Who’s in Charge Here?

LEARNING TO LIVE WITH THE IN-LAWS

Masiji, my husband’s eighty-four-year-old aunt, has been living with us for the past five years. She shares a room with her sister, my husband’s mother, who is ninety-four. Though they get along well most of the time, there are days I’m reminded of the sibling rivalry we endured when our children were small. Ravi’s mother can’t stop bossing, and her sister’s feelings are always getting bruised. I try to negotiate, comfort, and cajole. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But that’s OK. I can deal with the ups and downs of a relationship that is so solid and well established.

What I do find difficult is how each person’s views, values, preferences, and tastes have to be weighed and incorporated into the fabric of the home. When people marry, they generally choose a spouse based on commonly shared understandings and principles. The inevitable adjustments are part of the experience, and a good marriage is full of compromise. You bring up children according to your shared views and values. While this can be challenging and revealing, I’ve found it enriching and (most of the time) a pleasure.

But an intercultural family presents challenges that even I—who grew up in a house with many siblings, three resident grandparents, and a long train of aunts, uncles, cousins, and strays—have found difficult and exasperating at times.

Here in India, there are a number of different ground rules and non-negotiables. Meals, for example, must be elaborate and served hot, three times a day. Comings and goings must be cleared with the “High Command.” You may think that you are a grown woman and entitled to make your own decisions—but you are wrong. As long as there is an older woman in the house, you are a nobody. And while I have worked hard to train my mother-in-law, her sister is another matter entirely.

I love Masiji. In fact, I am lost in admiration and respect for the life she has endured. For years after the partition riots that swept India immediately following independence, during which her family lost everything, she lived in a shack on a footpath. She witnessed scenes of unspeakable brutality: women raped before her eyes; a train full of dead passengers passing through the station where she was waiting for a train on which to escape her own misery; a small child crying in its dead mother’s arms.

She had to cook meals for her family on the street. She gathered the firewood under cover of darkness from a forbidden grove, miles from the shack. She carried the family’s water in a brass vessel on her head. There was no indoor plumbing; they bathed on the street and used a vacant lot as their toilet. She had five children, one with a severe disability. She lost contact with her father and sisters for years. They thought she was dead. She never received an education, and had almost no money. But she survived. She endured.

So, when Masiji insists on making the yogurt by wrapping the bowl in my favorite tea cozy, then a towel, and finally an old black shawl, what difference does it make? And if she must use hair oil that stains the bathroom floor or knee balm that stinks up the whole house, what does it matter? If she wants to know who called me on the phone, and where I think I am going at 9 p.m., can’t I just tell her? She’s entitled. She endured.

But there are also Masiji’s prejudices: her fixed beliefs about Muslims that can’t be reasoned away (“Did you live through the partition or did I?”), about poor people, about servants who are just waiting for you to turn your back so they can steal your butter, your sugar, your potatoes, your jewelry. And what I cannot abide is that these prejudices insinuate their way into my home. For the moment my back is turned, Masiji is in the kitchen hovering, inspecting, watching every move the servants make, so that after she has left, I have to sneak back into the kitchen to reassure the cook she really can eat whatever she wants, that she needn’t be furtive or anxious, that I am in charge, not Masiji. But exerting such damage control is a losing battle. You know the saying (and it’s true): If you have to insist that you’re in charge, you’re not.

Yet when I think about inclusion and all the lovely things I am so fond of repeating about tolerance and acceptance, about differences and the fact that we all have to find ways to co-exist peacefully under one roof, I recognize that my fuming about Masiji is beneath me.

It is well known among daughters-in-law that most elderly women in India are insecure, worried in some fundamental way about their right to be where they are. For Masiji, who lives with her nephew and not her son (and that’s a whole other story), this is more true than usual. So I try to swallow my outrage, make sure my cook has plenty of butter for her bread and sugar for her tea, and carry on. This is my home. But it’s Masiji’s too.

Published in the 2011-09-09 issue: 
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Jo McGowan, a longtime contributor to Commonweal, writes from Dehradun, India.

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