We all remember those desi movies and TV serials which show the hostile relationship between a saas and her bahu. The hackneyed storyline of ‘Kyunke Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi’ and the likes which reiterate the saas as the typical, manipulative wench and the bahu as either the extremely docile and dim-witted Cinderella or her evil stepsister, ready to give her saas a run for the money. The south-Asian showbiz industry has yet to come up with a character that even remotely resembles a normal girl living a normal life in her susraal — someone who admittedly has flaws but, contrary to popular belief, isn’t looking to mix rat poison in her saas’s evening chai.
But despite this hyper-exaggeration of the saas-bahu dilemma, one cannot deny the sensitivity of this relationship. Indeed, living with the two women can prove very difficult for others and must be handled with care. But who is the ‘handler’ in question? Generally, the son (the husband) is bestowed with the responsibility of ensuring the relationship between the two most important women in his life remains civil but what if he is absent or simply, fails to do so? The responsibility inevitably falls on the poor father-in-law though hardly any credit seems to be given to him for this.
The sussar has to be the most side-lined character in the family drama when in reality, he can be the strength and the glue which holds it all together! Yet we never hear much of the sussar-bahu dynamics and how it pans out against the saas-bahu relationship. In fact, we barely hear about any fathers-in-law at all! Speaking to 60-year-old Zeenat Hanif, one can begin to understand why. “My family and I were terrified of my sussar,” she says. “Abbu Jee was like the patriarch of the house, strict and moody. My children would avoid answering his calls because they were so scared of him and even I would call him back very hesitantly if ever I missed his calls and listen patiently as he gave me instructions. He was feared by everyone in the house,” she adds.
Faiza Ali has her own story to tell. “My father in law was worse than the worst of the typical Star-Plus saas!” she complains. “He would interfere in every little matter and eventually, things got so complicated in the house that my husband and I decided to move abroad to get away from them.”
But not all fathers-in-law are sent from hell. In fact, most women have nothing but positive things to say regarding these other men in their marriages. When asked about her rapport with her sussar, recently-married 30-year old Asma Khan admits that fortunately, they share a father-daughter bond and more often than not, he takes her aside as opposed to his wife’s. “On one occasion, my saas had an issue with the way I was dressed — she thought it was inappropriate for the occasion,” she recalls. “But when she confronted me about it, my sussar rushed to my defence, claiming that I looked perfect.” Similarly, Aleena Jawaid, 33, feels nothing but love for her father-in-law and says he is “very easy-going and appreciates even the littlest of things I do for him and his son,” unlike her mother-in-law.
In situations such as Asma’s, the mother-in-law is unlikely to take too well to opposition, especially in front of her new bahu as it undermines her standing in the family. This may lead to further complications within the family as she tries to maintain control over the household and if her husband is siding with the new-comer (often viewed as a threat by existing female family members) things can get out of hand. Nonetheless, it is a blessing having an understanding father-in-law. Zeenat praises hers for being such a strong and respected man. “Having a father-in-law like him gave me a lot of security,” she admits. “Although Abu Jee was very temperamental, he never failed to surprise me with his love and fairness! Many times, Ammi was unable to understand things he accepted easily. If I had had a rough night with my child, he would allow me to come late for breakfast when Ammi would not!”
Generally, it appears most bahus are at peace with their sussars, even when they are more demanding. Sameen says “My father-in-law was extremely particular. The dinner had to be perfect and served at the exact same time every day. And he was also very picky about what was cooked. But aside from all this, he had a heart of gold!” And the admiration seems to be mutual, as indicated by 65-year-old Imran Ali who says, “My bahu is like my daughter. If my son is travelling, I go out of my way to ensure she doesn’t get lonely. Bahus are daughters and daughters are blessings!”
How then should the sussar-bahu relationship be handled? Should you maintain a healthy distance from your father-in-law or become his daughter completely? Remember, what works for one person may not work for another as each family has its own values and cultures. Hence, it is important to understand the type of person your father-in-law is and vice-versa. Some women may not like to get to close to their in-laws while others would love it. Both sides have to maintain the right balance. After all, it takes two to tango!
How to deal with your father-in-law
1) Because you’re worth it: Your father-in-law can often be more apprehensive of you initially as he does not want his child to get hurt emotionally. Your job is to always present yourself if the positive light. If yours is a love marriage, show him the qualities that made your spouse love you, such as being pleasant and kind. If it was arranged, then remind him as much as you can why he thought you the best to bring into his family. This will make him value you more.
2) Say no to divide and rule: If your mother-in-law appears to be unhappy with your relationship with your father-in-law, make an equal or greater effort to get closer to her lest she feel ignored. This can also help prevent many a family problems in the future.
3) Respect your elders: Always remember that he is older to you and you must respect him. Make an effort to express this respect and show him that you care. Share your feelings and seek his advice. Remember that you should go to him rather than he comes to you.
4) In his shoes: If your father-in-law is behaving in a bothersome manner, try to put yourself in his shoes and understand why he might be doing so. This will help you understand him better and avoid unpleasant circumstances later on.
5) Dont get personal: As your elder, it is unlikely that your father-in-law and you will share your opinions regarding various things (read generation gap!) In such a situation avoid being too vociferous about your views or too inconsiderate of his. Always remember, he has a right to his opinion, as do you.
*Names have been changed for privacy.
Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, September 15th, 2013.