Son-in-Law: Blessing or Intruder?

Depends on if you're American or Indian: a look at how two different cultures approach family-blending.
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As an Indian woman, I find myself envious of America's notion of the son-in-law. In movies (Meet the Parents), television (Modern Family) and in life, American sons-in-law are viewed as bumbling outsiders who have to prove themselves worthy of joining the halo circle that is the girl's family. They are put through hoops and considered guilty until proven otherwise. Once married, they are treated as part of the family. My friend, Phyllis is married into a large family based in Columbus, Ohio. Her husband has two sisters and a brother. When the family gets together for Thanksgiving or Christmas, everyone pitches in. The sons-in-law wash dishes, take out the garbage, and cook the odd dish. If anything, it is the women who get to go out with the kids, who get the lighter load.

This is in stark contrast to India, where sons-in-law are treated as honored guests; gifts of God really. Parents of the bride address their son-in-law using the respectful honorific (aap instead of the more egalitarian and casual tu) even if the man in question is 30 years younger than they are. The son-in-law is waited upon, made to feel special, and occupies a perch that is far above the humdrum of household life. Certainly, he does not do chores. Indian women of the previous generation were horrified if the son-in-law entered the kitchen. It was as if a guest walked into a restaurant kitchen unannounced. In the hierarchy of the joint family, the son-in-law was the top dog—even above the family patriarch. The daughter-in-law, in contrast, was at the bottom of the pile, something that the feminist in me resented—and resents to this day.

In India, the in-law wars are clichés that veer on comedy. They are fodder for television serials and cartoons. One of India's most popular soap operas has the verbose title, Because a Mother-in-Law Too Was Once a Daughter-in-Law ("Kyunki saas bhi kabhi bahu thi"). Kyunki, as it is called, is India's longest-running soap opera, with 1,833 episodes that aired daily from 2000 to 2008. This saas-bahu equation forms the basis of many of the country's other soap operas, including Pugundha Veedu ("the house you entered as daughter-in-law"), Kumkum ("the vermilion bindi"), and Kasauti Zindagi Ki ("test of life"). (Saas means mother-in-law and bahu means daughter-in-law in Hindi.) In these shows, the daughters-in-law are portrayed as strong and weak, often morphing from strong to weak in the same episode. They have rich inner lives and confront issues ranging from affairs to abortions. The son's character is wan in comparison. Things happen to him, often because of the machinations of his wife or mother.

Kyunki's chief protagonist, a woman named Tulsi Virani, gets married into an Indian joint family and becomes the ideal daughter-in-law, mother-in-law and—get this—grandmother-in-law, solving an array of convoluted problems for every member of the household. She is the crux around which the household wheel revolves. For example, in one of the early episodes of Kyunki, Savita—the mother-in-law who has been against her son marrying Tulsi—sulks for days to persuade her son against the match. When the two eventually get married, Savita decides to make hell for Tulsi. Matters worsen between the two women. The son, Mihir, responds by announcing that he wants to return to America where he was educated. He is eventually persuaded against it. Later, Tulsi decides to win over the entire family and succeeds. She also kills her son, Ansh, but that is much later. She is also declared dead but somehow survives and adopts a child incognito. What does the son do? Mihir dies. Actually, he doesn't. He shows up at a hospital suffering from amnesia. But the point is that the men in these shows aren't as conflicted as the women about duty and honor. As the mother of two daughters, I often wonder why sons-in-law in Indian society get off so easily? Is it an accident of history that will change with the advent of feminism? Or does it run deeper than that?

Presented by

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: A Memoir.

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