The art of controlling daughters
When reading Bangladeshi British writer Leesa Gazi’s Hellfire this week, I was a few pages in when I realized that this faux-charming scene of a young woman feeling thrilled to be allowed to go out by herself was not quite what it seemed. A few pages in, the protagonist, Lovely, talks about her skin not being what it was. Soon enough, you realize that it is Lovely’s 40th birthday and this is the first time she has been allowed to go anywhere on her own. She and her younger sister have been imprisoned in their own home by their mother, who manages every waking moment of the two women’s lives with demonic energy levels. Manages it so finely that only their unmarried status stands out to the critical gaze of society, not their imprisonment. Gazi’s book, which takes many unexpected turns, would be chilling ordinarily but particularly now when so many households are turned inward, with no outside gaze to even notionally keep them civilized.
Not that the outside gaze really helps.
The reason it doesn’t work can be seen so clearly in The Mother-in-Law, Veena Venugopal’s 2014 book. In the book, Venugopal tells the story of 11 real-life marriages and 11 are-they-for-real mothers-in-law. What struck me when reading them is how each household had completely normalized the frankly insane ways of functioning or not functioning. Even in the family in which the mother-in-law essentially kidnapped each grandchild and tookthem away from their parents, everyone else was making benign, so-normal faces. The traditional desi acceptance of diversity was “let me do my thing and I will ignore your thing, even if I roll my eyes a lot”. This acceptance also comes with families attributing every minor quirk five years or older as the grand family tradition worthy of a museum. Humare yahan it’s done this way. Fine for chicken curry or dal, not so fine for human functioning.
Hellfire is so terrifying to read because on every page Lovely’s mother balances indulgence with violence in ways that are utterly familiar. Her entire being is engaged in controlling the most minor activities in her family, but mostly in controlling her daughters. And everybody is on board with this, as we all know. Which is why I know (and I am sure you know) a teenager whose father allows her to wear only cream, white and brown coloured clothes. No one is hauling him off for therapy and medication. No one is intervening in the case of a 40-something woman friend whose mother verbally abuses her for leaving her house once in a few weeks for an hour or so. No one I know intervened when my 30-year-old friend’s father told her he would ensure through his connections that she would never be able to rent a house on her own in the city of Bengaluru.
When a long-married friend told me about the immense drama her husband’s extended family has recently brought into her life, she seemed surprised. At the heart of the great circus seemed to be their unspoken desire for her to quit her job. “I would have expected this level of drama from my family, not from his.” “Why, because your in-laws speak English at home?” I asked and she laughed. Controlling your daughters has always been an admired art form like ikebana or Kathak. A few years ago, I was at a family gathering where one elderly and distant male relative insisted that I serve him lunch from the buffet. Which was strange because I was meeting him for the first time. It was doubly strange because he told his cousin to “not help me by telling her what I like to eat”. Is this man’s life a Japanese game show, I wondered, where we are all competing to serve him a nice plate of dahi vada?
In the next few minutes, when I had got him a plate of whatever, I heard the cousin tell him, “I wish you would come to my house and teach my daughters-in-law a lesson too.” As you can imagine, that was the end of service and the last time I have spoken to either senior citizen. And yes, these kind of families play year-round Takeshi’s Castle episodes, full of humiliation and mud. It is why BDSM is not a popular porn genre in India—we don’t need leather to get off. It is why I am deeply suspicious of people who use the phrase “close-knit family” to describe their own frequently anti-social behaviour.
The greatest service actor Anupam Kher did for all of us was 29 years ago, when he told his daughter in the film Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahi, “bhaag ja Pooja beti (run away).” Sometimes the gate is open only a crack. Sometimes we have to get a ladder and jump that wall. Sometimes we need to read stories like that of Sanju Rani Verma in Meerut, who chose to leave home in 2013 rather than cave under the pressure of relatives who insisted she abandon her studies and get married. Verma left home, rented a room, gave tuitions to children and continued studying for the civil services. She was 28 then. This month she cleared the UPPSC exam and will soon be a commercial tax officer—like a Fawad Khan-less but thrilling Zindagi Gulzar Hai. I told my friend this story and she was only half impressed. She knows of a girl who faked her own death—with elaborate props like a dupatta on the riverside—to leave home. Now that is an art form for every decent girl to learn.
Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger. Her first book of fiction, The Women Who Forgot to Invent Facebook And Other Stories, released last month.