Okay, I will tell you a little story here.
It was about 6 months ago that I got married. To the love of my life. With all the pomp and the glamour my family could afford.
My wedding was a full week affair with as many rituals and customs that one could possibly fit in every day with breaks in between for costume changes. Yet, how it ended makes me a little angry and stifled even today. As per Bihari traditions, my bidaai from my parent’s house wasn’t immediately after I got married. I left for my in-law’s house a full day and a half after the wedding.
The day and a half that my husband spent at my parent’s house was when he got ‘first-class’ treatment with everything from being served breakfast in bed to all my family fawning needlessly over the new son-in-law. Upon arrival at the sasural, the first thing that took place was the ‘muh dikhai’ where all the females of the house came one by one to me, to see my face up close and as a gesture of approval, gave me a token in the form of some cash or jewellery.
You must be wondering what I found strange about a custom that made me richer in the end. Patience, my friend. The night’s not over yet.
Soon, it was time for dinner. Although I’m not the sort of person who can make up an appetite in a new place very soon, I was still looking forward to dinner as I thought it would be another great chance to connect with all the new people around me.
Food was laid out and I was asked to come out of my room and sit with all the ladies. As soon as people sat around me with their plates, a woman told me I was not to eat anything and just sit around while the other females finish their food. Had it been my house, I would have asked if it’s a joke. But having a reputation of chickening out in stressful situations, I deemed it best to keep my mouth shut and see how it all plays out.
For a full 30 minutes, I kept looking at the floor (because looking at my plate made me hungry) while the females around me finished their meals. I was heaped with praises from all corners about how sanskaari I am to oblige to everything happily.
Cook a Little Meetha?
Dinnertime was over soon thereafter and most of the relatives were gone. I retired to my room to catch some sleep as early morning before dawn me and my husband had to leave again for my parent’s house. This tight schedule was owing to the fact that it was my parent’s anniversary that day and if I didn’t leave the house before dawn then I wouldn’t be able to leave that day at all – something to do with the Hindu calendar. As both families are deeply religious, I did not see any reason to object; I was, in fact, already dreaming about my room, my house and its warmth even though I'd been away for less than 8 hours!
Before midnight, I was told that there was still a little something that had to be done before we called it a day. I was to go to the kitchen, light up the stove and cook a little meetha; this, because it would be a new month starting the next day and that would be an inauspicious time for a new bride to cook in the kitchen.
So a little before the clock struck 12, I summoned all my energies and allowed myself to be taken to the kitchen where, not only did I light the stove and do a token heating up of the kadhai, I made halwa. It wasn’t a lot, barely two cups full. It didn’t take a lot of time either – perhaps about 10 minutes or so. Every member of the family ate a spoonful or two, and I was showered with praises for being such a great cook. For what it’s worth, my father-in-law was asked to give me some cash again, as a token to end the ritual, and he was happy to oblige.
What was so wrong about a day that only ended in me getting richer and being showered with praises from all avenues?
Sacrificing More Than My Husband Did
As a person with a fairly ‘cultured’ upbringing where I got to go to the best school, the best college, even earn a foreign degree and live life to the fullest, I had no reason to ever experience bias against me for my gender. I had seen my aunts being respected, my sisters being pampered and loved, my mother and not her brother being the supreme being for her parents and me and my sister being the apple of our grandparents’ eye. For me, ‘gender bias’ or ‘institutionalised patriarchy’ were phrases heard in a gender justice class – that is, until I got married.
The ritual of the bride not eating on her first day in her sasural is meant to teach her how to prioritise her family over herself if ever the family sees bad times and there isn’t enough food to feed all mouths. It is meant to teach a girl the value of sacrifice for the greater good of the family. Why isn’t there a ritual in the world that teaches the men of the house the same? Because they are the bread winners. How can they be asked to sacrifice that very bread for which they sweat all day long?
Girls, from the time of their birth, are slowly fed the entire dogma of how they should learn to sacrifice for the greater good – which roughly translates to ‘for the good of the family they get married into’.
I have nothing against the family of my husband. They were merely following traditions and were probably relieved that their daughter-in-law threw no tantrums and did what was asked of her. What worries me, is that there are young girls in the family who will probably be given my example on how to behave when they get married and go off to their sasurals. There wasn’t a single person in the house that night who felt the need to register even a slight complaint about how I was put through the most regressive rigours.
How must she, then, treat a new family as she treats her own? Will my mother, or anybody else in my house, ask me to cook for them in the middle of the night, on an empty stomach because once the clock strikes 12, it will become inauspicious for me to cook in the house for some months? Will I ever be asked to sit and stare around while everyone around me eats their dinner? To teach me the value of sacrifice? Will the new son-in-law be taught the same lessons in sacrifice by his in-laws? The answer to all these questions is No.
Did I die a little inside that day because, for the very first time in my life, I felt like the member of an endangered tribe who I’d only read about in books before? Yes.
(Medhika is a lawyer specialising in international criminal law based in Turin, Italy. The pursuit of justice both inside and outside the courtroom is her lifelong agenda. She can be reached @medhikasinha)