Did the traditional family of the past have a happy, blissful time? This question has intrigued me often. I hear from the elders, and read in books too, that once upon a time ‘They all lived under one roof. There was love and care and sacrifice. The human values were intact’, etc. etc.
I don’t refute the elders’ claim. In fact I find it very soothing to believe that once the world was a better place to live in. It makes me happy to know that people were once happy!
“But, Ammi, wasn’t there any friction, any conflict, any ill-feeling between you and the numerous in-laws who shared the same household?” I have tried in vain to ask my mother but she never comes out with the details that I would like to know about the extended family of the past! The biased me!
After marriage my mother entered a big household. My grandparents had four sons (thus four daughters-in-law) and four daughters, of whom three were much older than my mother thus already married and gone to their respective clans.
“The four of us had to take turns cooking and cleaning the entire household. One in every four days I had to work from morning till night, preparing three meals and cleaning the house and washing the dishes,” she says.
“It must have been very tiring! Why didn’t you women divide each day’s work instead?”
“No. We preferred it this way — to have the entire responsibility for one day and then take a 3-day relief, when we could take care of personal errands and do needlework or whatever we wanted to.”
My mother, the second youngest daughter-in-law, liked to read besides doing needlework, and my chachi, the youngest bahu (‘the wild and the spoilt one’ as she was known) had an equally voracious appetite for listening to stories (she couldn’t read herself) so my mother used to read out to her novels and short stories, which made the elder bahus (who didn’t approve of this ‘senseless pastime’) furious.
So far it all sounded all right and relatively peaceful. “But weren’t there ever any fights between you four?”
“Well, as you know your Ran Amma”, (she is a warrior type) we had to tolerate her taunts and cutting remarks all the time. She didn’t like our cooking. She found faults with our cleaning. She never approved of anything we did.”
“Your poor chachi had a hell of a time. She was only eleven when she got married. She couldn’t cope with household tasks. But her age didn’t absolve her of the duties. There were frequent fights between her and your ‘Ban Amma’.”
Chachi was a heady, ferocious child-woman who rebelled and retaliated often and had to pay the price. In the power politics of the familial hierarchy, she was the youngest, thus the weakest.
“Once she kicked ‘Bari Amma, “, my mother told me. “Really!” I couldn’t believe it. But I could very well imagine Bari Amma’s reaction. The plump, short, powerful bahu must have created an uproar and blown the roof off the house.
“It was her turn to work. But she was evasive and lazy and as usual sitting with me and listening to a story. Bari Amma interrupted and tried to snatch the book from my hand. Your chachi got so furious at this interruption of her pleasure that she literally kicked Bari Amma and she fell down. All hell broke loose. I was also punished as I was considered her accomplice.”
So after all everything went on in the glorified, joint family — loving and hating and fighting and bitching. Resentment and jealousies and exploitation of the weak by the powerful weren’t uncommon.
In terms of taunts and cruelty of the tongue, perhaps my mother suffered most. Because she came from a peasant family, she didn’t bring any dowry. Nor gold. And my Bari Amma all the time reminded my mother how much gold she herself had brought and how rich her own parents were!
But there must have been nobler elements in the family, like the fair and equal treatment of all daughters-in-law by my grandparents, and sharing of happiness and sorrows, and the close friendship my mother had developed with her youngest sister-in-law. They became bosom friends and it was such an exemplary ‘nand-bhawaj’ relationship that even to this day I hear about it from my relatives.
My mother never sounds either bitter, or nostalgic, about that period of her life.
The family of the past is something I want to explore further.