When Keeping Things DISTANT Means All Is Well Between The MIL And DIL!

As relationships become distant it is convenient to keep them so. Gradually you stop sharing small details which sound unimportant, and not worth sharing on the late night phone call after all work is done.

Earlier large families were the norm – the accepted traditions, lack of birth control measures, lack of education, etc. were the reasons. This is the story of five sisters belonging to such a family – born over two decades, therefore, belonging to the same as well as different generations. The eldest is, according to her times ‘matric-pass’ and the last one is a postgraduate. The focus is on their MILs and DILs equations.

Growing up together siblings teach each other conflict avoidance and conflict resolution. Siblings learn from each other’s experiences and with so many siblings of different ages, you tend to gain way in advance life experiences and skills galore. Nuclear families face this problem because, with one or two kids, the gen-next remains totally green till they get married. This problem too will soon disappear with the emerging trend of no kids. There will be a level playing field for all.

Just as the structure of families has changed so has the meaning of ‘good relations’. Earlier good relations meant living together in a joint family, no issues of privacy or individuality, no personal space, no closed doors, having pride in family, gaining strength from the bonds, adjusting, and leaning on other members. The economic structure facilitated this because the head of the family held the purse strings.

As a woman nearing 70, I have seen everything change over the past few decades

The last forty years have brought in a sea change – the last two decades especially. Now there are different ‘purses’ in the family. Each purse holder wants things to run his or her way. So, living together is out of the question.

Respecting boundaries (which can be written in capitals) is expected. No nosiness, inquisitiveness, no sharing of details (in depth) is expected. Believing that there is no need to be worried if we haven’t received information about someone or something, because if something bad had happened, we would have been told about it – is now mandatory. Remember the old adage ‘no news is good news’? Earlier people used this phrase when they were worried about something to make themselves feel better. Now it is a way of life; to be taken at face value.

After all, there is the mobile phone, video chat, and WhatsApp. You can wish each other all the Days – Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Women’s Day along with the customary birthdays and anniversaries. You can send flowers, cakes, and chocolates via courier. You can send lots of smilies, hearts, and rose emojis on WhatsApp along with readymade silver-tongued, emotional and well-expressed, politically correct messages. (You see everyone has a smartphone.) All the time keeping in mind you don’t want to impose on, impinge, disturb, encroach, or upset the other party’s time and privacy unnecessarily. And a day comes when the islands get used to the surrounding water and learn to survive, cut off, floating regally but lonely.

The story of the five sisters

Let’s come back to the five sisters. The eldest Kashi, eighty-five years old, had seen the change of domestic regime in the nineties of the last century. Her DIL has been with her for the last thirty-three years. Since her husband passed away, the son didn’t want her to live alone. The son is caring but he is out of the house throughout the day. He did not listen to his wife’s repeated declarations at the beginning of wanting to live separately.

Today the DIL’s behavior borders on polite (!) adult abuse. She does not talk to the MIL unless there are guests, or she has to give instructions regarding the servants. In front of the guests, it’s a different picture; the DIL is a different person – affectionate, and respectful. Then it is back to silence.

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The messy web of family obligations

Kashi is convinced that the biggest mistake of her life is that she chose to live with them at her son’s insistence. The DIL had in the early days, announced openly repeatedly that she wanted an independent establishment, but the son was worried about what will people say. Now even he realizes he could keep neither his mother nor wife happy. Mind you the MIL and DIL both are decent human beings, the kind with whom you too will like to be friends.

The other four sisters were watching Kashi’s life unfold and assimilating her experiences subconsciously and making their own strategies according to the circumstances of their families.

Nalini and Kailash – the second and third sisters, settled in London. Kailash’s son got married. The girl was of a different religion and was going against her parent’s wishes when she entered Kailash’s home as a bride. They were all working – breakfast of cereal and apple, lunch at the workplace, and dinner together at home – a happy family.

But soon the cracks appeared. Kailash used to cook dinner as she came back earlier from the office and her DIL who came a bit later used to clean the table and kitchen, load the dishwasher, etc. Then the dance steps changed and so did the tempo. Small skirmishes – and the DIL will go to her bedroom upstairs and a little later the son will come downstairs and complain to mom. Then in a day or two DIL will scold her husband in front of everyone and ask him to get roses for Mom because he had upset Mom.

And the unravelling of relationships began

This continued till one day in the third year the DIL declared after dinner that it would be better if they branched out. That day an upset Kailash instead of reacting heatedly to her DIL, walked out and kept on walking on the deserted roads for two hours mulling over what had gone wrong. Next week a tight-lipped Kailash and her bewildered husband helped the young couple set up their home, generously sharing things from their household.

Then a weekly visit from the young couple became the routine. Amidst the ‘hies’ and ‘byes’ and son’s standing order for his favorite ‘rajma’ eaten and the leftovers packed to be taken every Saturday evening finished. Intimacy had acquired a new shade – ‘How-are-you-All-good?’ shade.

Nalini did not repeat Kailash’s policy. Her DIL expressed her wish to stay separately before becoming officially engaged. Nalini and her husband happily waved a green flag.

Nalini’s daughter Varsha got married to the youngest son of a family of four siblings. There was no father. All the siblings had moved out one by one after their marriages and this son is ‘stuck’ with the mother. Trapped? Guilt, shame, and obligation fall to his share! And love and loyalty to both the women too! It has been sixteen years. The problem is escalated by the two married sisters who live locally, who are too busy otherwise to share the responsibility but have time to point out to Mom how she is not being looked after properly. The continuous rumblings spoil the peace of the home though grandkids are very happy with grandma’s presence.

Relationships are the same, whether London or India!

The fourth sister Savita had lost her husband in the early fifties. She had one son only and eagerly waited for him to get married. She celebrated her DIL’s coming wholeheartedly expecting that there will be another woman to share. She ignored Kailash’s experience. This is India, not London. Since she had an only son, there was no one to share property, money, business, etc. which often leads to rows and fights. She did not realize the amount and number of adjustments she would have to make to keep her working DIL happy.

Savita warned her younger sister Abha to think clearly and plan accordingly “Bahut adjust karna padata hai (you have to adjust a lot), and if you don’t do that you become the reason for fights between the young couple. And to bring up a baby following your absent DIL’s instructions to T is a very difficult job. In addition, it is obvious that the DIL is under the impression that the maids she has hired are doing the job and not the MIL, who just sits and orders – such a cushy life she leads! That the MIL has retired after putting in three decades of service is all right! After all, what’s new? – she too is working.’

Learning from her older sisters’ experience

The youngest sister, Abha, had been assimilating and absorbing everything her sisters had encountered and undergone. She had been learning from them when to stand up for herself and when to stand down. Unknowingly they had helped her to make up her mind that her son would set up his own home when the time comes. The age for getting married too has gone high. She helplessly watched her son and counted – thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-three, and so on! Abha kept her fingers crossed and fervently prayed to the unknown to bring such a girl (caste and creed not important!) in his life whom he would not be able to resist. And this girl did turn up – they were in a relationship for another two years and then got married without frills in a simple ceremony.

Both are passionate about their work, have great jobs, and are busy climbing professionally, the ‘biological clock’ has no meaning for them. They don’t want children at this juncture. Abha and her husband visit them for a week or so. The young couple wants to use their holidays for traveling not for coming home, “Mom, try to understand. As it is the deadlines hardly leave room for leave!”

Mom understands. Never questions. Fully trusts their emotional intelligence and hopes they will be there for each other thirty, forty years hence long after she is gone.

The son makes it a point to talk to her daily on phone without a miss. “Meri awaaz sunn lo” – it’s an old joke between them from the days he had gone to the hostel and has been following her dictum that she wants to hear his voice once in twenty-four hours. While he talks to her, DIL talks to her parents – maximum utilization of time tagged with the ever-present ‘give her my love’ from both sides!

Keeping up the relationship through WhatsApp messages

Abha gets such messages from her DIL ‘I don’t say it very often and don’t speak very often (my bad) but I am blessed to have you in my life’ with the emoji of heart. Abha smiles to herself musing, ‘They must have spent an evening with friends who are having MIL problems.’

So, no news is good news. Abha assumes it is all rosy in the young couple’s world. Not getting involved in their day-to-day living is fine. What is their monthly budget? How many maids do they employ? At what time do they sleep or get up? Do they cook at home? Or do they order food all the time? Not insisting ‘Go for a baby – time is ticking’ is fine though you very much want to.

Maintaining a healthy distance is fine. But how much distance is the healthy distance? Formality creeps in. Gradually you stop sharing small details in the limited time of phone conversations. The details sound silly, unimportant, and not worth sharing at that time late in the night. Then you realize you have formed different routines and the shade of intimacy has changed. Is it a mature, subtle shade or a faded one? When will this shade become the so-called ‘normal’ shade – after some clashes?

Deep down you know in case of an emergency both couples will be there for each other. They are just a phone call away. Period. They have good relations. Period.

So, the older meaning of ‘good relation’ has changed. The new concept of ‘good relations’ will according to older times amount to ‘no relations’. Earlier not living together, not being involved in day-to-day life, not asking permission from elders for everything, not walking in their footsteps, and maintaining distance meant ‘no relations’. The older concept of ‘No relation’ today is ‘Good relation’. May it never become a ‘real relation’. May it never face the usual skirmishes, clashes, and battles of the joint family to earn the older connotation of being the Real relation.

Image source: a still from English Vinglish

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