The Family Saga: A Universal Theme

In my younger, greener, salad days, I used to be less enthused about books, shows, or movies that were a long family saga, with the complications that come with long drawn-out relationships. I was an only child who grew up far away from relatives, and so it wasn’t as interesting to me. Wasn’t it more fascinating to have different characters who were unrelated? And yet, like so many book-loving girls, I had adored Little Women and the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and earlier, children’s books like the Frances series about a little badger with quite an attitude. Now, my current writing project is a retelling of a classic novel which is–though usually considered to be a romance–truly a family saga. What makes family dramas universal?

A large ensemble of characters that we follow overtime is key to this format. While the author or camera might focus primarily on one or two of them, having a variety of characters to choose from helps keep things interesting. “Everybody Loves Raymond” was a show, as the title suggests, about Ray Barone, but we also followed the ups and downs of the other characters, such as his brother Robert and his love life. Once married to Amy, we got another family added into the mix that made things even more funny–the combination of Fred Willard and Georgia Engel as Amy’s parents was a stroke of genius on the part of the casting director. In literature, I don’t think anyone could neglect mentioning Tolstoy, who juggled an encyclopedic cast of characters so skillfully in his epics War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Take that to another level with the current global favorite, My Brilliant Friend (which I’m currently enjoying): it is a saga of multiple families whose lives intertwined in postwar Naples. It is not, however, just one novel–it is the first in a tetralogy, which goes to show how much richness can be mined from this theme. In opera, we have The Marriage of Figaro with its high-low social class reversals and romantic intrigue in the members of the Count’s household. And this is all before we find out who Figaro’s mother is!

Family sagas also give us a longitudinal study, so to speak, of a character or characters over time. How do their relationships change and grow or dissolve? What kinds of sibling alliances form? Or do they not get along at all? Is there an uncle who usurps the family power, much to the chagrin of the nephew (hint: Shakespeare)? Is there a missing parent whose absence is equally an important piece of the equation? The brilliant, understated Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge (and its slightly-weaker sequel, Mr. Bridge) captures the trajectory of a suburban woman in St. Louis between the wars and her relationships with her children. For those of us who grew up with “The Cosby Show,” we got to see Sondra marry Elvin and have twins, Denise go off to college and then to Africa, and even little Rudy grow up. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is not only about Midge Maisel’s standup career, but also her highly educated Jewish family and fractured relationship with her ex-husband and his family.

Family sagas also give us a degree of relatability. We can identify with one or more of the characters, see that we are being treated unjustly or how we are treating someone who is irritating us. The power of literature always helps us understand our world and other people, giving us a bird’s-eye view that we cannot see ourselves.

That I should have neglected this genre is especially foolish in light of the fact that the most holy Hindu book is a family saga: The Mahabharata. Tolstoyan in its scope, it is the story in the form of an epic poem of two families of cousins who are fighting over the throne. Naturally, this has been filmed in different versions for television as well as the cinema; all of Hindu India was engrossed in it in the late 80s, and it has been shown again during the lockdown. British director and playwright Peter Brook co-authored a play on The Mahabharata that was itself made into a movie. But Hinduism is not the only religion to feature family stories as part of its mythology or teachings: it is almost needless to say the Old Testament is full of them. Great mythologies of the world often feature families and nobility. Even today, we are intrigued by these types of stories–consider the success of “Downton Abbey” and our obsession with the British royal family.

The word family is fraught with so much emotion that it cannot help but be an ideal subject for literature. We all have family stories we tell, be they funny, frustrated, or infuriating. Family stories can be comic or tragic, or anything in between. Perhaps the late Erma Bombeck said it best in the title of a book: Family–The Ties that Bind…and Gag!

Science and Unreason: Richard Dawkins

This week, I had the opportunity to see renowned British scientist Richard Dawkins speak as part of his new book tour (his book is aimed at children and teens, and is quite creative and appealing). Dawkins is one of the most prominent thinkers in 20th-21 first century biology and natural sciences, and certainly, his contribution is indeed remarkable. But Dawkins is notoriously pro-science and anti-religion, to which I say—-why the schism? I myself am the daughter of a Hindu scientist, and am a very serious spiritual practitioner with a background in biological anthropology (though my degree was in Anthropology: Social Sciences). Why does he overlook the religious traditions that are pro-science, such as Buddhism?

Perhaps one of the most pro-science, high profile individuals in the world today is HH Dalai Lama, the great leader of (the Yellow Hat branch of)Tibetan Buddhism. He himself has said that, “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” His Holiness has done much to assist with the field of neuroscience and the scientific study of the brain and mind; one need only do a Google search with the words “Dalai Lama” and “science” to see the plethora of articles on the interconnectedness of Buddhism and science. The basis of Buddhism is impermanence and change, the evolution of thought, and seeing what is—-all concepts that relates well to the fundamentals of modern scientific thinking and scientific methodology.

Dawkins fails to clarify that “religion” as he uses the word really refers to “Judeo-Christian” religion as well as more basic or fundamentalist types of ideas from any world religion. His thought processes reveal a narrow-mindedness that is a common process in any system of thought or philosophy or religion that bills itself as the ONLY way of thinking without any room for input from the opposite side, a dogmatism that one can see in fundamentalist Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, politics, or any culture. It is rather ironic that Dawkins himself is rather caught up in a rather emotional, dogmatic campaign to promote his brand of scientific rationality as the only answer.

Also frustrating about Dawkins is his mission to eliminate non-scientific explanations of natural phenomena. It seems a bit like the schoolyard child with the pin trying to pop your balloon. There is nothing wrong about myths or non-scientific explanations to explain the wonders of nature; they simply need to be contextualized as such, and not taught as- and confused with scientific truth. And vice versa: scientific truth is (if we look at it very, very simplistically), a method-tested, results-repeatable, quantitative, analytical, logical explanation for the wonders of nature. It is a tool which has allowed us to manipulate the world to a degree deemed impossible for centuries if not millennia. It has allowed us to make exponential progress (and, if we look at the state of the environment, regress) and achieve advances in technology that have changed the course of human history in a very short time. Science and myth/religion/storytelling are perhaps two sides of the same coin, quantitative and qualitative explanations for life.

No, we cannot let the religious right prevent us from teaching evolution in schools. Yes, our politicians are generally very misinformed and fearful of science and scientific rationality. Yes, faith often gets in the way of rationality. But we cannot throw out the baby with the bathwater and completely dismiss religion as though it is all irrational, emotional, extremist poppycock. And for those of us not from the Judeo-Christian tradition, we cannot continue to allow the faith vs. rationality schism to persist.