The Dawn: Apr 3, 2015

PUNJAB NOTES: Family: woman versus woman

Mushtaq Soofi 

It seems family has not changed a bit if we look at it in terms of relationship that exists between it and the woman who is brought in from outside as a bride.

A would-be bride is the loveliest creature as long as she is at her parents’. The moment she enters the house of her in-laws as a new member of the family, things gradually begin to change in somewhat anticipated but painful manner. As a result of arranged or love marriage woman shifts to her in-laws’ house; a place that evokes contradictory feelings. On the one hand she, full of expectations, is going to a place which she will own as her permanent abode, and on the other, stalked by lurking fears, she invisibly suffers from a paranoia that she may be treated there as an intruder or alien. Her conduct in the initial period is usually tentative betraying a suppressed anxiety of a bird caged in unfamiliar environment that emits multiple coded signals, open to diverse interpretations.

Difference between the in-laws’ family culture and that of her parental family is one of the reasons that keeps her on tenterhooks. One misstep in the process of forming a new multi-pronged relationship with her new family can cause a bruise leaving a difficult to hide scar on the innards of interpersonal relationship.

The bride when becomes the daughter-in -law, has to tackle manifold problems arising out of skein of joint family that normally harbours three generations under one roof. It was perhaps such a scene that forced poet Ezra Pound to write: ‘how hideous it is to see three generations gathered together’. Three generations gathered together are a horde she has to tame and live with in a situation of delicate uncertainties. Members of the extended family are out of the blue raiders she must learn to cope with.

Expectations from the new comer are high. She must show proper respect to the elders who can be large in number having diverse social and personal habits. A newly arrived elderly guest from the countryside in an urban household may ask for jaggery. A guest from urban centre in a rural household after the meal may ask for a cup of coffee and she has no clue as how to make ‘caafi’. Learning to manage an intricate net-work of family relationships is extremely exacting for the young married woman. She always feels compelled, in the words of T S Elliot, ‘to prepare the face to meet the faces that you meet’. Keeping up appearances is what can make the in-laws tolerate her.

Relationship with hard to please mother-in-law is the trickiest matter. For the mother-in-law her son’s wife is a mere trifle if she does not play role of a maid. For the daughter-in-law her mother -in-law is an ominous fixture if she fails to be her adoring mother. Both suffer from a sense of insecurity in an execrable patriarchic structure where women compete for men’s favour. The house is a contested space where women have to fight for a place. Arrival of the bride poses a threat to the mother-in-law who apparently stands to psychologically lose what she believes to be her most precious possession; her son. Unmarried son has a little intimate world in the person of his mother who is his confidant as well as adviser on things, small and big. With the marriage a new woman enters the son’s life with prospect to irrevocably change it. The son shifts his focus from his mother to his wife who he becomes more intimate with for obviously natural reasons.

Fear of losing their tenuous grip on the levers of domestic power creates frictions which imperceptibly lead the women into a quagmire of paranoia.

Uncertainty breeds desperation that in turn leads to confrontation. In Punjabi language we find a huge body of lore that envisages such a confrontation well before it actually takes place. When the wedding procession arrives at bride’s place, women receiving the guests sing verses such as this; ‘cast a spell on the blowing wind / get seven husbands for bride-groom’s mother’. Seven husbands for her! Only seven husbands could force her to free her son to live with his wife undisturbed.

Conflicting demands of her in-laws makes the daughter-in-law vulnerable. She has nothing to fall back upon. She is supposed to have left her parental home for good. She has to spend her days with her husband in a joint family. As a house wife she has to constantly interact with her mother-in-law who treats her as a usurper that needs to be dispossessed. The nagging matriarch with her nasty taunts keeps the young woman at the edge. What the young woman can have is the vicarious pleasure of triumphing over her impish foe at an imaginative level. Folk-verses express her imaginings. ‘Wicked is my mother-in-law/ she never addresses me without using a swear word/ I must thrash her/ I will thrash her behind the stack of trunks’. But what happens is the opposite. She is the one who gets occasional beating. If she is defiant enough to take on her apathetic in-laws, she is likely to land in situation not different from the one superbly painted by Baba Farid. ‘In-laws offer her no shelter/ parents have no place for her/ the beloved has no patience to hear her out/ and yet she is known to have been endowed with a conjugal bliss’.

Matriarch, tormented as a young wife, turns into a tormentor after having internalised the tormentor’s image when she deals with her son’s wife oblivious to the fact that both have a marginal role in the patriarchy-based family structure that accepts them as lesser beings. It makes no distinction as far as women are concerned; young or old, daughter-in-law or mother-in-law. It drives them all with the same stick that has a misogynistic tip.—

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