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Issue 70 July 2010

After I got married, I learnt that my mother-in-law, who was widowed at a young age, held the reigns in the house and her kids knew only two words- ‘yes, mum’.

To me, their traditions were peculiar; my two brother-in-laws and a sister-in-law who lived in the same house did this ritual where they’d all sit around their mother every evening after work in silence – no conversation and no TV. Apparently it was meant to show some sort of respect by keeping quiet but at the same time giving her the comfort of being around her. I had come from joy-ville so migrating to zombie-zone was a big culture shock.

The culture at my in-laws home was set out quite simply; work-hard for your money, have a good night’s meal, sleep early and be up for fajr. My life changed a little when I luckily found myself a job at Selfridges as a sales assistant at perfumery. At first it was a novelty since I got to shop on Oxford Street every evening and even explore restaurants during lunch breaks but soon I realised I wasn’t spending enough time with my husband. As a solicitor, he worked long hours and by the time we were done with the military rituals with my mother-in-law, he’d be too tired to even talk. As for going out the only outing we did together was grocery shopping and there too my mother-in-law and sister-in-law were first to jump in the car.

I was beginning to miss good old TV so I decided it was me who was going to have to bring about change. So, one evening before her kids formed their sombre circle, I cheekily asked my mother-in-law, “mum, there’s this programme I love watching, would you like to watch it with me?” She looked at me with complete ease and said “beta, I haven’t watched TV for 25 years, it doesn’t serve any purpose for me.” I felt my heart tightening up but then I heard a gentle “…but you go ahead.”

My next move was take-away food. I loved Chinese and the rest of them craved pizzas but mum believed only in freshly cooked home-food. So on her birthday I told her “you’ve cooked all your life for this family, now it’s payback time. As of today, you are free from cooking on weekends and weekend treats will be on me.” Seemingly obliged by my gesture, she simply remarked, “take-away food troubles my stomach and I’m far too conscious of hygiene…but you go ahead and have your takeaways on weekends.” My sister and brother-in-laws were elated –apparently, I had liberated them after years of silent obligatory suffering.

Come summer, they insisted we have a BBQ in the garden – they wanted to invite their friends. I told mum it would be good to socialise with people as it’d help with links for potential marriage proposals for her sons and daughter. I watched her eyes moving in thought and she replied, “I leave this in your hands but I won’t be joining. I much prefer to do my prayers in my room upstairs.”

Months went by on the mission for liberation, which I won successfully but by this time my husband and I still hadn’t managed to spend our quality time together.

For the very first time on Valentine’s Day, my husband asked me out to the movies. I was all dressed up for our romantic evening out and as we approached the door, I stopped and said to my husband, “let me tell mum that we’re leaving.” My husband, appalled by my consideration, screeched, “what for?!  She already knows we’re going out - don’t make it more uneasy, let’s just leave quietly!” I couldn’t believe how worried the prospect of going out made him – as if after all we had been through, mum wouldn’t approve of us going to the movies.

“Trust me,” I said confidently. “This is how I got us this far.” I popped my head through the living room door and said, “mum, we’re going to the cinema.” She smiled and acknowledged this with a gentle nod. I was so excited about the evening that something made me turn around again and thoughtlessly say, “mum, why don’t you come too?”  I turned straight back heading out the door, expecting a complete dismissal. Suddenly, I heard a faint voice from the living room, “OK. Give me a few minutes and I’ll wear some decent clothes.” The lesson I learnt? Don’t try to outsmart your mother-in-law!


Illustration GRISCHA HEYER

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