reprints of articles published in magazines

Thursday, 27 March 2008


Are you married? Then you would have encountered at least some degree of the menace called Motherinlawism. Motherinlawism is such a common occurrence all over the world that most teleserials in most countries harp about it. A casual conversation with any woman will eventually lead to lamentations about how cruel a woman the mother-in-law is and all the atrocities that she unfeelingly commits.

From simply finding faults with the daughter-in-law to outright murder, mothers-in-law especially in India are known for all their bizarre behaviour. And it is not even that uncommon. Almost all of us have seen or heard of at least one such mother-in-law who seems to behave as if her only mission is to make life miserable for the daughter-in-law. But the point to ponder is why does this mother-in-law character behave so mean? She is also but human, then what makes her behave so odd?
Let’s just take a random look at various mothers-in-law and scan through their behaviour patterns…MIL X loves her son very much. When the new daughter-in-law walked home, she ‘forgot’ to take the arthi that was part of their religious custom. she watched every single move of the DIL and criticized her for each and every thing….she snubbed, slighted and scathed the girl at every turn and when the girl’s face crumpled in sadness, she even complained to her son that his wife was being rude and making faces at her. She felt the girl was no match to her wonderful son and cribbed no end to everyone about darling son’s misfortune in marrying this bad specimen of womanhood. She feared this girl would not feed her son properly; that she would give away his shoes and ties to her male relatives; that the girl would try to dominate her son and ruin his life. The son got so influenced by his mother’s whisperings that he began to suspect his wife of some foul play and began to ill treat her. As expected the marriage landed in some hot soup.
MIL Y was one another doting mom who loved her son. Although her son was well past his thirties, in his mother’s eyes, he was still a baby. She always fretted over him, feeding him, caressing him and generally keeping the umbilical cord completely intact. She was so fond of him that she could not bear the thought of sharing him with another woman. Therefore the son’s wedding got ‘delayed’ as the mom could just not find ‘the perfect girl’ for her oh so fabulous son. But the relatives were constantly worrying about the son’s advancing age and kept making snide remarks about the boy’s long unwed state and what that could potentially imply. And the son urged the mom to find a girl for him, ‘if only to take care of his parents in their old age’. After much reluctance the mother complied and let the boy get married to a girl of her choice. But she just could not stand the sight of the girl. Every single thing that the girl said or did irritated the MIL no end. To add to her worries, the son started being affectionate with his wife, and that was something the mother could not stomach at all. She started falling sick, breaking into tears, accusing the son of forgetting dear mother who had ‘sacrificed a lot and suffered so much to make him the man was today ’and going behind a bloody upstart who no doubt was only after his money’. The mother’s constant lamentation wore the son out. He started feeling guilty about being with his wife. And each time his mother accused him of being ungrateful, he quarreled with his wife for no good reason. When the girl tried to explain her side of the story the MIL pronounced her to be argumentative. That made the son angrier with his wife and he began battering her. Naturally the marriage broke and the MIL expressed relief that she had saved her son from the clutches of “that arrogant girl.”
MIL Z is another such loving mother, who thought the world of her son. Her son was a successful professional and she was very proud that it had been her hand that had rocked his cradle. Since she rated him very high in terms of his worth she expected the ‘lucky girl’ who would marry her son to bring a fabulous dowry, worthy of her darling son. The daughter-in-law came with a modest dowry. Since there were no other takers for her son, who for all his academic success was not much of a looker, the MIL grudgingly accepted the girl into the family. But she made sure that her son never slept with “girl who was fit to be only his servant”. She kept the couple separated for the most part and made sure she was physically present when the couple was together. She categorically told the girl, “he is very busy with work, do not expect him to fuss over you…” and kept tabs on the couple. She poisoned the son’s mind, telling him constantly that the wife was not to be trusted, that she had married him in spite of his looks only for the sake of his money, and that she would pilfer all his possessions and pass it on to her parents. The son became so paranoid of his own wife that he started reading her dairy, checking her purse and tracking her e mails to know what she was up to. Not surprisingly the marriage was on the rocks.
With this random sample of MILs X, Y and Z it is obvious these women love their sons way too much. And there is no greater tyranny than love. For these mothers expect from their sons not just some ‘love me back,’ but dutifulness, security and gratitude in exchange for all that she does for him. Now that is where the problem starts.
Any mammalian mother on the face of the earth toils a lot for its offspring. For that matter all human mothers all over the world struggle through a variety of hardship to bring up their children and give them the best possible life. Admirable though her parenting is, in genetic terms there is nothing selfless about a mother’s toils. In fact all the efforts she puts in raising her children are purely selfish at the gene level. For only if her children survive, will her own genes thrive and spread. And so it makes complete genetic sense that the mother toils hard to provide for her kids. She is doing it to spread her own genes. But the son cannot spread his mother’s genes all on his own. He needs a sexual partner.
If only the son could mate with his own mother, her goal will be fulfilled, they get to spread their genes and she gets to keep a firm hold on her darling son. But nature, society, law and tradition do not permit the mother-son mating. Because, such incestuous in-breeding can pool together diseased genes. So it makes better genetic sense that the son out breeds with an unrelated woman with a different set of genes.
Had this son been just a daughter, the mother would not have worried so much. She would happily get the daughter married to a man with a different set of genes and breathe a sigh of relief, because the daughter is not a beneficial investment. Until quite recently daughters were not well favored because they were economically a very unwise “no returns” investment. Daughters had no traditional mandate to provide for their parents. Although in terms of genetic sense, daughters also spread her genes, the son is a much better investment because he not only spreads genes but also has the traditional responsibility of providing for his parents.
Today we live in a modern world where women have their own properties and income. But until very recently women all over the world had had no right to hold property or income. That made women helpless and dependant on their men for their financial need and the security that it gave. First it was the father, then it was the husband and finally it would be the son. So the son is not only a gene-spread vehicle, he is also a retirement plan, an insurance for old age financial care. And so it is that mothers are more attached to their sons. And they loathe sharing this son with another woman. Especially because this newcomer would share the son’s resources, but without contributing to the making of the same. That makes the mother feel a deep sense of injustice. As one mother-in-law picturesquely put it, “I planted that tree and my daughter-in-law enjoys its fruits, how unfair!”
Also the wife character has two special extra powers over the son. She could provide the two most important things that a mother can never compete in – sexual companionship and baby making. Sex being a powerful bonding ritual, it makes the partners feel committed to each other. Once the partners get thus bonded, the son might side his wife and that makes the mother feel insecure and jittery. And so, the same mothers who feel so relieved to see the daughters leading a happy sex life, feel irritated and disgruntled to see their daughters-in-law reveling in sexual fulfillment. For a sexually content daughter could potentially bring home the resources of her doting husband, that is an economic gain. Not to mention the genetic gain of spreading some genes in the process. But if the daughter in law is sexually active, then it is a potential loss in the economics department, although the genes may be spreading in the process.
Above and beyond all these dynamics, if the mother in question had to herself the attention of her own doting husband, who continues to support her emotionally and financially, then this lady does not mind her son’s closeness with his wife. Her positive experience with her husband makes her benevolent and magnanimous; she would then not consider the daughter-in-law a threat to her survival. And such mothers-in-law turn out to be angels and fairy god mothers.
But those ladies, who have had the misfortune of being married to poor providers and emotionally callous husbands, turn to their sons for support. And when this son marries and brings home a wife, the mother feels insecure. An insecure mind knows no reasoning. It turns possessive, jealous and malicious; it tries to wrestle the son away from the wife and would stoop to any level to achieve its goal. This leads to Motherinlawism and macabre crimes against daughters-in-law.
In a way, Motherinlawism is actually a kind of test for survival, to check the smartness of the son. A smart son, who understands the workings of his mother’s mind, will try to fulfill his filial duties, without compromising his own genetic spread. He would reassure his mother that he will forever be there for her, make sure he keeps her financially secure and give her emotional support and moral courage. With his mother’s anxieties thus assuaged, the smart son would then proceed with the purpose of his life, by spreading his genes and making sure he has a harmonious relationship with his wife. By balancing both these roles, the son proves he is fit for survival and sure enough, his genes spread.
But sadly, if the son is not smart enough, he could get entangled in the mess of Motherinlawism and end up being a loser. If he leans too much towards his mother, he would make a wonderful son but a terrible husband and a miserable father. If he leans too much towards his wife, he would fail in his duty as a son and set a very bad example for his own children. This imbalance proves the son is not quite fit for survival and in most cases, his genes do not spread. In the end, as always, it all depends on how smart the man is and how deftly he handles situations. Nature though is impartial and neutral; it only lets the best genes survive.

Friday, 7 March 2008

Father Great Man!

The international woman’s day is observed on the 8th of March and provides us an opportunity to think about and thank all those die hard feminists who made this day a reality. Today, the women have the best of opportunities, the highest rights and the most respect in the society, but all this did not come on its own. The better situation that most women find themselves in today is all thanks to the sheer perseverance and activism of a few determined feminists. Most of these feminists were women, no wonder; they were the sufferers, so they took up their own cause. But the finest feminist in Indian history you’ll be surprised to know is not a female. He was a male and his name was Ramaswamy.

But nobody knows him by that name today. Ordinary people are known by their given names all their lives. Only the truly great souls have the rare honor of being known by their nom de plume. And this soubriquet then becomes so major an influence that people actually forget the person’s real name …..Ramaswamy was one of those great souls who eclipsed his own name and became known as Thanthai Periyar, Father Great Man.

Coming to think of it, after the Buddha, the Christ, the Nabi and the Mahatma, the only other man to be known by his own personal soubriquet is Periyar. And contrary to all these other men, Periyar was a self proclaimed atheist who publicly denounced the existence of God. It was for this daring anti-god campaign that he was very well known all over the world.

But there is yet another unsung facet to this Father Great Man…he was the most vociferous feminist of the last century. Today, we all live in a world where equal opportunities to women are a reality; women are no longer treated like vassals, at least in the educated societies. Yet, all the freedom that women enjoy today is directly a result of the activism that Periyar led in the last century.

To go back into the grueling past, women then were not allowed to study, they were married off when they were still little girls. Suppose, the child bride’s equally child-like husband got bitten by a snake or died of cholera, then the girl was subjected to all the rituals of widowhood and persuaded to perform ‘sati’, or was left to spend the rest of her life in austere celibacy. Remarriage of a widow was considered sacrilegious. Talk of rights for a woman was tantamount to blasphemy.

Even the women who escaped the pangs of widowhood were no better off. There were innumerable restrictions on every one of the women’s moves. She could not study, go out of the house unaccompanied, work and keep her own wages, or own property; she could not even choose her marriage partner. She had no rights whatsoever, she was not even recognized as a separate entity; her identity was fused with that of her male proprietor, the father, husband, brother or son. “..The lord in all his wisdom had created the women as the weaker sex, to be forever under the protection of the men folk…”or so these practices were justified.

The men of the last century considered all the toils of the woman to be part of the glorious Indian Heritage. So what if women were forced to jump into the funeral pyre of their husbands, was it not a sacred custom dripping with national pride! So what if the women are married off from their cradles…it keeps them 100% pure and agmark chaste, rationalized the leaders like Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Even Mahatma Gandhi for all his ahimsa, did not show much sympathy on the plight of the women, he felt all the suffering made them better beings.

But Periyar was an independent thinker – unsullied by religious trappings. He was a daring revolutionary and a relentless rationalist who believed in the equality of all humans, whatever their caste, creed, colour or sex. Although he himself had been raised in a family steeped in Vaishnavite rituals, the young Ramaswamy could not tolerate the hypocrisy of Hinduism that speaks of all souls being made of the same Paramaathma at one end, and snobbishly discriminates against them in the name of caste, religion and sex on the other.

Like Leonardo da Vinci who invented the first helicopter several centuries before the average human could even comprehend the idea of a flying vehicle, Periyar was a man much ahead of his own time. He was a social scientist, who thought up of new traditions of social living, way before anyone could even envisage it. At a time when the whole world considered the woman as the subordinate, Periyar began thinking of women as equal to the men, in all aspects.

And for this equality of women, Periyar fought brave battles and defied all prevailing conventions. During his time, the ideal woman was valued for her body, her beauty, her baby making ability, her obedience, her culinary skills and her Karpu. Periyar defied each and every one of these.

He believed that all things being equal a woman did not have to display her body all decked up and decorated, hoping for the male’s approval. Just as the men gave up beautification, ornaments and long hair, which had until a few centuries ago been the norm for Tamil men, Periyar urged the women to give up their beauty restraints. He was the first man ever in India to suggest that the Tamil women give up their long hair, big pottus and long-winding sarees. In his travels abroad, Periyar had noticed that women in other countries had their hair cut short and dressed in convenience clothes; he recommended the same to Indian women. He even urged his wife Nagammal to give up her nine yard saree and upgrade to trousers and shirts. He was such a progressive man, who had no patience for silly traditions that had no survival value.

Likewise Periyar did not set much store for baby making or obedience. He saw women as much more than mere gestational grails. He saw them as intelligent minds and encouraged them to study just like the men did. In his book, “Why women became slaves?” Periyar noted that ignorance makes the woman dependant on the man, but knowledge could give her power. He encouraged women to think logically for themselves with discretion (paguththarivu) rather than just blindly hang on to idiotic gender stereotypes, laid down by centuries of mindless automatic obedience.

He ridiculed the notion of “women being subordinate to the men” and explained that subjugating the female was only a weak man’s attempt to feel stronger than he actually was.

As for cooking, Periyar strongly believed that women should give up cooking all together, and families had better dine communally from a centralized kitchen. Thus freed from the morning-to-night grind of cooking, the women would have more time to develop their minds, he explained.

As for the grand sentiment of Tamil culture, Karpu, Periyar thought it was a clever ploy to put a leash around the woman’s neck and keep her subdued all her life. He encouraged women to come out of these narrow cultural constraints and propagated the “Self respect marriage”, in which, contrary to the traditional Kanyaadhaan marriage rituals, the girl would not be given away to the groom like a slave. Since the woman was equal to the man in all aspects, she could very well choose her own partner, marry him as an equal in a simple and dignified ceremony, where there is no hullabaloo of hypocritical vows which no one understands or intends to follow anyway.

While Tamil movies till today keep praising the Thali as the holy of holies, Periyar, felt it was another clever trick to rein in the woman, much like tying a controlling rope around the cattle’s necks. If the partners are really equal then how can it be that one of them alone ties a cord around the other’s neck? Either both would tie cords around each others’ necks or neither should….and thus, Periyar eliminated the Thali from the “self respect” weddings. Even without the thali, the mantras, and the other traditional rituals, such Self Respect Weddings are considered legal and binding in Tamil Nadu, all thanks to our Father Great Man and his political protégés who later became Chief Ministers of the state.

Even after such a self respect marriage, Periyar felt if the woman did not like her partner, she had every right to walk out of the marriage and live on her own or seek another companion. Periyar was such a visionary that he even protested against the use of the terms husband and wife, which he felt were demeaning to the womenfolk. Much like animal husbandry, husband is a term that denotes proprietorship, while the Tamil term for a wife, “manaivi” meant, “the one who manages the house” had a subordinate flavour to it. Therefore he preferred to use the term “thunaivar” meaning spouse and “innaivar” meaning equal partner.

Not only did he encourage women to get out of the Karpu shackles, he also fought for gender rights and equal opportunities. He made sure that women could take up studies and employment, hold property and keep separate income. He opposed atrocities such as culturally sanctioned prostitution, sexual abuse against women and oppression of women’s rights.

His logic so lucid and his reasoning so scientific, no one dared to oppose Periyar. In fact most of the cognoscenti looked up to him as the ultimate rational thinker and eagerly embraced his principles. Self Respect Marriage became the highest statement of intelligent living. Also it became highly fashionable to treat women as equals and it was considered extremely uncouth to discriminate against them.

Under Periyar’s all-powerful wings, the women slowly got on to their feet, realized their self worth and moved towards emancipation. He, for the first time in Indian history convened women’s conferences to discuss gender issues from 1936. The women felt so indebted to him for all the efforts he put to empowering them, that in one such women’s conference the Tamil scholar Neelambigai honoured him with the title “Periyar”. Since that day, the sobriquet stuck. The same man had battled against so many of the society’s evils, but it was for his championing the cause of the women folk that he ascended from an obscure Mr. E. V. Ramaswamy to the exalted title of “Father Great Man.”

And Periyar proved that he deserved such a high title by bequeathing his foundation, the Dravida Kazhagam, which is a non political social reformist organization, to his partner Mrs Maniammai. No other leader had ever transferred the onus of any organization to a lady, because probably deep in their minds they still doubted the woman’s ability to lead. But Periyar had no such doubts, he was sure of the woman’s abilities and left Mrs Maniammai to continue all his good work.

True to Periyar’s philosophies, the nation’s first ever engineering college exclusively for women was started in Vallam near Thanjavur, twenty years ago and the dress code for all the girls studying there is, trousers and shirts! Considering that even to this day, many vice chancellors in the state ban their girl students from wearing trousers to college in the name of Tamil Culture; it is a stark reminder that Mr E. V. Ramaswamy is indeed The Great Man, who could think much ahead of all other ordinary men.

And to this Father Great Man, we womenfolk owe many sincere thanks, for we are where we are today, all because of his great efforts. What a real Great Man! Wow, what a Periyar!