In-lawesome land

Lasting Ties

In-lawesome land

Family Ties: Sharanya with her husband Sridhar and in-laws;

Problems with the in-laws used to be the most commonplace story you ever heard, told by an aunt, a neighbour, perhaps a childhood friend who (unfortunately?) married early, and more often than not, by your own mom. It was a story that might have been triggered by your suggesting take-away for dinner or by her catching you sprawled on the sofa lost in a novel. “Your granddad would never have approved of that,” your mum would say. “Do you know what he’d tell me if I so much as listened to the radio in the afternoon?” And out would come the horror, sometimes humorous, tales of living with her in-laws — your grandparents. “Thata said that?” you’d exclaim and crack up at the vision of the cuddly gentleman being considered anything of a terror.

Perhaps seeing things from both sides early on has made us more sensitive to in-law issues. Then again, maybe it’s just put us on guard. Either way, things weren’t the same when it was our turn to get married. No monster-in-law awaited us at home, waving hoops for us to jump through. No snide remarks came forth, and definitely no being made to feel an outsider. 

Winds of change
So things have changed for a whole bunch of us, haven’t they? “Absolutely,” says Sharanya Ramprakash, “I guess people are more accepting of the fact that you have your own life. They don’t expect you to come home from work, cook and wash the dishes.”

Sharanya is one of the founders of the Bangalore chapter of the theatre group, Dramanon. In between a full-time job as a Senior Manager with The Fuller Life and play rehearsals, Sharanya has barely enough time to rest her feet, let alone lend a hand in the kitchen. It is almost as Neeru Singh, a freelance consultant married for nine years, puts it, “Nobody has time to fight anymore!”

Play together, stay together
But ‘no time’ hardly seems to have gotten in the way of having some fun with your in-laws. “Most evenings we play Scrabble, discuss Harry Potter and talk about the movies,” says Sharanya, who moved in with her in-laws right after she got married. For Deepta Vijayan it is cooking with her mom-in-law as a means to unwind. “She’s open to learning things from me,” shares Deepta. Then there are long vacations to be taken, late night movies to catch and dance classes to attend. Strange as it sounds, it does seem as if these young couples are having more fun after marriage than they did before!
Sharanya believes it’s thanks to Sridhar’s parents. “They are so much more cooler than my own folks. I’d never have thought they’d be okay with us coming home drunk at three in the morning, but they are.”

‘Cool’ in-laws seem to have sprouted everywhere overnight. Like the Ramakrishnans, who live in south Bangalore. Ramakrishnan’s son married a Vietnamese girl he met while studying in the US a year ago. Despite the obvious cultural differences, Ramakrishnan and his wife Sharadha did not have much of a problem accepting Van as their daughter-in-law. They are tickled pink by the many things Van learnt and did — like remembering not to touch anything on the table while she’s eating and wearing a nine-yard sari for the wedding — just to please them.

“She has always been ready to adapt,” Ramakrishnan says fondly. “She is Buddhist, and not averse to Hinduism. From the cultural point of view, of course, there are a lot of differences, but we all adjust.”

Sonny side up
In-laws making adjustments were unheard of in our parents’ times. So what is responsible for this shift in perspective? Says Deepta, “The equations have changed since we (women) have strong personalities and careers. In-laws too have daughters so they are sensitive to our aspirations.”

Women’s empowerment also seems to have liberated the girl’s parents. No longer are parents worrying themselves silly about elevating sons-in-law to the stature of demi-gods. “Those days are long gone,” says Neeru, “Parents don’t mind staying at the daughter’s house and sons-in-law are happy to run errands for them. Sometimes if my dad wants something I don’t even get to hear about it. He just asks my husband.”

“There isn’t the subservience that was there before,” says Deepta, referring to both how women treated their husband’s parents and how her parents treated their son-in-law. “Vivek and my dad get along very well. They have intense debates too. But no one is conscious about the fact that Vivek is the ‘son-in-law’. Nor are my parents worried about how much time they spend at our house.” Parents these days seem perfectly all right with their children’s lifestyles, and the limitations that come with it.

Give and take
As Neeru is Punjabi and her in-laws are UP Brahmins, they’ve made allowances for her lack of knowledge about their customs. Many a times she’d “feign ignorance” and her in-laws would be indulgent of her forgetfulness. “But I do all the little things that make them happy, like touching someone’s feet or covering my head when they want me to,” she says.

Ramakrishnan, too, has learnt to see things from his daughter-in-law’s point of view. “There has always got to be give and take in any relationship for it to work,” he summarises.

Married for under nine months, Surabhi Herur couldn’t be happier about her husband Kumar’s parents. “They are extremely cool and have a great sense humour. I feel very loved.” And she isn’t alone. Neeru says, “In my case my in-laws didn’t have a daughter, so I was seen as the daughter. I take responsibilities and decisions that a daughter would take in the house.”

When love’s in the air
Clearly, there’s more to this than women’s empowerment. In most cases children choose their own life partners, which cuts down the traditional role of an Indian parent by half. An altered role demands altered expectations, and most parents have recognised this.
“It was pretty much in our hands from the start,” says Surabhi, who met Kumar through family friends and then fell in love. “Kumar’s parents believe that at the end of the day it is the couple who have to make their relationship work.”

Parents also understand the greater role ‘space’ has come to play in our lives. Ramakrishnan says, “Problems that arise when we live together is not in the capacity of our being in-laws. They are problems of any two humans living together with different tastes.”  Then there’s the role the son plays to ensure his wife is understood better. “It’s thanks to the increasing number of non-arranged marriages,” reasons Neeru. “Even if the parents are orthodox, the son steps in to sensitise his parents.”

Wedding wars? Nah!
Weddings are usually great ground for fostering ill feelings between families. Not so for Surabhi. Kumar and Surabhi had a unique wedding wherein Kumar’s father conducted the ceremony and every ritual was explained to the couple and the guests. The ceremony ended with the couple lighting lamps for every vow they exchanged.

 Were there any raised eyebrows at this rather new-age wedding? “None,” says Surabhi. “My in-laws have tremendous respect for young people. Even though the wedding was not what they had in mind, once we started talking they were okay about it and played their part beautifully. There was never any stress and definitely no tension between his parents and mine.”

Live and let live
Analysing her bond with her in-laws, Deepta feels it was they who set the initial ‘tone’ of their relationship. “They understood they’d have to give us space. They’ve never pressurised us to behave in a particular way but let us learn with time. When we aren’t told what to do and what not to, there’s no rebellion. You want to change yourself.”
About where responsibility lies in making relationships work, Neeru is very clear. “The shift has to happen from both sides. At the end of the day it is a two-way street,” she says. It’s called a new generation when yesterday’s realities become today’s stereotypes.

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