother to the other in the Indian joint family from the famous Ambuja Cement ad. And then the voiceover replies, “टूटेगी कैसे? ये अम्बुजा सीमेंट से बनी है.” I had heard that this ad was popular with the English players whenever Dravid used to come out to bat during the recent Test series. But that was for the Great Indian Wall of Cricket. It is not the same with walls in joint families. They keep on coming up and going down.

There used to be the old Indian joint family many years ago which had no walls. All brothers and their wives and children used to live in the same big house with no major walls separating them, and led by the great patriarch and matriarch. It worked in a lot of cases because most brothers were involved in the family business and hence shared the profits as well as the losses, the good times and the bad. Occasionally a brother turned out to be a good-for-nothing, and the joint family took care of him and his family. Not necessarily the best thing to do, but that’s how it was. If things took a turn for the worse, in cases of family honor specially, very rarely the good-for-nothing brother was thrown out! And then over time with individual families within the joint family, the walls kept coming up, growing into different houses, different businesses. Everyone had to earn their own bread and manage themselves, as the joint family dissipated.

Well this was what my broker Jigneshbhai was trying to explain to my South Indian friend Swami the other day. As usual, Swami was perturbed that ‘global turmoil’ was messing up with his investments. As if the Sub-prime crisis and US Debt problems and rating downgrades were not enough, he was now being told that some new beast called the European debt crisis had come up. And Jigneshbhai was insisting that this was because of the European joint family. “Don’t joke here”, said Swami. “This is about money, not family.” “That’s the problem. The Europeans mixed up family with money. In India, people are moving from joint to nuclear, and the Europeans moved from nuclear to joint!”, insisted Jigneshbhai.

Unable to understand, Swami kept staring at me, wondering what kind of financial adviser I had recommended to him. “Look Swami – a few years back, Europe was a continent with different countries running on their own, like our own nuclear family. Each of them had their own incomes, their own budgets, their own savings. And then they decided, we stay so close to each other – so why not allow free trade, free movement of people. Till that point it was fine! That prevented wars, you know – they had a history of fighting each other. Once people met, worked and mingled, they felt better about each other.”

It is great to listen to Jigneshbhai when he gets into this ‘ज्ञानी’ mood. So I listened, and so did Swami, albeit with his usual confused look. Jigneshbhai continued. “But then they decided to mixed their finances with proximity, and said let us give up our currencies, and have a common one. That brought all the walls down, and everyone thought they had become one big joint family. But that was not really the case, because there were big brothers and small brothers in it.”

“So now are they fighting?” asked Swami.

“Not fighting wars, but it is not very different. One brother is doing well, and says why should I pay for that good-for-nothing, and that fellow says if you don’t give me money, I will bring the family down. Unfortunately, it is not an ordinary joint family. There is no patriarch as such who can clamp everyone down, or throw a good-for-nothing out. And you know how it becomes then – like our  TV serials. That’s why I said, the problem is the European joint family.”

Good to hear this, thought Swami. It is not just Indians who have family problems. He was just going to ask a ‘सास बहू’ type question, but remembered his investments. His confusion was still not clear. So he asked, “Boss, so when is this family drama ending, and what does this all have to do with my investments?”

Smiling, Jigneshbhai replied, “Nothing. Family problems don’t get sorted out so soon. And Europe is not just another ordinary joint family. So if you have the courage and the money, keep investing. Your family will, later, thank you for it.”

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