What do we mean by the term ‘relationship’? Or by its parent term ‘relation’? Does the meaning of either derive itself from concrete scientific explanation or do the terms reflect the ‘evolution of societal nomenclature’ over a period of centuries? Importantly, how flexible are the terms?

From ‘are you in a relationship’ being the question of life and death for a teenage boy chatting with a girl of his age on Internet, to ‘aakhir tumhara uske saath rishta kya hai’ being the bread and butter line of all Hindi film script-writers of yesteryears to a more universal ‘worsening of relations between the two faiths’ because of war on Iraq, we are surrounded by a stream of consciousness that has a central role for this all-encompassing entity called ‘relation’ or ‘relationship’.

Keeping aside Einstein’s theory of relativity and all things scientific, let’s think aloud about what do human relations stand for?

Oxford dictionary defines ‘relation’ as ‘the way in which one person is related / connected to another’ and ‘relationship’ as ‘state or instance of being related’. However the interesting one is the description of the   colloquial usage of the word ‘relationship’: ‘emotional (including sexual) association between two people’.

There you are – the modern, colloquial expression equates ‘relation’ with ‘emotion’; thereby reflecting the gradual, but definite, evolution of every aspect of human life, including its meaning itself.

Whether we consider human life to be a gift by God or we go by Darwin’s theory of evolution, one truth that emerges is that the early humans – of a particular geographic location – would have formed groups on the basis of both emotions and functional needs. The rugged ones would have formed a group and would have gone together for hunting and then later distributed the ‘booty’ to others. And so would have started their living together. Either by might or sheer attraction of their physicality, women would have later joined the ‘family’. Brothers, sisters, in-laws etc were not a part of the early vocabulary. Well, when there was no language itself, the question of nomenclature becomes redundant for that era  anyway.

‘Kinship’, another term for ‘relation’ in western societies, and defined as the most basic principle of organizing individuals into social groups, roles, and categories, was originally thought to be determined by biological descent. But American anthropologist David M. Schneider in his work on Symbolic Kinship (1984, A Critique of The Study of Kinship) had challenged that assumption. He had claimed that while anthropologists had founded the domain of ‘kinship’ on the notions of human reproduction and the biologically-defined-relatedness of their own Euro-American culture, human reproduction and notions of biological relatedness cannot be presumed to structure people’s social relationships in other cultural contexts.

In other words, ‘kinship’  may not stand for the same thing in different cultural contexts!

What explains the uniqueness of ‘relation’ with respect to a culture subset is ‘ Kinship terminology’. It  refers to the words used in a specific culture to describe a specific system of familial relationships. Translators usually find it impossible to translate directly the kinship terms of a society that uses one system into the language of a society that uses a different system.

What else is a relation – except and only except between parent(s) and child – but an emotion or expression of that emotion?

And yet, how many times have we heard that when the son grows big enough to wear his father’s shirts, the father should start treating the son as his friend? It is even more pronounced for women. The moment a girl hits puberty, her mother almost instantly becomes her biggest ‘friend, philosopher & guide’.

Functions change; thereby bringing a change, first in emotions and then in expression of those emotions.

For example, in Sudan, no two relatives share the same term. While in Hawaii, they classify only in terms of sex and generation. So, grandmother-grandfather, mother-father and brother-sister are the only names for everyone else in the family.

Clearly, if every woman of my parents’ generation is called ‘mother’ by me (as in Hawaii), there’s not much of biology involved there, right?

One can argue, and naturally so, that whatever might be the logic, biology is involved between me and my mother after all.

Yes there is, but unless you substitute a polar bear with a royal bengal tiger, even a mother would not be able to tell between her own two-minute old baby and some other baby of the same age and gender. So, if Kishore Kumar were replaced by Anup Kumar (if they were of the same age), both the ‘altered’ set of mother-son duo would have gone ahead with life the way they eventually did!

Often, the difference between the bond amongst ‘related people’ and strangers is measured in terms of the ‘acceptance of obligations’ – towards each other –  by the ‘related’. “The more I owe you, the greater we share” seems to be the whole idea. Is that how life was meant to be?

One thing that ‘relations’ do is add a sense of obligation between the ‘related’. So, even if giving respect to age does not come naturally to you, you give it to your parents because you ‘owe your life to them’. Considering how many old-age homes are springing up in Ahmedabad and elsewhere in the nation, one would assume that the obligation theory is not working too much, eh? Or the fact that parents / elders can still be seen living with their children / youth is actually a testimony to the strength of the ‘obligation’?

Hope that is not the case. Because if that were the only reason for living with our parents and / or ‘relatives’, then this world could hardly be expected to last too long. How far can an universally unhappy and compromised world go anyway?

I live with my parents because I like to live with them. So do you. We of course owe our life to them. And hence it is our ‘duty to look after them’. But it is not the reason for my love for them. I love them for what they stand for. Just as I would love your parents for the values that they stand for. If I can call both my parents and my wife’s parents ‘mummy and papa’, why on earth should I not call any and every elder by that name, if I feel like? I don’t owe my life to my wife’s parents. I won’t be owing my life to your parents too. But I can still see the ‘idea of mummy-papa’ in your parents. The birth of that idea of mine in your parents is what ‘emotion’ is all about.

Yes, every relation is basically about emotions that every human carries for the fellow humans. So, what’s the fuss all about?


Author. Entrepreneur. Filmmaker. Journalist.

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