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The Queen of Bahus

21 Feb

I gave birth to my second baby last year. In so many ways, it was spectacular because this time I knew what I was doing and how I wanted to do it. But even as I worked up the guts to be assertive to my doctors and caregivers (I fired one set of OBGYNs and hired an entirely new set 10 days before I gave birth) I somehow neglected to do the same at home with my inlaws, who were here to ‘help’.

Now I must note before I go any further that among Indian bahus I am queen. I don’t live with my inlaws. I see them maybe 2-3 weeks per year. My inlaws don’t control anything at all about my life, and to their credit they hardly ever try to. I often get the impression they are holding their tongue around me. I like that. It means they are forcing themselves to treat me as a human being rather than the submissive bahu-bot they long for.

But they slip up, every so often. And to my eternal despair I can never stand up for myself  or tell them off crushingly enough when that happens. For months afterwards I find myself playing a stupid, pointless, frustrating game of l’esprit de l’escalier, reliving these moments of cringing shame over and over again.

Like the time my mother in law told me I was wasting money for ordering a $3 dessert at a restaurant, and I just smiled and said “It’s okay, I can afford it” instead of biting her fucking head off like she deserved. Or all the times my father-in-law has made disparaging comments about my parents to me (yeah my parents aren’t perfect, but that doesn’t mean he gets to slag them off to my face!) and I just shrugged instead of biting his fucking head off like he deserved. And all those hundreds of little everyday insults and jibes and condescensions saying why can’t you just live like we tell you to live, which I just ignored instead of biting their fucking heads off for thinking they were allowed to boss me around.

In my fantasies I always have the perfect comeback and I can almost see their faces crumple under the devastation of my words just like they made my heart crumple.

It’s such a lame fantasy. This is one of those games where you’re a loser the moment you start playing. But fuck me if I know how to deal with this shit constructively or functionally.

It makes me feel like an asshole that I even want to deal with it. I’ll bet every single Indian person who reads my laundry list of complaints is thinking “WTF is she even complaining about? That’s nothing!” To them, I ask: do you think my inlaws would ever dream of speaking the same way to their son-in-law? You think they are telling him how much money he makes their daughter waste if she happens to buy him a bunch of flowers? (yeah, they said it to me, true story.)

And I’ll guarantee every American person who’s reading this is thinking “Holy crap what bitchy inlaws.” Because they’re judging it on an even more different level: they are thinking, would the I ever say the same things to my parents-in-law? Would I go into their home and expect them to obey me and look up to me? Would I complain to their parents behind their backs that they surf the internet too much?

There is this oceanic (literally :P) divide between the two cultures I am trying to live in simultaneously. In America, a mother-in-law who says “I know better than you what is good for your baby” is an interfering hag with control issues. In India, she is beyond normal: she is right.

So how can it be right for me, at the end of the day a desi bahu dealing with a desi mother-in-law, to force an American reading of the situation? My mother-in-law can’t even begin to comprehend that worldview. We are in different universes, there is no possibility of understanding or reconcilement as long as we each stick to what we think is right… and it is unthinkable for either of us to not stick to that. This makes me even more unable to speak my mind or stick up for myself to my satisfaction in these situations.

Is there even a functional way to deal with them? I doubt it.

Boundaries are the root problem here. I do not know how to draw them or maintain them noncombatively. This is a problem that all Indians share. I don’t even think we have a polite way of drawing and enforcing boundaries in our culture. And when I do it combatively I pay a steep social price for it, which I am more and more reluctant to pay the older I get, since the older I get the less I am willing to break the precious bonds binding us to society.

When I was younger I would have said “Precious? BAH!”

But now I know they are precious. Social bonds are all that help us feel human at the end of the day. Social bonds matter.

Even though they are scumbags to me personally, my inlaws really did help out when they came here for my second baby. They may have done it because they considered it their duty to help out family or because they love their son – my husband – or because they are absolutely besotted with their grandchildren… but in the end, they did it. My husband and I had someone to count on in our hour of need. And they in turn have us to count on, because no number of personal insults is going to stop me from helping them when they need me to. Also, did I mention they are absolutely besotted with my children? How few people there are in the world that I can say that about!

All this counts. All this is precious.

It strikes me that this is what it’s like to live as part of an oppressed demographic.

… Okay, that needs an explanation. It sounds churlish to say I am oppressed when I am positively drowning in a million different kinds of privilege, but it’s not. Thank feminism for articulating the concept of intersectionality: I may be privileged in a million ways but yet be oppressed in a million others.

So yes, I have the privilege of being straight, cis, able-bodied, thin, married, nonreligious, middle-class, well educated, living in a first-world country, etc etc etc. And I am also oppressed as a woman living with one foot in Indian culture (among other oppressions).

And this is what it’s like living as part of this oppressed demographic: there is nothing good for Indian bahus that does not come with a big poisonous sting attached. If I want the bonds of family I must take the dehumanization and subjugation that comes with it. I cannot have full humanity and strong familial bonds within the context of Indian culture. They are mutually exclusive. And since it would be unbearable to choose one or the other, I choose live in limbo with just about half of both.

This makes me luckier than most.

I am the queen of bahus. I don’t live with my inlaws, they don’t control my life, and I get to choose my own threshold of dehumanization vs. isolation.

By god, if that isn’t an argument for feminism, I don’t know what is.