A few weeks ago, my sister-in-law got engaged. I noticed that her mehendi had darkened beautifully so I chose a quiet moment when she was sitting beside her mother-in-law-to-be and said, “I believe they say that the deeper the colour of your mehendi, the more your mother-in-law will love you…” My own mother-in-law’s ears piqued up and she quickly put her arm around me and uncurled my palms saying, “Show me your mehendi. Is it dark? If not, I’ll put it again for you until it darkens…” I was amused and touched by her words and it suddenly struck me that she’d found a beautiful metaphor for the unflinching love she’s showered upon me these past few years.
The figure of the ‘mother-in-law’ in pop culture and, unfortunately, oftentimes in life as well, is fraught with an undesirable power that is key to perpetuating patriarchy. My own mother-in-law often flinched when she heard the label being applied to herself in the early days of my marriage. Fortunately, though, she herself had a warm and loving relationship with her own mother-in-law. Indeed, my grandmother-in-law must have been an exceptional woman because she left behind five daughters-in-law who have only the best things to say about her. My mother-in-law says that someone once asked her mother-in-law, “What is your secret? How do your daughters-in-law love you so much?” And she replied, “I love my daughters-in-law. I want them to be happy. If my daughters-in-law are happy, my sons will be happy. So I love my daughters-in-law.”
It makes perfect sense when stated so plainly and yet almost all the rhetoric that surrounds us would have us believe that the mother-in-law is the daughter-in-law’s worst enemy, and that the daughter-in-law is an insidious threat to the mother-in-law’s place in the life of her son. Some of it is Freudian, I suppose, and you see this tension in cultures across the world. However, there’s a certain hyperbole, in the saas bahu relationship, in the Indian context. Perhaps, in a collectivist culture like ours, the all-consuming nature of romantic love poses an even more problematic threat to the cohesive patriarchal family. The dominant rhetoric seems to suggest that the moment a man falls in love with his wife, he forgets his family. As if it is impossible for him to love both.
Truth be told, though, love does not diminish when shared, instead it grows. Countless studies on happiness, well-being, and human flourishing have returned most insistently to the powerful correlation between the warmth of one’s relationships and one’s health and happiness. Indeed, there is enough love to go around. And patriarchy dehumanizes men as much as it destroys the lives of women when it suggests that men are incapable of nurturing warm relationships with their mothers as well as their wives. My own relationship with my mother-in-law is a wellspring of happiness and warmth. And is built, perhaps, on the unshakeable belief that we share that my husband, her son, holds in his heart enough room to love us both, deeply and uncomplicatedly. Each of us takes pride in the happiness that he brings to the other. She is glad to have raised a son who makes his wife happy. And I am glad to have married a man who loves his mother.
Of course, neither my mother-in-law nor I wear rose-tinted spectacles and we have had our share of misunderstandings and disagreements. Being a student of feminist theory, I was determined that our wedding must be simple, intimate, and equal. My wish for simplicity sometimes clashed with my mother-in-law’s understanding of the family’s traditions. My wish for intimacy confused my mother-in-law who wanted to invite so many people to bless us at our wedding. My wish for equality complicated the traditional ceremony that my mother-in-law was keen that we have. She felt caught between my wishes and the expectations and traditions of the family. And I felt caught between her happiness and my own wish for a feminist freedom. Through it all, however, we tried our best to be true to ourselves and to each other. Eventually, we arrived at a middle ground that we were both comfortable with and a ceremony that was unique and entirely our own.
One day, though, in the midst of all those tricky conversations, my mother-in-law asked me to explain to her why I found some parts of the wedding ceremony, like the kanyadaan, the giving of the daughter, or the vidaai, the daughter bidding farewell to her own family, problematic. I used everything I had learnt in my introduction to feminist theory at college to explain to my mother-in-law how those parts of the ceremony objectify women and take away their agency. Something I said must have moved her because she agreed that, if we could find a priest who would be willing to perform an equal ceremony, then we could have one. And so began my own mother’s quest for a priest who would perform a gandharva vivah, a love marriage, where the man and the woman would give themselves to each other, freely, wholeheartedly, and of their own accord.
And, not simply because she found a priest who would perform such a wedding ceremony, my mother has been instrumental in me forging a warm and enduring relationship with my mother-in-law. I have learnt from my mother’s example. I have watched her, as a daughter-in-law, gracefully reconcile the opposites of being authentic and poised with being kind and loving. On lazy afternoons, I have lain between my mother and my grandmother and watched them negotiate the tricky saas bahu terrain with honesty and good humour. Most of all, I have learnt from watching my mother that it is worth being truthful, so that you can live life on your own terms, but that is also well worth being gentle in your truth, so you do not have to forsake love for freedom.
These days, my mother-in-law comes back from weddings and says interesting things. She came back from a ceremony where the guests were given a card with an explanation of each ritual being performed and told me she had chuckled to someone sitting beside her, “My daughter-in-law wouldn’t have sat through this ceremony…” I thought I saw a tiny sparkle in her eyes. A quiet pride, perhaps? She came back from another wedding where she was invited to sit for the sajan-kot and be served by the bride’s family and told me that she had declined saying, “I’ve already eaten…” Each time she shares these stories with me, she watches me carefully, to make certain I’m taking in her burgeoning awareness of the many rituals that diminish women, often without us realizing.
But, in truth, my mother-in-law has always been a feminist, someone who believes in the equality of the sexes and advocates for the rights of women around her. Recently, she was distraught to discover that a match was being considered for someone she knows where a dowry was expected. Seeing her anguish, someone asked, “But what did they give you when your son got married?” “What did they give me?” she repeated incredulously. “They gave me a piece of their heart, their daughter, whom they love, whom they raised with their whole hearts, they gave me her…” she said. The truth is we have taken our time to understand each other but our love has been unflinching.