The signs are hard to miss: there is excitement in the air, chatter in the house, the girls are unusually cheerful and the boy remarkably relaxed. The kitchen no longer smells of zeera and hing but of paanch phoran and posto bata, the fridge is stacked with sandesh and rasgullas, while the fish--it has travelled twelve hundred kilometers to be with my husband--hides slyly in some corner lest I discover it and throw a fit. And, the mother-in-law waits patiently for me to step out so that she can fry it in peace. You guessed it right--my parents-in-law are home.
In the heart of North India, where I grew up, I was surrounded by stereotypes: the mother-in-law being a devil incarnate and the daughter-in-law a mute doll. Although my family was different and none of the women had to cover their heads or wake up at daybreak, I had seen enough of it to shudder at the very thought of being married into such a family. My biggest fear--and it still haunts me at times--was getting married into an orthodox joint family, where I was expected to dress-up like a bride, cook all day and live with dozen other people in the same house. Nothing wrong with that my father would argue. Nothing wrong with it, I agreed, just that it would have been very, very tough for a compulsively independent person like me.
I had expected to meet similar fate, and therefore, as soon as I reached home after my wedding, like a good bahu, I bathed and dressed up early in the morning and went to see my maa-in-law whom I had never met before. To my pleasant surprise, not only was I admonished for waking up so early but also was asked to remove all the bridal paraphernalia, including the pallu. I was in heaven. For the next few days, I was pampered to the hilt. In fact, after having discovered that I drank only coffee, my father-in-law, who probably had never bought coffee before, quickly brought a five-hundred-gram pack of coffee home, just so I could have one cup. I was not allowed to help with the chores or cook and did not have to do anything that a bahu is usually supposed to do.
While on one hand I was revelling in the love and attention being showered on me, on the other hand I had some uncomfortable encounters too. Dal chawal no longer meant arhar dal and basmati rice, it had transformed into masoor dal and boiled rice, something I had never eaten before. I was suddenly being called maa by a strange man (I later discovered that the strange man was my husband's uncle and that maa is an affectionate way to address one's daughter). But the funniest and the toughest part was to wear flower jewellery for the reception dinner--I looked like Ramanand Sagar's Sita! Thank God I have no pictures to remind me of it.
Marrying a Bengali man in itself was an irony of sorts. Until I met him, I had, for most part of my grown up years, disliked Bengalis -- I found them annoying, overbearing, gluttons even. This of course was based on the very little exposure I had had to the community until then and the trigger was a particular Bengali wedding I had attended where the hosts had served only a dry preparation of aloo parval for the vegetarian guests (that too in a separate enclosure). I felt like a criminal that day -- all for being a vegetarian. The feeling had only intensified in the years that followed when I had to live in Calcutta, amidst the chaos of the street -- with or without the Pujas, the smell of fish and the stink of sweat. The only exception to this rule had been the men, the only men I ever found worthy of my fancy were -- and still are -- Bengali.
In the past twelve years however, everything seems to have changed. I have a long list of Bengali friends, I know and love the language, I have fallen in love with the charm of Calcutta, I have converted into being a Durga Puja fan, and not only do I love Bengali men but also the women. I am, after all, a Bangali Bou.
This post first appeared on my blog New Beginning.Suggest a correction