She looked at him with eyes filled with love, mingled with anxiety. An expression her son had not seen on her face since the day he had got married four years back.
The day his wife walked into the house, the furrow on his mother’s forehead threatened to become a permanent fixture. He never knew his otherwise simple and introvert mother could be so intolerant, could squabble so relentlessly and could have a brain that worked overtime to ensure things got difficult for him. She shocked him every day. He had married late and it was his mother who always insisted that he could not afford to spend the rest of his life without a life-partner. But he had never thought that his marriage would end up exposing a side of his mother that he never imagined existed.
He was a dutiful and loving son but he had decided to leave his mother with his aunt for a few weeks to get a break from her, maybe also to give her the subtle message that he could take drastic measures if she didn’t mend her ways.
As the son put down the saree-filled bag, his jaws tight, his eyes avoiding his mother’s pleading gaze, I felt I was witnessing a scene out of my story The House-Husband, a short story included in the collection Museum of Memories.
Moms-in-law wreaking havoc in Indian families is the norm. So you can understand mom-in-law Monideepa in The House Husband is not a figment of my imagination. I have put her character together borrowing traits from real-life moms-in-law I have seen and heard about.
The Indian mother-in-law has the power to make or break a marriage, period. In most Indian homes where people live in extended families, the mother-in-law is the matriarch, the decision maker, the woman who wields the ultimate power on the daughter-in-law.
There is a switch somewhere in her brain that snaps the moment the daughter-in-law walks into her home. The simple, loving, caring, mother starts showing demonic qualities overnight. Most of it stems from insecurity that my son is not mine anymore but the rest is about fear of losing control over her own home.
I spoke to at least 100 women about their mother-in-law experience out of which only two said that they could have careers because their mothers-in-law looked after their children, their home and that too with a smile.
Otherwise, I realised, “How is your mother-law-law?” is probably the most volatile question that one could ask a married woman. And if she decides to pour her heart out in her answer, then God help you.
I met this young lady who’s been married for three months now and who already looked crestfallen and unhappy, a complete contrast from her wedding day.
“What’s the matter?” I asked her.
“I never knew my mother-in-law was this horrible a person. Since mine is a love marriage I used to frequent their home before marriage. I could never make out she could be this bad.”
“Why what has she done?” I asked.
“She wouldn’t let me cook, she doesn’t let me talk to my husband when he is back from work, she makes an issue if I come home late from work.”
I started laughing. I said, “Your mother-in-law is normal.”
The young girl was aghast at my reply.
The common thread that binds all Indian moms-in-law is the fact that they believe that no one cooks better than them and the son only prefers to have what they cook. In case the son makes the mistake of praising a dish the wife has cooked then unknowingly he has gifted a lifetime of misery to his wife.
A friend of mine who is an electrical engineer and held a very high-paying job once told me that her mother-in-law used to create issues in the way she peeled the potatoes. Every time she peeled the potatoes her mother-in-law said: “Didn’t your parents teach you how to peel potatoes properly?”
The son could have lived abroad for studies, could have worked away from home for years but when he is with his wife, every minute spent with her is like a thorn that pricks the mother-in-law’s heart. So she makes every attempt to ensure that she is the one her son is attending to whenever he is at home. In case, he makes plans for the movies or late-night parties with his wife she disapproves of that strongly. If he doesn’t listen terror tactics could include giving up food, refusing medicines and sulking forever.
Most Indian moms-in-law fall in the same mould. They get flustered and upset with the same issues, but some do manage to take the cake.
Like some moms-in-law want marriage for their sons but are upset if they have a sex life. One mom-in-law I heard moved her own bed to such a position next to the wall of her bedroom that she could listen into her son’s room. Another had repeated bouts of leg pain at 2 am and banged on her son’s bedroom door calling him to come and apply balm on her feet every other night.
My character Monideepa slept between her son and daughter-in-law on their wedding night. If you find that shocking then I must introduce you to Ronita (not her real name).
Ronita had come to drop her son to school in a crisp cotton saree. The vermillion in her parting had been put in a way like she had been married the day before. But she was the mother of an 8-year-old boy and married for 12 years. Gold dangled from her ears and glistened in the sun from her bangles. She kind of looked overdone and odd but none of the fellow moms standing at the school gates gave her a quizzical look.
One mom just asked her, “Is she visiting?” Ronita sighed and nodded in the affirmative.
If Ronita’s physical appearance went through a transformation so did her life, every time her mother-in-law visited her from the village for a few months. She did everything within her powers to prove Ronita was messy in the kitchen, inefficient in handling the bank accounts and was a lackadaisical mother, not to mention she decided what Ronita would wear and how. Ronita had an otherwise peaceful existence with her son and husband but when the mother-in-law visited it would be like a storm had hit her.
Ronita once told me: “My mother-in-law is so unpredictable that you don’t know what she is planning next. If she slept with us on our wedding night, do I need to tell you more? She wanted to accompany us on our honeymoon but thankfully my husband got a posting in Delhi and we moved immediately. She did visit us later but by then we thankfully had our honeymoon.”
One lady, who was a school teacher, told me that her mother-in-law expected her to get the vegetables and grocery every day after a long day at school. After getting that she cooked and was expected to get food ready by 8pm. “Once I got late. I was so paranoid that I dropped the pressure cooker on the floor. The dal spilled out and I took out the dal from the top and cooked it so that I won’t be late. But still I lost 10 mins in the process and when I served the food on the table she was livid. There was a pack of flour lying next to her on the table she just threw it at me. The flour was all over me and I looked like a white statue.”
Another lady, who has been a scientist, said she was expected to remove the shoes of anyone who came to their home because, “Bahus should remove chappals of guests,” that was the norm in their house.
Now you can imagine why Monideepa is so lethal. She is a concoction of all the moms-in-law put together.