The Authority Mess

Seven years ago there was a horrid fire. The flames appeared to swallow a huge portion of the building from the bottom, and swiftly moving upwards. The peak summer weather only worsened matters in spreading the heat. The scene was a spectacle to many bystanders who began to film the drama, while firefighters tried their best to control the engulfing fires. Fortunately the residents of the building had been evacuated in time, and were watching some distance away as their belongings got devoured with no signs of respite. Among them was a family, who sat by the bench, the mother praying in silence. Her husband had recently suffered a stroke, and so had difficulty moving too fast. They managed to evacuate, aided by their son in their pyjamas and with bare feet. I stood a little distance behind them, overwhelmed by the strong stench by now of ashes mixed with water. I waited till the entire fire was finally put off. I watched while the social workers and volunteers ushered them away to a government provided accommodation, reserved for such calamities and emergencies.

In a few hours, I rushed along with my mother with a bag full of clothes, towels, sanitaries and food to the accommodation where they were stationed. The lady recognised me as the girl next to them, and was glad I came. She was modestly dressed and had a welcoming tone. She seemed unfazed by the horrifying incident, and left the future to God, whom she had unshakeable faith in. Loss and damage did not deter her demeanor. Even my mother was impressed by her placidity. Over the months we formed a new and good friendship, marked by spiritual talks and experiences. Little did she know, that I was in love with her son, and we were engaged to be married. 

I had not meant to betray her trust, nor lie to her. It was her own son who decided to keep our relationship a secret from her. Yet she reacted badly to the news, which was dropped into her lap as soon as her other daughter was married off. I could not understand what seemed to set her into a panic. I began to feel uncomfortable when I did not receive a ‘friendly’ call from her for weeks. Meanwhile, she sought counsel from her family guru, or pandit for intervention.

“Give up the wedding,” she finally called to say; “or convert!” She explained that this was what the pandit instructed. She hid behind the pandit’s shield like a terrified child, and I knew too well that if she had agreed to the marriage, even the pandit would have no say in the union. I also knew the reason she called after several weeks of silence was because of her son’s refusal to accept the pandit’s ultimatum.

By now it would be easy to guess that this was about an interfaith marriage. I am a Catholic, while her son a Hindu. It was my turn to feel betrayed. I buried myself at work to push back the tears that held memories of mine and her conversations together. Suddenly all that spirituality seemed so unctuous. I aspired her to be different, and had looked forward to being around her everyday. The friendship seemed like a farce. She was in every sense a typical mother in law.

After having failed to convince any one of us, she and the pandit conceded to let us marry. She possibly feared that her son may take an extreme step of a secret marriage, which would indeed bring her family great shame. In a call she once dictated how things should be, with regards to her expectations of a subservient daughter in law. I was not allowed to work, she said as that would come in the way of my household duties. I was required to wear traditional clothing at all times, as “people are watching”. Of course, my children should not be confused and therefore should follow the religion of their father. If only she knew that her son came to church too!

Tragically, the relationship between her daughters and myself changed overnight as well. Her older daughter, who was only recently married was assigned the role of her mother’s spokesperson and ambassador.

“Call me didi,” she ascertained, which means older sister, “and you ought to touch my feet at the end of every day’s prayer”.

It’s not that I had a problem touching any one’s feet, as it is a beautiful act of humility practised by the Hindus, but her peremtory tone definitely set an ugliness around her company. The younger daughter, who I thought to have been more level headed and modern, was no help either. “Just do as the pandit says”, she once told me, when I attempted to have a talk with her.

In the end I married into the family, feeling very unwelcome. It made me very defensive in the face of anything I did or said, until this day. I know it would be unfair to compare upbringings, but I was thought that no one was elder nor younger among siblings. We called each other by name. We did not remind each other of their place, and therefore encouraged thoughts or expressions as individualistic. By contrast, since my husband is third in line by birth, expressions had no standing. We were expected to report early home on weekends, because as usual, “people are watching us”.

Everyone craves attention, and authority is one of its factors. But if authority leads to contempt, then it only makes you despicable, not someone to look upto or remember. I wish they knew how damaging their traits are, as it has been difficult for me to forget these instances and move on.

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