Culture of Isolation – Urban India

Over a dinner, one weekend, a friend told me about how our urban lives have transitioned into a western culture of isolation. I completely refused to accept the isolation bit, given the fact that, in an overcrowded city like Mumbai, we are constantly surrounded by people whenever and wherever possible. She then clarified, that about 90% of households in her vicinity consisted of mostly retired elderly folk, whose children were living abroad. They visited them annually or once in two years. And it suddenly hit me, that I was in that category too since I had done that briefly, until I permanently decided to relocate to India a few years ago. At that discussion, I realized that this particular phenomenon, which I call the westernized culture of isolation, may seem like the economic boom gone awry and would call for some interesting blogging and debate if required.

So let me begin with the economic overview of what triggered this situation. As a country, we were always going to be heading upwards economically, but the trigger point was the economic liberalization in the 1990s. It was followed by a small blip with India’ nuclear weapons test in 1998 (with the trade sanctions levied) but a then VOILA! there was a re-emergence between 2003 and 2007 which saw an average GDP growth of about 9%. The growth in GDP would mean that many people, especially those born in the 70’s and beyond, experienced its benefits through various opportunities in education and careers, both in India and abroad. It gave birth to an entire species of confident young Indians, who were armed with capabilities to earn lots and lots of money, to buy homes, cars, pets, luxury products, to party hard, etc.  It all suddenly looked good and very achievable.

Who felt most ecstatic about this? Our parents! They were so  happy and proud of our achievements especially with the thought that we wouldn’t now have to struggle with the hardships of making ends meet, like they did (though what we faced in terms of our own defined ‘hardships’ could be another blog). Little did they anticipate, what was to creep up on them as a bane to this new life. What our parents did for most of their lives was essentially to PROVIDE for and SECURE their families, more often than not with no liabilities attached (loans, etc.). Therefore many parents like mine, own their homes, have enough money saved for themselves and to some measure have ensured that they have some amount saved as backup for their children as well.

So let’s look at the situation today? Most of the children have moved away, if not into their ‘privacy demanding’ nuclear lives, moved out of the country in search of a better lifestyle, leaving their parents to face their own battles.

I believe this is where economics went awry. We didn’t realize when the sound of the economic BOOM, went so loud that we were deafened to hear or recognize the voice of the unspoken word.  I didn’t realize it, until I returned back and saw my independent, well-travelled and professionally secure parents, now seem disoriented and unable to cope with their emotions.  Health issues at that age had just added to the emotional instability in their lives.

With everyone now succumbing to the same thought process, this westernized culture of isolation has now become integral to Urban India. New housing residences have situations where after living for years; neighbours are still strangers, giving rise to feelings of insecurity within spaces. Increase in crime rate is then just a natural progression. No longer do people walk into and out of neighbours houses, chatting up, celebrating festivals with neighbours, looking out for the children and the elderly of the building. Today all of these would be looked upon as allowing intrusion and providing food for gossip within the neighborhood.  ‘To each his own’ is the new age mantra.

So what does one do? With no family around…No neighbours to have your back…

In an attempt to find solutions to this problem, we implement solutions that are convenient to us (ie: have your cake and eat it too). Some of us move nearer to our parents’ homes. Some of us get our parents to uproot themselves from their stable and comfortable lives and shift abroad. Some of us find solace in making new friends and constantly engage in conversations with complete strangers (as vague as that sounds, social media is witness to the fact that we have 500+ friends online but don’t care to befriend our neighbours) . Whether all of these are mechanisms employed to get rid of our own feelings of guilt or just merely cope with an unsolvable circumstance, is best known only to the person involved.

Whether this westernized culture of isolation works positively for Urban India in the future, we will have to wait and watch. We are at a stage of trying to change the thought process of a generation that finds joy in the simplest acts of cooking for their children, correcting them and constantly caring about them (age no bar). Will it work? Is that even possible?

It may work though, for our generation, which can balance between the essentials of family bonding while adapting to the new found culture of privacy.

Who knows?


By Malaika Fernandes Image


Read it; not sure of what the author was trying to say. Just a bunch of stats and observations, without a clear perspective. Nuclearization and isolation are by products of urbanization and development. Feeling conflicted about change or progress or blaming ‘western’ societies is wimpy. By the way ‘western’ societies are far more mature when it comes to familial relations than what is happening in India. It’s as if we are stuck in a time warp; holding allusions of being Shravan without breaking out of the mould of what is in it for me? – Baburaj Neelkanthan

good article, but not completely accurate interpretation…. Well it is the author’s perspective of course…………. If one were to look at the current generation, 90+ % of families are having both partner’s work. Many times husband and wives pass each other like ships at a sea port. We don’t get quality times with our kids either………….. We are challenged more in India since we never developed an infrastructure to support this situation. Not that the rest of the world are doing much better. Problem is real, have not found real solutions that satisfies allSantosh Gopinathan

3 thoughts on “Culture of Isolation – Urban India

  1. Good article. A friend of mine is facing the same situation. His mother is in Mumbai all alone now. Only communication is via telephone or some images which I print and take over to her. Meetings happen once in 3 years.

  2. I am not sure about, first, whether it is a “western phenomenon” and secondly the blog has ignored the profligacy of technology into the lives of people living in the cities. Most of the Indian cities are a cauldron of immigrants from different cities in the country. It takes time for them to find an anchor in any city (generally a self owned house) and till then they keep on shifting from one rented place to another (prevents them from really bonding with their neighbors etc). Also the country is culturally so different that even people of the same religion find it difficult to interact with his/her neighbor who might be from a different state. The phenomenon highlighted is not so prevalent in smaller cities, where hanging out with neighbors, extended family etc. is still quite the norm (Even in bigger cities, if the larger family is rooted there, one does see considerable involvement).”Culture of Isolation” is prevalent in our bigger cities and the economic boom and technology has contributed vastly to the phenomenon, but one does see a parallel movement of moving back to the roots happening especially in the generation born in the mid eighties. In short, the phenomenon is more prevalent where the populace has moved base (immigrated) either in this generation or in the previous.

  3. Perhaps, the culture of isolation as dreaded it sounds might have born out of our want to live our lives our way. living with parents does pose enormous challenges of its own purely owing to ideological differences as parents are more concerned about what society thinks and most of us are more on the pursuit of being individualistic. Although staying apart is never a solution by choice, it might have helped in healthier relationships between the two entities concerned. Without taking anything away from your observation, merely reflecting an alternative way of looking at is well.

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