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Nisha and her MIL met up once a month to catch up - woman to woman. Neither of them was very chatty with each other although both were known to talk their ear off with others.
Nisha looked around the apartment. It was about as tidy as she could possibly keep it. Her mother-in-law (MIL) never really said anything but she looked closely at things. She always peered and glanced askew and grimaced and shook her head when she came over. And Nisha knew it had to do with how she ‘kept’ her home. Sometimes she wished her MIL would just come out and say something.
Why is the children’s room always untidy? Why is the tricycle lying about? Don’t you think my grandkids will injure themselves? What about that skateboard? It’s right underneath my grandson’s bed. What if he woke up and just stepped on it? it would just zoom off and he would get injured. Is that what she wanted? For her son to break his leg or arms?
Or the master bedroom? There were always bits and bobs and clothes lying about. Nisha made sure there wasn’t anything lying about today – not her jeans or undies or bras or Rahul’s socks (there was always that one sock that would hide from her but always reveal itself in all its black and red and blue glory JUST when her MIL showed up).
Nope. Everything was put away. Sure, she shoved everything inside the closets and drawers and shuddered to think what would happen if her MIL just opened one of the closet doors. Yep. A mountain of stuff would gush out and fall all over her but as long as the lady didn’t go near the doors – Nisha would be clear.
As Shivani got out of the Uber her husband had booked for her she made sure everything was in its right place. She took a quick glance at herself in the mirror outside the left side of the car. She patted her hair down and made sure it was tidy and not windblown or all puffed up. She pressed down hard on the bindi on her forehead to make sure it stayed where it was. She looked down and made sure her sandals didn’t carry any muck and dirt up her DIL’s living room. The last time she came it had been raining and her slippers were slushy. And wearing slippers in the rain meant that with every step she took the slippers splashed back muddy water and soiled her saree. She could just picture the horror on her DIL’s face when she showed up all wet, bedraggled, and dirtying the pristine clean house her DIL kept.
God. What wouldn’t she do…for once…to see her son’s home look like other people’s homes? Just normal middle-class homes like hers? Where the steel glasses were dented and dirt clung on for dear life in the nooks and crannies of utensils and which no amount of soap and poking them out with old toothbrushes could get rid of? What wouldn’t she do to see one tiny tear on one of the sofa cushions or for something in their décor that was off-kilter or mismatched? Bright blues and oranges and reds and purple colors clashing with each other or stripes and checked patterns on sofas and curtains that looked tacky or coffee tables and entertainment centers with old-fashioned sky-blue Formica patterns from the 80s? Heck…she’d settle for unzipped pillow cushions strewn about untidily on the floor.
No such luck.
Oh, no. That would be too good to be true. Instead, everything was perfectly color-coordinated (the whole house was done up in sophisticated and understated whites, browns, and beiges with spots of pop-up colors in reds and yellows). Everything was spic and span, always buffed up and shone. Shivani was grateful. Her DIL reflected wonderfully on her husband. Shivani couldn’t get enough of her friends who rained praises on how smart, stylish and posh her DIL was.
But…for once, just one time, she would give anything to be able to go to her son’s home and relax, just put up her feet on the coffee table, grab a throw pillow and squeeze it hard. Instead, she walked around with her eyes and mouth wide open and stared at everything – deep down, always scared and worried that she would take one wrong step and mess up the stark and pristine beauty of her son and DIL’s breathtaking abode.
Nisha heard the doorbell ring and took a quick look at herself in the full-length mirror right next to the front door. She wore a yellow and red mirror and bead-work long Kutchie skirt and a matching ethnic blouse. Her hair was loosely tied with a scrunchy. She also made sure she wore her mangalsutra. She pretty much wore it at all times but sometimes it just did not match some of the western cocktail dresses that she wore when she went out with Rahul and took it off. And that’s when someone would notice the lack of mangalsutra and rat her out to her MIL.
Her ears were adorned with gold lantern earrings that her MIL had given her as a gift for their fifth wedding anniversary and wore slim golden bangles on both wrists. She had light makeup on – just a single coat of eyeliner and colorless lip gloss.
She opened the door and greeted her MIL, “Come in ma.” She gave her MIL a quick hug and relieved her of the heavy-looking tote bag in her hand. She gestured to the same and asked, “What’s in it? It’s heavy, ma.”
“I made some rice crispy treats for the kids. Don’t worry! I made it sugar-free so you can have it also. Although, how you like anything sweet that’s sugar-free I don’t understand.” Shivani said with a smile.
“Thanks, ma. The kids will love them. So, will I. And honestly, once you get used to the taste of sugar-free…then it’s fine. I’ve been using Splenda in my tea and all the desserts I made that it’s become something of a habit now.”
“Honestly, how you live with what you eat is beyond me. You don’t eat rice anymore. Only oats. No sugar. You count calories after every meal. Aren’t you tired?”
Her MIL’s gentle scolding irritated Nisha but she swallowed any inkling of anger and said softly instead, “You know I put on weight very easily, ma. Even looking at these rice crispies and I’ll be up by one kilo tomorrow. I’m not getting any younger, you know? My father says that my mother suffered from diabetes. So do all her sisters. I am prone to sugar issues. So better safe than sorry.”
“And it helps you…”
“…keep my weight in control.” Nisha finished her MIL’s statement with a smile. “Yes. It does.”
She and her MIL walked toward the kitchen. “Coffee?”
“Of course,” her MIL replied.
The rest of the evening proceeded as it did for the past many years. Nisha and her MIL met up once a month to catch up – woman to woman. Neither of them was very chatty with each other although both were known to talk their ear off with others. But there was always quiet between them.
In the initial years of marriage, Nisha tried hard to change that. She’d told Rahul about it but he always reassured her and said it was normal behavior for a MIL to be cautious with her SIL. “As the years go by…you and ma will get close,” he’d say. Well…the years passed by. But the quiet got quieter.
It also didn’t help that Rahul encouraged Nisha to call her MIL ‘ma’.
“But I don’t think that’s fair to her,’ Nisha had protested. “She has children of her own – you and Anu. She wouldn’t like it if I co-opted the title just because I married you – her son.”
“What rubbish!” Rahul retorted. “She was so excited when you said yes to our marriage. She told me she was thrilled she was gaining a daughter. She’d LOVE it if you called her ma. Seriously, Nishu.”
Shivani never understood why Nisha called her ma. It wasn’t as if she wanted to. In the initial years as a newlywed Shivani could sense Nisha’s palpable distaste at calling Shivani ma. Over the years Nisha had learned to disguise her true feelings. And Shivani understood.
From what she knew about her DIL – she was extremely attached to the memory of her own mother, Asha, who’d passed away from breast cancer when Nisha was only seven years old. Obviously, the tragedy devastated her. And Nisha’s father had loved her mother so deeply – he remained a widower all his life and raised his only daughter as a single father. The two of them were extremely close and Nisha’s father kept the memory of Asha alive by regaling Nisha with stories about her mother.
So, why on earth does she call me, ma?
Not to mention the pressure she felt when Nisha called her ma. Shalini wanted to love Nisha as a daughter but she didn’t think that Nisha would appreciate that sentiment. But when Shalini told her husband about it and he just shrugged it off. “You should be thrilled, Shivani, that your DIL thinks of you as a mother. Otherwise, why would she call you ma? Be happy instead of worrying about it.”
I don’t have a mother. I never had a mother. What I have are memories of my own mother. But I don’t know what it feels like to run home to your mother when you’re injured and be picked up by her and have her put a bandaid over the tiny scratches on your knee and reassure you that it’ll all be OK. I don’t know what it feels like for a mother to rub almond oil on her hands and then run them through your hair gently and massage your aching scalp. I never had a mother who prepared me for when I changed from being a spoiled brat to a young teenager and then into a woman. I’ve never stolen my mother’s makeup or clothes and modeled her sarees or high heels secretly when she wasn’t home. I’ve never had a mother scold me for coming home late or speaking to a boy. I couldn’t ask my mother questions about how scary giving birth can be and neither was I able to share the two most precious days of my life – when I gave birth to my own children with her.
I don’t know how any of that feels.
When I got married, I hoped my MIL would become my mother. I never believed in those naysayers who claimed that MILs and DILs cannot be friends or friendly. Or that there cannot be love between them. But my MIL never encouraged any relationship beyond the MIL-DIL one between us. She never encouraged me to talk and share with her the way she does with Anu. There are so many times when I wish I could go to her and be able to talk to her – woman to woman. But I know she wouldn’t like it.
I fell in love with her the day we saw her. Yes. She was, she is, beautiful. There was also a calmness to her, a gentleness and a quiet strength that I really admired. She didn’t talk for the sake of it. She didn’t yammer about to impress us. She just was. And over the years she has been wonderful. A wonderful, intelligent, and smart wife to my son. A genuinely wonderful reflection on him. Corporate culture is such that who you are married to and how they hold themselves next to their partner play a big part in their career growth. And Nisha has been such an asset to my son.
But the years have made her even more still. If that’s even possible. She’s become even quieter. I wish…I wish she talk to me. Like the way, Anu does with me. But the few times I’ve tried to get her to open up – especially when she gave birth – she shut down. I wanted her to come to our house with the babies after they were born – so I could take care of her. But she said she didn’t want to put me out. So, she called Laxmi tai and had her help her instead. It really hurt my feelings. But…I need to respect the boundaries that she has set up.
I call her ma but that’s just a word. Because she never responds to it like a mother would with her child. There is never any real feeling when she responds to my calling her ma.
She calls me ma but she doesn’t really think of me as her mother. There’s never any real emotion behind the word when she calls me ma.
But, of course, I’m not her daughter. I’m just her daughter-in-law.
And why will she? I’m not her mother. I’m only her mother-in-law.
This is Tales From A Marriage Part 3, a serialised story. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.
First published here.
Image source: a still from short film Methi ke Laddoo
Hi...I'm Roopa. I'm also a messy optimist! I'm an academic-cum-artist. I'm a writer, filmmaker and professor of creative writing. Academically, I've a Double Masters and a Phd read more...
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