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Recycling - A Look Back at an Older Post

I wrote some long, rambling posts in my early blogging days, which aren't seen nowadays.  As I'm rather starved of blogging inspiration right now, I thought I'd revisit some of my old posts for the present time at least.  This post was originally called 'Mother-in-Law Matters and appeared on my original blog, "Out of Ireland, Into India."  It's rather long, but I remember when I was writing it, I just couldn't stop once I started.

A Wife or a Daughter-In-Law?

I grew up in Ireland and I remember hearing the odd mother-in-law joke. Mother-in-laws were generally mentioned with dread and a sort of feigned horror. But in general, the partner in marriage who had most problems with their mother-in-law was usually the husband. Why? The reason is simply because, as far as I remember, mothers in Ireland are in general very supportive of their daughters. They generally think (whether they admit to it or not is, of course, another matter!) that their daughter is a princess who has married someone who is just not good enough. Woe betide the son-in-law who mistreats a mother’s daughter! As for the wife’s mother-in-law, well the relationship is usually cordial at best and suspicious at worst. Daughter-in-laws generally pay lip service to their mother-in-law and keep as far away as possible.

Not so in India, where I now live! In India, a wife’s mother generally thinks that her son-in-law is a prince. She certainly treats him like one. As I mentioned before, daughter-in-laws have traditionally been (in theory at least!) the handmaids of the family, who unquestioningly take care of the health and wellbeing of their husband’s family. They are (in theory at least) expected to make sacrifices unlimited to serve their in-laws. The son-in-law, however, is always given the status of an honoured guest, and is fussed over and pampered silly when he comes to visit his wife’s family. Of course, I knew none of this before I came out here. But I learnt with time. Time and experience.

What have I learnt? Among other things, that in India, a married woman generally has two homes! Her maika garh (parental home) and her sasural (in-laws’ home). The maika is somewhere you go when (a) your in-laws ‘give you permission’ and (b) you need a break. Your sasural is your place of service, your temple. Your mother-in-law is the high priestess. And your father-in-law (if alive) or your husband is the reigning deity. This concept probably comes quite naturally, and maybe even seems perfectly normal to someone who grows up in this atmosphere but to a foreigner it can seem extremely odd, if not downright discriminatory. Ironically, ancient India was apparently a place where women were honoured, and fully equal to men in most respects. But as India underwent many hardships and transformations through the ages, with endless invasions, it seems that the people were given no option but to cover up the women and keep them at home. This was apparently for their own safety. Today, at least in urban areas, the Indian woman is getting her share of education and opportunities, and like working women everywhere, is facing the same problems of guilt and inability to spread herself around enough to fulfill all that’s expected of her.

If a woman is a mere daughter-in-law, it seems that her status is not very high, unless she’s an elder daughter-in-law with several younger sister-in-laws, i.e. the wives of her husband’s younger brothers. But the moment a woman becomes a ‘saas’, that his, a mother-in-law to another woman, then she gets a lot of importance. And when the daughter-in-law (bahu) becomes a mother and makes the mother-in-law a grandmother (Daadi) then the mother-in-law becomes a formidable person indeed. She doesn’t so much announce that ‘my son and his wife have become parents’. She tells everyone ‘I have become a Daadi!’ It’s a type of coming of age.

Although India is rapidly modernizing, the Indian joint family is an interesting concept. It is patriarchal in nature and consists of, let us say, a man, his wife, his sons, daughter-in-laws and grandchildren. This type of family thrived in an agricultural economy, where there was a farm or a family business. Unmarried daughters are generally considered to be destined for another family as soon as a suitable bridegroom can be found, therefore they are not considered to be permanent members of the family, although when they marry, their parental family is expected to give them a lot of support, as much as possible, emotionally and even, if circumstances warrant it, and if they allow, financially. You can see that when a young woman becomes a daughter-in-law, she is expected to please her in-laws and do everything in her power to make them happy. You often hear women discussing their daughter-in-law’s housekeeping skills, praising or criticizing them as they see fit. It is a matter of great shame for a woman if her in-laws find her lacking in this respect.

I often think to myself, all societies have their points in common. In the west, in the past, people lived in traditional types of families, with several generations living together under one roof. When western societies were agriculturally based, our way of life probably wasn’t very different from the way of life in the more traditional societies like India, apart from language, food, dress, etc. In Europe there were many large multi-generational families living together, and probably arranged marriages of some sort too. But industrialization hit Europe several hundred years ago, and the way of life in Europe slowly transformed. India only began industrial transformation process a mere sixty years ago. Although India has become very modern, there are many people still living the old, pre-industrial way of life, dependent on the traditional agricultural system for their livelihood. And moreover, even in the most modern families, there are older members who remember a way of life which would seem totally old-fashioned and backward to a person with a modern way of thinking. I often think that the present generation of young people must be having a huge culture shock as they cope with their modern outlook versus the traditional way of life which still has such a hold on them.

One of our neighbours has a beautiful daughter named Chitra. I remember Chitra, coming down the road on her bicycle in her school uniform calling out “Hi,  Aunty”. Chitra used to talk to me sometimes, and I know she had cherished dreams of travelling and seeing the world. Out of school dress, I only ever remember her wearing jeans and tee shirts, donning the shalwar suit only for parties. A few years ago, right after she graduated from college with an arts degree, she was married. The wedding was fantastic, there was a great feast and dancing and music. I remember, as I saw her going off with her husband to her new life, wondering how this young, modern girl, a product of the MTV generation, would cope with the traditions. I’ve seen her since as she’s visited her home now and again after marriage. She comes now with her baby daughter, to whom she gave birth a year after the wedding. She has told me everything she has gone through, and I can only say, that this girl has had it much harder than I have had. From jeans and tee shirts (which she still wears at her parents house), she was expected to wear saris, don suhaag(marriage) symbols every single day, rise early, take a bath, perform puja at the family temple, prepare tea for her in-laws and take charge of the kitchen. She felt choked, stifled and resentful. She is happy that her husband had to move out of the family home because of his job, Otherwise, she says she would have gone crazy. Chitra had grown up in a modern nuclear family setup. She told me that her husband’s younger brother got married quite soon after she did. The second bride has fared much better in the house than Chitra did as she comes from a more traditional home. However, the mother-in-law and the younger sister-in-law have bonded together very well, making Chitra feel out in the cold. She has been on the receiving end of hurtful remarks and bitchiness from the two in-laws, and this has made her quite nervous. Her husband, for his part, has absolutely no idea of the the mental agony Chitra has suffered, seeing it as her duty to silently serve her mother in law, because that is the tradition. For girls caught in the halfway stage like Chitra, between modernity and tradition, life can be difficult.

The way things are, it seems that in many cases, a mother-in-law can make or break a marriage. A man is generally emotionally attached to his mother, and his association with her is longer than with his wife, so if his mother comes to him with a complaint against the wife, the men here seem to a take it as their moral duty to side with their mother. That’s very hurtful for a wife. To whom can she go to complain if she has a domestic problem? The man is living in his home where he feels quite comfortable, but his wife, uprooted and in a strange house, where no-one is ready to take her part, may be feeling very insecure indeed. Her family, even if they live nearby, would be afraid to be seen as interfering, so they can’t or won’t speak up for her. I really feel that mother-in-laws who have problems with their daughter-in-laws should refrain from dragging their sons into the matter. If they come between the couple they will destabilize the relationship, which will in the long run, destabilize the family.

Yet I have seen that there are some daughter-in-law horror stories too! A few years ago when Neil and Mel were small, I used to bring them to a local park to play in the summer evenings. I used to see a very frail, weak, arthritic old lady there, with two small and very lively children. The two children used to run wild, running up on the slide and jumping on the swings, and the old lady was hard pressed to keep up with them. A couple of times, I checked them for being rude to their ‘Daadi’(paternal grandmother) as they called her. They were usually already there when I arrived, and still there when I went home at around 5.30 pm. The old lady was having such a hard time controlling those children that I was at a loss to understand how she managed them on the road. One day I reached the park a little early and saw the grandmother and kids being deposited there by an extremely capable looking woman, who drove away on a scooter. It was none of my business, of course, but I felt so furious with that woman for dumping her wild kids in the park with that poor old lady, who should be doing nothing else in that park other than sitting quietly, or having a stroll by herself. In fact, I always take my kids with me when I go out so that they don’t bother my in-laws. “My kids, my responsibility” has always been my mantra.

Then there was Hemavati, a lonely old lady who befriended my mother-in-law a few years ago. She’d been passing our house every evening when she went for an evening walk, and took to dropping in to have a short chat. She never ate or drank anything. Her lot was a miserable one indeed. Living with her son, daughter-in-law and grandson, she was loved by her son (who was away most of the time) but ignored by the daughter-in-law. She sat alone by herself in the house, totally left out of family outings and activities. She made her own simple meal of boiled potatoes and spent most of her time in prayer and reading her Ramcaritmanas (scriptures). Although living with family, she was so lonely, it would break your heart. Her daughter-in-law (I met her once) would just pack up her son and go to her parents home as soon as the boy had school holidays. I’m not saying that her daughter-in-law was intentionally cruel to her, she just didn’t seem to care about her. That is no way less than cruelty in my opinion.

Another story! I have a friend Nidhi, a product of a marriage between a Christian mother and a Hindu Brahmin father. Nidhi had a love marriage with Sumit, a Hindu, around the same time as I got married. Sumit’s parents were dead, although he did have relatives, but when he announced his marriage to his relatives, they didn’t show much interest, as all were busy with various problems. While they wished the couple well, no reception or gifts were given to Nidhi from the groom’s side, not that she minded a great deal. One evening, Sumit, Nidhi and their two kids dropped in to our place and I noted that Nidhi was all dressed up in a sari, and she was wearing a prominent bindi and lots of sindoor (red powder in the hair parting), a must for a north Indian wife, but not something Nidhi is often seen wearing. A little nervous and a little excited too, Nidhi informed me, in the kitchen, where I’d gone to make a cup of tea, “I’m going to meet my mother-in-law.” When I asked how come, she replied that the widow of Sumit’s late father’s elder brother had come to stay for a few days with relatives in our city, and she had telephoned Sumit and especially requested him to bring his wife and children to meet her, saying that their meeting was long overdue. In north India indeed, the father-in-laws brothers are also fathers-in-law, and their wives are also one’s mothers-in-law. I wished her all the best. It must be strange for a north Indian woman to be married to a man for so many years and never to have met his family.

When I met Nidhi a few weeks later, she informed me that the meeting had gone beautifully. The elderly aunt gave Nidhi her ‘aashirwaad’ (blessing) and gifted her a sari, gifted Sumit a length of cloth to make a suit and some clothes to their children also. She was relieved that the dresses fitted the children perfectly. Apparently she had been keeping them for a long time in the hope of meeting Nidhi and Sumit sooner, and it had took rather longer to arrange their meeting than she had thought. She also mentioned to Nidhi that she had had to keep the sari hidden from her daughter-in-law with whom she lived. Why? Well, apparently, daughter-in-laws have rights, a great deal more than most people can imagine, and can demand saris from their in-laws on occasions. “If my daughter-in-law saw this sari, she would have insisted that I give it to her, and I would have had to do so!” the aunt explained. Interesting! I must insist that my mother-in-law gives me a few saris. If I was entitled to say one a year, I must be owed at least a dozen now!

The truth is, there are rights and duties in all relationships. There is good and bad in all situations. The success of a system generally depends on the good or ill of the people involved. In combined families in traditional cultures, where women had very little power or significance outside the home environment, the mother-in-law/daughters-in-law equation was a sort of power struggle. The mother-in-law enjoys her sense of importance, and if insecure, tries to show her daughter-in-law who is the boss. The daughter-in-law, on the other hand, is determined to show that she is no doormat and will not be pushed around by anyone. The ensuing rivalry causes a lot of misery and unhappiness. The plight of the person who loses the power struggle can be pitiful indeed.

And me? Power struggles are a waste of time. I abstain. I believe everyone deserves their space. “Live and let live” is my mantra. Now and always!


  1. Amazing reading this Maria. We are so far away from India, yet some of the relationships are same here too!

    Thank you!

  2. I know you live in Fiji, Nas. But there are a lot of Indians there, so maybe the culture has travelled there too!

    Thanks for coming over, hope you and Riya and family have a great Christmas.

  3. Hi Maria - going by what you write about your life and cross-cultural experiences, I thought you might enjoy reading Tishani Doshi's "The Pleasure Seekers". I'm reading it now and the narrative about a Welsh-Gujarati marriage (based on the author's own parents'life)keeps reminding me of your blog posts!

  4. I remember this post and it still fascinates me Maria! Wonderful and heartfelt!

  5. If my mother in law treated me like a prince, my mother treated my late wife like a princess too! The two of them were constantly conspiring to make something out of me!

  6. Maria--a truly detailed treatise on the Indian MIL-DIL relationship stated with detachment. In urban families, the MIL is now distancing herself from her son's family and actually making herself more available to her daughter's needs--baby sitting, augmenting food etc.

    The ego plays a HUGE part in Indian women's behaviour and attitudes.....maybe because of lack of self esteem dinned into them that they are secondary citizens in the scheme of things in a patriarchal family. This too is cahnging with education. As you mentioned in many cases women have become aggressive in their behaviour instead of assertive in getting their dues.

    I think Indian society is in a 'manthan' a churn. What good comes out of it and what bad too is interesting to watch.

    Keep writing. I would like to share this article in Fb.

  7. @Sonya - Thank you. Where are you? Can't find you at all.

    @Lisa - Welcome, Lisa, great to see you over here.

    @Rummuser - It's well for you!

  8. Thank you so much Padmum! I'm so glad you liked it!

  9. long term side effects of phentermine best place buy phentermine online - phentermine 15mg buy online


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