Is your husband's mum a monster-in-law?
An excerpt from Veena Venugopal's new book -- The Mother-in-law: The other woman in your marriage.
The mother-in-law has always been a reviled figure in India.
So much so, the Indian television industry practically runs on shows demonising (usually) the mother of the heroine's husband.
What makes her such a terrible figure in a woman's life?
Veena Venugopal who spoke to several women about their relationships with their mothers-in-law, attempts to answer this in her new book -- The Mother-in-law: The other woman in your marriage.
Venugopal is the editor of BLink, Hindu Business Line's Saturday edition and has authored another book -- Would you like some bread with that book -- earlier.
In the except reproduced below with kind permission from Penguin books, the author narrates the face-off between a bride and her soon-to-be mother-in-law.
Srini came back from the US and a suitable date was picked.
A fortnight before the engagement, Seema's cousin met with an accident and passed away.
The family was plunged in mourning and wanted to call off the event but Amma stood firm.
The engagement would progress as scheduled, she said.
People were invited and the pandit was booked. She wasn't willing to back down, and eventually the ceremony took place as planned.
No one from Seema's family attended. Seema herself was fraught.
'My mother kept telling me it's OK, it's OK. At the end of the day, I was wondering if I could divorce my mum. She was being so servile and it made me even more angry,' she says.
Seema asked herself how she felt the day of the engagement and she realized that she was 70 per cent unhappy and 30 per cent relieved that it was over.
Suddenly, it seemed like the wedding was not hers but Srini's mother's in which she was only a benign participant.
Seema's parents thought that by putting their grief aside and toeing Srini's mother's line, her tacit bullying would end.
They were mistaken.
The frequency of her phone calls only increased.
Over the phone, Amma was incredibly polite.
Maybe, she actually did think she was helping. She wasn't ordering them around, but constantly informing them about the Tamil Brahmin way of doing things.
'This is our tradition,' she would remind them.
One of the reasons she was so stuck on everything being her way, Seema reckons, is because none of her three sons follow her diktats on anything.
They don't wear the sacred thread, they all eat non-vegetarian food -- although they don't do so at home -- and none of them are into any rituals.
Seema was her mother-in-law's way out.
She might have thought that if she could make her a proper Brahmin wife that success would sufficiently wipe out her failure with her boys.
Seema thought this was getting out of hand.
But it was a delicate time -- the one between the engagement and the wedding.
She considered all options, but felt like things had progressed too far for her to take any drastic action.
Yet, at the same time, she knew that she was laying down the pattern for the future. She started dropping hints to Srini.
'I would call him ten times in a day and tell him that the lists were growing. In retrospect I feel I should have just been very direct with him,' she says. 'I suppose that's how weddings are, but it wasn't the kind of wedding I wanted.'
Srini, though, picked up on what she was hinting at and decided to take some amount of control over the situation.
This was a project that needed management, and he was the best project manager he knew.
He scheduled conference calls.
He recorded the minutes of these meetings.
He created excel worksheets in which every little detail was recorded and responsibilities assigned.
His family offered to pay half the expenses of the wedding, but Seema's parents quickly declined it and announced that it was their honour to pay for everything Srini's mother wanted.
'Take the money,' Seema hissed at her father.
'I still have my dignity,' he informed her
Since Srini's mother had hijacked the engagement and all the preparations for the wedding, the one thing Seema did not want to concede was what she would wear for the wedding.
From day one, Srini's mother had started talking about the nine-yard sari.
Please click NEXT to continue reading...
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh
Is your husband's mum a monster-in-law?
She told Seema and her parents about her preferred colours, designs and stores from which to buy the sari. Seema categorically told her parents that she would not be wearing a nine-yard sari for the wedding.
The more Srini's mother insisted, the more determined she was about not wearing it. 'I decided this would be my rebellion. Not wearing a nine-yard sari,' she says.
She explained it nicely to Amma. Her grandmothers would be at the wedding, she said, and they would want to see her dressed in an off-white Kerala sari.
Srini's mother flipped. This was not the 'prahper Tam Brahm' wedding she'd envisaged.
The sari would ruin everything.
She persisted. When she saw that she was not making much headway with Seema, Amma called Seema's mother and asked her to reason with her daughter.
Her mother begged, pleaded, cajoled and threatened her. 'My mum had succumbed to the pressure big time,' Seema says.
But Seema was steadfast. The more Srini's mother talked to hers, the more Seema's mother fought with her.
Eventually, fed up with her daughter's stubbornness, she declared that she wished she had never had this child. 'So much emotion, can you imagine, over one sari?' Seema asks me.
When her mother failed to convince her, the task fell on her sister.
She called Seema one day to ask her why she was making such a big deal about wearing a nine-yard sari.
'She was like just wear the sari and get it over with. I told her I was doing everything else -- sitting on my poor father's lap for the ceremony; ready to be jerked on a swing at the wedding; putting up with the charade that my husband had developed cold feet and was going to remain a bachelor. All these are Tamil Brahmin wedding rites. So much silliness I was putting myself through. I told her I am allowed to have one choice, and that is the sari,' she says.
Now that mother and sister had failed, Seema's aunts were called to action.
One of her aunts spoke to her and promised that if she wore the nine-yard sari, they would all wear one to show their solidarity with her.
Seema said they could all wear bikinis to her wedding if that's what they fancied, but she herself was not going to wear a nine-yard sari.
As the wedding day approached, Srini's mother was so anxious about the sari she was calling every hour.
And each call was followed by a fight between Seema and someone in her family.
The day before the wedding, Amma called and nearly broke down.
Then she told Srini that she would refuse to attend the wedding the following day if he didn't convince Seema about the sari.
Nonchalant as ever, Srini said she was free to stay away from the ceremony.
On the day of the wedding, Srini's mother carried a nine-yard with her to the marriage hall.
She hoped that Seema would have a last-minute change of heart.
Sadly, Seema did not change her mind.
She came to the hall in a Kerala sari and wore it through the day.
Amma clutched the spare nine-yard sari in her hand tightly.
Even though no expense was spared and all the Tamil Brahmin customs were followed, neither Seema nor her mother-in-law was happy about how the day turned out.
Seema moved into her in-laws' home after the wedding.
She and Srini had bought an apartment but, until it was ready, they were going to live with his parents.
Seema continued to work; there was no question of her quitting the job. Her mother-in-law had also worked through her life until she retired and she was of the view that daughters-in-law -- even those who didn't dress appropriately for the wedding -- were entitled to their careers.
But this did not mean that Seema was allowed to use her work commitments to shirk any of her duties as a Tamil Brahmin wife.
Every few weeks there was a festival or mini festival of some kind.
'All of them involve fasting and then feasting after it,' Seema explains.
She tried to do what she could. She carried her mangalsutra and sindoor in her bag and had an alarm on her phone to remind her to put these on before going home for a puja. After a few months, her relationship with her mother-in-law settled down largely, but it never recovered from the saga of the sari.
Ever so often, her mother-in-law would raise the subject of the unworn nine-yard sari.
She would start off on a note of wistfulness and regret, then take it up a notch to anger and hysteria and end with tears.
Excerpted from The Mother-in-law: The other woman in your marriage (Rs 299) with kind permission from Penguin Books.
Photographs: Cover of The Mother-in-law: The other woman in your marriage