It goes without saying that one is reluctant to open the newspaper early in the morning these days. The news is uniformly depressing and experts tell us it is going to get a lot worse before it starts getting better. And if the venerated Lancet is to be believed, India has botched things up right royally and disaster will rain down on us. ‘Apocalypse,’ Lancet screams, hell hath no fury like a virus scorned. And that doomsday merchant, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) routinely predicts gloom and catastrophe for India. Fortunately, I give a flying toss for what the Lancet or WHO says. Dr. Randeep Guleria, Dr. Devi Shetty and Dr. Sanjeev Bagai, all good men and true are good enough for me. Happily, they think things will get better (provided). The chorus of an old Beatles song reverberates, ‘I’ve got to admit it’s getting better, a little better all the time (it can’t get no worse).’ There is a smidgen of mordant irony, if you look closely for it, in those Lennon-McCartney lyrics, and we wait for that day, somewhere in the not-too-distant future when we could all sing those lyrics, or whatever equivalent we can find in our own respective tongues. If you wish to be merely ironical, you can sing it even now.
That said, reading the newspaper of a morning, along with a steaming hot cuppa, is a lifetime habit for many of us, who are not inextricably wedded to the claustrophobic, spondylitic confines of our mobile phones causing painful changes to our cervical cord. In order to delay casting my weary eye over the inevitable missives about vaccine shortage, patients breathlessly waiting for oxygen concentrators and ventilators, running counts of the infected, the recovered and the deceased on a daily basis, I start by turning to the sports pages. Not much to cheer about there either, unless you are a Manchester City, Nadal or Djokovic fan. Charlie Brown, Hagar the Horrible, not to mention Calvin and Hobbes provide much-needed light relief on the entertainment pages, except if you favour reading about film stars frolicking with their golden retrievers and cocker-spaniels or telling us how to make chicken stroganoff (beef will be frowned upon) and gabbing on about their pets’ treatment in sickness and in health.
That being the broad scenario as far as the news pages are concerned, I did not pay much heed to a news item headlined, ‘Woman kills children and commits suicide.’ It happens all the time in our benighted country. Sadly, one has become blasé about such headlines, tragic as they are. This ghastly incident occurred somewhere in the rural heartlands of Bihar. Where else? I assumed straightaway, with good reason, that it must have been virus-related and the suffering woman decided to end it all in one fell swoop. Her husband was evidently a truck driver, and as truck drivers are wont to do, was unmindfully driving his truck somewhere in India’s broad highways, a bottle of country liquor keeping him in a cheerfully inebriated state, while his unfortunate family were doing themselves in. Horrific as this case reportedly was, and there are many more like that, it had nothing to do with the rampaging disease that is ravaging our nation. This was a simple case of the poor housewife being badgered and harassed by her mother-in-law. That old trope again, one that we have witnessed in so many Indian pot-boiler films during the 60s and 70s. Which is not to say that it does not happen in real life, as witness the abovementioned incident. As to a matter of pertinent detail, it was not very clear to me whether she poisoned all her children (there were four of them) and poured the deadly hemlock down her own throat, or in the more time-honoured fashion, threw all of them into a nearby well (there’s always one handy) and dived in right after them, or perhaps a bit of both. Now that is a poisoned well, if you’re looking for one. This lack of important detail would have rightly infuriated Sherlock Holmes, or for that matter, Hercule Poirot. I merely shook my head cynically at the pathetic quality of reportage that has permeated the newspaper industry. Superficiality is the order of the day, and that includes glossing over details.
Thus I found myself stranded in a strange quandary. Should I feel sorry for this woman in rural Bihar who was forced to end her own and her children’s lives due to mother-in-law troubles, or feel relieved that it was not a case of another lot of virus victims? It was then that I concluded that I shan’t waste any more time cogitating over the reasoning for this tragedy and instead, ponder over this mother-in-law syndrome that so afflicts our society. Let the virus do its damnedest, the vaccine will take care of it, in God’s good time. I am, for the nonce, hooked on this mother-in-law thing.
What is it about mothers-in-law that makes them a shoo-in for the role of the villainess in our scheme of things and the spiteful darlings of our film world? I often feel that the clan as a whole has been hard done by. Grossly misjudged. My own mother-in-law, may she rest in peace, was the embodiment of all that is good and kind in a person that you could wish for, and she could cook a storm in the kitchen. Then again, I am biased. Any one who can produce the kind of desserts she could, gets my vote for Mother-In-Law of The Century. I daresay there are hundreds of others who would place their hands on their hearts and swear undying allegiance to the virtues of their respective mothers-in-law. However, in broad generic terms in the Indian landscape, she has been, rightly or wrongly, portrayed as an intensely vile harridan. Vilified is the word I am groping for.
Naturally, nasty jokes abound about mothers-in-law. Let us bear in mind that someone’s mother is somebody else’s mother-in-law and that every mother-in-law was also once a daughter-in-law. Saas bhi kabhi bahu thi. That is the immutable law of nature when you decide to enter the state of wedlock. For instance, did you know that ‘mother-in-law’ is an anagram of ‘Woman Hitler,’ if you exclude the hyphens? Here’s another. First man: ‘I took my dog to the vet today because it bit my mother-in-law.’ Another asked: ‘Did you put it to sleep?’ The first replied: ‘No, I had its teeth sharpened.’ And here’s one for the road, my favourite. Bill: ‘I was sorry to hear that your mother-in-law died. What was the complaint?’ George: ‘We haven’t had any yet.’ I could go on and on. The brilliant polemicist, writer and speaker, the late, lamented Christopher Hitchens once talked of a religious text’s promise of 72 virgins for the pious when they entered paradise, ‘My only hope is that for every 72 virgins they get in paradise, they also get 72 mothers-in-law,’ Hitchens quipped.
I personally think the mother-in-law is more sinned against than sinning. Let me hasten to add that I do not, not for one nano second, claim that we don’t have a gaggle of monsters, à la our Indian film portrayals in the mother-in-law space. I am just griping about the over generalisation that reduces the whole category into a silly shibboleth. A crass cliché, if you will. Can we have a bit more discernment please? Are daughters-in-law and sons-in-law all angels in human shape? Of course not. Faults on both sides, and all that. To err is human, and mothers-in-law, most of them, are human, more or less. Let us not tar all of them with the same brush. I fully expect the ten-and-a-half readers of my blogs to bear down on me, raining verbal blows and obloquy. ‘What do you know about mothers-in-law?’ they will scream. ‘You are one of the few, lucky ones.’ Fine, I shall effect a dignified withdrawal from this unseemly brawl. Each to his or her own. I cannot arrogate to myself the right to speak for others but try stopping me speaking for myself.
In the final analysis, I make just one, humble request to all those who think they are being unfairly targeted by their mothers-in-law. Spare a thought for her background. Perhaps she was given a tough time by her mother-in-law and knows no other way to get her own back. Those of us who studied in boarding schools will know what I mean. When we were juniors the prefects and monitors would mete out punishment routinely, simply because they faced the same hardship when they were juniors, from their seniors. ‘Wear that dunce cap and stand in the corner.’ And so it gets passed on in a self-perpetuating vicious cycle. Likewise with mothers-in-law. Give them a break, and if you find it unbearable, break some crockery (not the Wedgwood bone china). You will find it immensely relieving.