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Mother of all miseries

In the last year, I spoke to scores of women about their mothers-in-law.... From Kolkata to Mumbai and Delhi to Chennai, I met women who occupied some point of the cliché scale with their mothers-in-law. No matter whom you talk to—new brides, old wives, Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Anglo-Indian—just about every married Indian woman is engaged in close combat with her mother-in-law.

Their stories just needed the slightest prod to bubble up to the surface. Get a bunch of married women together, any bunch, and simply say, ‘Goodness, you won’t believe my mother-in-law.’

Then, shut up and listen. Out come stories of control, betrayal and harassment. After the first few meetings, I stopped being surprised by the fact that everyone seemed to have a dispute with their mothers-in-law. But what continued to shock me was how intensely damaged most of these relationships were. Most daughters-in-law, it seemed to me, were huddled at the extreme end of the cliché scale.

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A scene from the film ‘Beta’

And I’m sure if I had cast my net a little wider, I would have heard stories that would have given me not just a migraine, but a whole brain tumour. It’s true, a monster mother-in-law is a national affliction. Even women who told me they were lucky to have a decent mother-in-law often proceeded to recount a really bad story about their Mummyji. That’s how bad the situation is.

Mother-in-law maladies are neither new nor are they restricted to India. In the West, the mother-in-law is an endless subject of jokes. But in South Asia, even in popular culture, the mother-in-law has traditionally been a source of much angst and villainy. Yet, the more people I talked to, the more it seemed to me that in India the mother-in-law dynamic has worsened over the years.

The Mother-in-Law—The Other Woman In Your Marriage: Penguin, 254 pages Rs299
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The Mother-in-Law—The Other Woman In Your Marriage: Penguin, 254 pages Rs299

Economic liberalization brought with it social liberalization, too. We have a surfeit of options and ample liberty in choosing what we wear, the kind of degrees we want to pursue and the kind of places we would like to visit. We are far more open, liberated and in control of all aspects of our lives.

The only exception, to me, seems to be our relationship with our mothers-in-law. In the last twenty years, there has been an utter breakdown in the Mummyji–daughter-in-law dynamic. In urban India, pretty much all daughters-in-law, across all demographics, are more educated than they were twenty years ago. The middle-class daughter has been raised with the notion that she is capable of doing everything her brother is. They have been educated with a career in mind. And when they graduate, a large majority of women seek employment. If they work in fields like IT, it is more likely than not that they travel abroad on projects. So when they are ready to get married—at twenty-four on an average, or twenty-five—they have lived a bit, formed their opinions and decided on their choices.

Mummyji, however, is stuck at Mughal-e-Azam. She has raised her daughter to be independent and liberal, because that was the cue she got from others around her. She thinks of the freedom she allows her daughter as a short vacation. She constantly tells her daughter that she shouldn’t expect to be allowed to behave in a ‘modern’ fashion once she gets married and goes to her husband’s home. And she hasn’t thought about how liberated her daughter-in-law should be.

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A scene from the TV serial ‘Kyunki...Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi’

Lalitha, a sixty-year-old daughter-in-law I met in Bangalore, dealt with her mother-in-law’s taunts as a young wife by simply tuning her out. She neither confronted nor argued with her. ‘I would let this in from one ear and let it out through the other,’ she told me. But Payal, a thirty-four-year-old daughter-in-law in Mumbai, wasn’t going to let her mother-in-law’s accusations go unchallenged. She took her on, confident that her own parents were supporting her in this battle, and eventually changed her living situation to one that was favourable to her.

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A scene from the film ‘Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi’

The very construct of the mother-in-law relationship is lopsided. It is built to be awkward. This can be gleaned from just the nomenclature. In north India mothers-in-law are often called Mummyji. If mother-in-law were Mummy, it would imply that the daughter-in-law could interact with her with the intimacy and honesty that a relationship with Mummy implies. The ‘ji’ in Mummyji forces respect, decorum and a definite imbalance in the power structure of the relationship. Perhaps, daughters-in-law are much better off addressing Mummyji as Auntyji. That way they aren’t forcing the baggage of unconditional maternal love. At best, you expect Auntyji to be polite and friendly. At worst, you expect her to be distant and indifferent. With Mummy, you expect tolerance and affection. Then the ‘ji’ gets stuck on, and all you get is unmitigated authority and unadulterated bitchiness.


u Only marry the man who is on your side in any battle.

u Approval is not worth aspiration. Do not, under any circumstance, agree to conditions that you aren’t comfortable with. If you have always wanted a career, do not say you’ll quit your job, just to be approved.

u Give the fashion police mother-in-law a wide berth. If you are stuck with one, learn to change in the car.

u Look for mutual respect, not friendship.

u A little deception goes a long way. You can either be happy or honest. Choose the former.

u Distance is everything.

u Start early. Take on issues early in the marriage and create a precedent of dissent. Do not let them pile up and bury you under their weight.

u Your kids are your kids. Your rules trump home rules.

uHide the remote and the mobile. Drag the husband into the crossfire.

u Discuss issues. Calmly. Have a margarita. Or many.

Edited excerpts, with permission from Penguin Books India. The book is out on 20 May.

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