Family Feud: The Indian Mother-in-law

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A post by writer Gwen Bellinger, an American woman living in India. The story is based on the experiences of friends she’s made there.  Gwen took the photos, but is not identifying the women in order to preserve their privacy, quite important in the Indian culture.

Raveena desperately did not want to get caught. Each evening, after her son returned home from playing cricket with the neighborhood children, the two of them would take a walk. They frequently stopped in the market to share a Coke, and then she’d indulge in not just one, but two plates of pani puri, a popular Indian street snack. Although the entire affair cost less than $1 USD, she warned her son not to mention their evening snack to his grandmother, lest she get upset at Raveena’s frivolous spending on herself and on the boy. The last thing Raveena needed was more criticism from her mother-in-law.

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After her arranged marriage, Raveena did as most new Indian brides do: she left her parents and moved into an apartment in Jaipur, fully furnished with husband and mother-in-law. The harassment began immediately. When relatives visited, Raveena acted as their servant while the mother-in-law blatantly ignored her. When Raveena’s husband said he wasn’t hungry, her mother-in-law criticized her for not insisting he eat anyway. Any problems Raveena’s children had in school? Her fault.

The ‘”Indian mother-in-law” is a phenomenon prevalent in soap operas, films, and talk shows. Stereotypically, she openly criticizes her daughter-in-law while coddling her own children. She’s typically seen as over-involved with enormously high expectations. The United States has its own equivalent of the mother-in-law phenomenon. Anyone who watched the television 1996 series Everybody Loves Raymond is familiar with Marie’s ruthless attacks of Deborah’s cooking. Articles like 8 Ways to Deal with Your In-Laws this Holiday Season decorate my Facebook.

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Traditionally after marriage, the bride becomes part of the groom’s family and moves into their house. It’s not uncommon for a bride to cry on her wedding day because her family physically leaves her with the groom and his relatives, symbolizing that she is a part of a new family. Before 1990, most middle class homes did not have a phone. Calling was expensive, so Raveena only spoke to her family a few times a year. One woman I know only spoke to her family once in five years, the day her son was born. While this kind of isolation is less common today, it was very real for Raveena’s generation.

While I’ve read horror stories from rural, conservative villages of in-laws treating their daughter-in-law as a servant, changing her first name, even beating her or killing her, the familial problems of the urban class appear to be mostly passive aggressive. The mother-in-law and daughter-in-law gossip and bad-mouth each other. The mother-in-law criticizes the daughter-in-law’s cooking. She is overbearing about how to raise the children. The daughter-in-law comes off as ungrateful. Some people credit this to a competition between the women over the man. One of my friends rationalized that it was the society her grandmother grew up in, and she didn’t want to change her ways.

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Of course, the cycle can be broken. Some young brides I know love their mother-in-law. Raveena? She gets along great with her daughter-in-law, and they’ve become fast friends. She and Priya quickly bonded over how much Raveena’s mother-in-law dislikes both of them. Priya doesn’t live in Jaipur with Raveena. She and her husband work together and have their own apartment in Delhi. The couple visits Priya’s family weekly.

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India is still a patriarchal society, yet the sub-continent appears to be changing overnight. The rise of feminism in India is apparent in major cities. Women are no longer the keepers of the house. They are in universities and becoming lawyers, doctors, and politicians. People are moving abroad. Cheap calls and internet mean families remain digitally connected. As women move out of the “domestic sphere” and begin to take on traditionally male roles, it will be curious to see how the relationships between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-laws morph in the years to come. Clearly, as Priya found of Raveena, not all Indian mothers-in-law are to feared.

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Gwen Bellinger is a freelance writer and editor originally hailing from North Carolina. She moved to Chandigarh, India in August 2015 to work with the Haryana government on a one-year education implementation project. You can follow her travels and adventures abroad at www.gwengetsglobal.com or visit her official website at www.gwendolynbellinger.com.

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5 responses »

  1. Gwen, This is fascinating. I had a good relationship with my mother-in-law, and even I had problems. Can’t imagine what it’s like for many of the women in India. Glad things are improving. Thanks for your great piece!

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