When you were writing the book, as a listener and an observer (in social settings), what were your own conclusions about the mother-in-law ‘spectre’? For instance, why has this phenomenon been allowed to flourish? What is the likely psychology?
Veena Venugopal: This phenomenon has been allowed to flourish because it is human nature to struggle for power and control. One reason for this need [in India] to control the daughter-in-law is cultural. Girls are often told that it is parental responsibility to make sure that they don’t go astray, “you can do whatever you want once you’re married”. But, once the girl is married, what happens usually is not that her boundaries expand, but that it becomes someone else’s responsibility to police it. This role is often performed by the mother-in-law.
The more significant aspect of control is that it is deemed necessary to keep the institution of marriage intact. If the daughter-in-law is granted free will, then she is likely to do things that jeopardise traditional tenets of marriage. If she is financially independent, for example, she is going to be less inclined to “follow the rules of the family” or “look after her husband and his parents”. So, control is central to keeping women in marriages. In a happy marriage, the rules are loosened, everyone knows their role and is happy to play it. But in an unhappy marriage, the lines are strictly monitored and they become shackles, keeping the girl in her place, tied down to her new family. Containing her to the home is an effective way of stripping her of all her agency and gives her new family the ability to be fully in control of her. The leaking pipeline of women in the workforce in India has only increased since the time the book was published in 2014: there are fewer employed women today than there were in 2012. If you look at the age at which women leave work, the first big drop comes in the mid-20s, when they get married, and the next big chunk drops out when the first child arrives.
How much of real life lives up to the stereotype? And three observations you distilled?
When I first started researching the project, I thought I was going to write a funny book on the Indian mother-in-law. It was only when I started to hear these stories that I realised how horribly toxic some of these relationships were and I couldn’t get myself to find the lighter side of this conflict. That is to say: real life lives up to the stereotype in majority of the cases. Even today, eight years after the book was published, I get emails from readers saying I should talk to them if I want to hear more stories of terrible mothers-in-law. One of the criticisms of the book was that I don’t have any good mothers-in-law in the book. The truth is that some of the women I interviewed were excellent people, but they themselves felt trapped by circumstances and societal expectations and found themselves being more dominating in their relationship with their daughters-in-law than with any other family member.
• A simple solution to this complex problem lies in just not living in the same house. This one aspect can make all the difference.
• The onus is on the man to be the buffer between his mother and his wife. But very few men practise it. They often leave it to their wife and mother to slug it out. He doesn’t want to take the risk of upsetting either party by stepping into the line of fire.
• Rules and patterns should be established early. Both the mother and daughter-in-law have to codify what is acceptable behaviour by the other early on.
There was a time when having a good MIL seemed even more important than having a good husband. But today, is her relevance waning — because of nuclearisation and because the new generation of MILs play by the filtered copybook and want to be ‘cool’?
The relevance of the mother-in-law is waning only so far as the relevance of joint families are waning. In nuclear families, the mother-in-law is not a big problem anymore. In joint families, the problems continue. There is also a slight shift in terms of socio-economic demography. If the mother-in-law herself is educated and held a career, then she tends to be more lenient and more empathetic towards her daughter-in-law. Of course, there are exceptions on both sides of this divide. In most cultures where multi-generational family ties are strong — Greek, Italian, for example — the stress between mothers and daughters-in-law is high. In cultures where there is a long tradition of nuclear families, the relationship is a lot easier. As for being ‘cool’: a lot of the coolness is usually only for public consumption and private spaces tend to still see the old norms of behaviour.
Often, answers like this see a lot of people writing in to say anecdotally their experience has been to the contrary. Of course, no two lives are the same, and my views relate to the experience of a large majority. It only makes me happy to hear that some people have more pleasant experiences with their in-laws.
Modern-day marketing campaigns posit “mothers” are singularly, and overwhelmingly, wonderful and nurturing, and can only be self-sacrificing. Why are so many mothers-in-law — who are also mothers — so schizophrenic (being schizo is not associated with the single-mindedness of a ‘mother’)?
That’s the core of the issue. It is the fact that mothers are nurturing and self-sacrificing that tends to make them terrible in-laws. Mothers-in-law expect their daughters-in-law will be as singularly, and overwhelmingly, wonderful and nurturing, and self-sacrificing to their sons as they were. Obviously, a marriage is a different relationship and therefore anything the wife does when evaluated through the metric of what the mother would have done will be found wanting. All lapses are noted and a ledger book of grievances is constantly updated and tallied up. These are impossible and unnecessary standards to which a wife’s love is measured.
Mothers have to let go of their adult children and allow them to live their own lives. In the case of daughters, this is easier because she is raised on the understanding that one day she will “get married and go away”. But with sons, mothers expect to serve them as long as they possibly can, until they have to hand over this “privilege and honour” to the daughter-in-law.
Sushmita Bose is Features Editor, Khaleej Times
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