This is the second part of the interview I held with my husband Aditya’s parents (you can find Part One here). This part starts off with an interlude on Maa and Baba’s first meeting for their “semi-arranged” marriage, then continues on the topic of their first impressions of me. I finally got them to discuss some negatives: what they find difficult in having a non-Indian daughter-in-law and my (apparently) one fault. We also discussed some of the things they dislike about general American culture (as it relates to interpersonal relationships), and ended with some advice Maa and Baba have for intercultural couples, both generally and for those having some difficulty with Indian in-laws. Technical details: I transcribed the interview from a sound recording, and have only edited (in square brackets) for clarity or in keeping with Maa & Baba’s wishes for certain things to be “off the record”. My comments and notes post-transcription are in red.
Aditya: So what is that story that you were telling, of when Baba came to meet you?
Baba: That was our semi-arranged marriage!
Maa: Semi? Why “semi”? Absolutely arranged!
Baba: I saw her, and then I said okay. It was not arranged. So semi.
Maa: They put an advertisement in paper, that their son is not getting married for last ten years, they’re searching for daughter-in-law.
Baba: And my in-laws had a daughter who was not being married for ten years, said, “Okay, this is a right match!”
Maa: So, when they came, they didn’t tell me… Maybe my parents knew it, but I didn’t know that they were coming. So it was Sunday, and I had lot of hair… The whole week I had to go to college, so I didn’t wash my hair properly, because in India you can’t go with, uh, hair loose, you have to tie it up. Nowadays everything is gone, but that time it was there. So Sunday is my oil massaging day. So from top to bottom I used to apply oil.
Aditya: And Maa’s hair was down to her knees almost.
Maa: So, they came at three o’clock. And I took bath at twelve o’clock, I think. And I didn’t do shampoo also. And you can just imagine…
Baba: You know, that is why I got married to her, just because of her hair. Because I could not see anything else [to judge]!
Maa: And in India, when some girl is to, uh, be presented to her in-laws, they put on a lot of makeup, good saris, jewelry. But I was wearing a cotton sari, normal, because I didn’t know that they were coming. And my sister-in-laws, all, my parents, couldn’t [dress me up], because I am very strict about that. What I am, I am, there’s no makeup or something. And, I used to wear a bangle on my right hand. On my left hand, I used to wear a watch, a wrist-watch. I was at home, so I didn’t wear that also. And I met him like that!
GG: So, after you both met, did you discuss anything with each other?
Baba: Oh, yeah, we had a talk, between us. But I don’t think that it was, uh, like an examination. We just discussed what I feel, what did she feel that particular day? That’s all.
Maa: And then for food, at the restaurant, I didn’t take it. Because my mother told me, don’t go with anybody in the restaurant. So he was asking, “Are you hungry?” “No,” [I said].
Baba: So I sat down, I ate.
Maa: And he ate. When we came back to our home, from [movie] picture, I was telling my mother, “Give me some food, I am very hungry!” And he says, “Why didn’t you take?!” But how could I explain to him at that time?
Baba: That was my golden era.
I cannot imagine participating in the process of an arranged marriage – not that I think that they’re necessarily bad, but I just can’t picture what it would be like. Maa & Baba’s story of their first meeting was, therefore, quite enlightening as to some of the particulars. It all strikes me as something out of a Jane Austin novel.
GG: Okay, next question!
Baba: This is off the syllabus?
GG: Yes! So, did Aditya discuss marrying me with you?
Maa: Actually, I told him, you ought to get married. If you want to stay together, you ought to get married. That I told him.
Aditya: I mean, it was a variety of things. I think it started… I mean, obviously, after graduating, I moved to California, and I was looking for housing. We talked about it. And obviously I asked before I proposed to GG.
Maa: He didn’t ask, we discussed.
Aditya: Yeah, we discussed, it was more like that.
Maa: I said, if you want to be with her, then get married. You take the responsibility.
The idea of “responsibility” being a key part of a marriage is something I’m still noodling over. I’ll admit I’ve never thought of it in exactly those terms.
GG: Did your expectations of what you expect for a daughter-in-law change after Aditya said he was marrying me?
Aditya: What I think she is asking is, would you have different expectations if she was Indian?
Baba: No. And that should be in block capitals! Because I told you, my expectations for my daughter-in-law is the same whether it is Bhabi, Punjabi, or GG, American.
Bhabi is Aditya’s sister-in-law, i.e. Baba’s other daughter-in-law, for those just tuning in.
GG: So, what would you say was something I did that impressed you early on?
Aditya: I think they spoke the highest of your card-playing ability.
Maa: Yeah, card-playing…
Baba: Not card-playing ability, the way you picked up the game. You know, pick-up is more important for playing the game. If your pick up is good, whether it is cards or studies, that is a quality, and of course, which I feel did impress on the first day.
Like Aditya, I come from a family where playing cards is a key part of family bonding. Aditya’s family’s game is Twenty-Nine, while my family plays a house version of Rummy and Oh Hell. Being decent at cards in both of our families – or at least enjoying playing cards – is a pretty important trait.
Maa: Even when we came back from the cabin, you cooked for us, a nice —
Baba: No, that was afterwards, but, my point is, the first day.
Maa: But, that time, they were not even engaged. So I liked it very much.
I made a spicy spagetti with chicken sausage (since Maa & Baba don’t eat beef or pork), a simple salad, and some out-of-the-box cake for the family at Aditya’s brother’s house while they were off on a day trip – really the meal was nothing special or complicated. I think Maa might have been secretly afraid that the rumors of Americans were true, and I couldn’t cook a thing.
Aditya: What about Bear?
GG: My dad’s dog.
Maa: Oh, very sweet, very nice.
Aditya: Baba was taking pictures all evening of Bear, there were more pictures of Bear than of GG.
Maa: I liked your mother, your grandmother… And I was very much impressed by you.
Maa met my materal grandmother while I was back in the Midwest, attending college. Granmama is a French-Candian immigrant, altho she’s lived in the US for most of her life.
GG: Anything I did that surprised you, or maybe somewhat negative? Something you thought was kind of odd?
Baba: Actually, should I tell you? Yes, I’m not so critical in little things. If otherwise it is acceptable, it is okay.
Maa: Yes, everybody has some problems.
Baba: If everybody is happy, I feel that it’s good enough. I don’t see things so critical.
GG: Okay, so, now, Aditya & I are married… What is the hardest part about having a non-Bengali, or non-Indian daughter-in-law?
Maa: From my side, the only difficulty is to express myself.
Baba: The language.
Maa: The language. The hardest thing. Nothing else.
Aditya: (sarcastically) GG has been working hard on her Hindi.
I think I have a mental block against learning languages. I’m still struggling to keep a schedule of regular studying – but hearing this was a big motivator.
Baba: I don’t… Whether you are GG, or someone else, it would have not have made much of difference if that person were the same as GG. Because I don’t, uh, everybody has some shortcoming, some strong points. So if I forget about the rest of the things, only see the small shortcomings here or there, mentally I will not be happy. And I do not want to be unhappy.
GG: But is there any difficulty you see, maybe in customs I don’t know, or…
Maa: Even I don’t know a lot of customs. So I don’t care for that.
GG: Or my family doesn’t have the same expectations that an Indian family would…
Maa: How would I know, how do we know what your family expectations? We don’t know…
Baba: One thing I know, GG, that I have got my own way of looking at things. I can lead my life in that lane/line/road – whatever you want to call it, but I cannot make others follow it. Therefore, yes, often things happen even between me and Maa, where we think differently, we argue, feel bad. Maa stops talking, I stop talking, but that is for only a few hours. Because we know that this has to be there, because [we are] two persons.
Similarly, if I am very critical to anybody, it is making an unhappy relation, and no one is happy by doing so. It is better if we can enjoy each other’s company, which is good, overlook the shortcomings, the things that we don’t like. If I know that GG does not like something, I would like to avoid those things as much as possible. I have not vacuumed your bedroom, because I have felt that you would not like disturbed whatever arrangement or, uh, disarrangement…
…that you have got. It is something like that, I have avoided it. But had it been my world, anybody could have done it for me and I would be happy. It is something like that. I try to avoid, don’t see things, which I feel may cause a bit of uneasiness between two persons.
GG: Is there anything that has been a positive, an unexpected thing that you’ve learned or experienced from having an American daughter-in-law?
Baba: Should I say now, one-to-one? Ready? Sure? I had the impression that Americans are generally very clean …that they keep things in order. But here, I have found…
And the truth comes out! This was the only critical thing I could get Maa & Baba to admit.
GG: It’s as much your son as me!
Aditya: GG, don’t even go there. You know, Thalith used to be our roommate, first when the three of us lived together, and then Thalith, GG, Ivan, and Claudia [lived together]. Thalith always used to make fun of us because the house was dirty and he used to blame me. But after I graduated, and he lived just with her, then he realized that what he actually saw there was her mess minus my cleaning up. You know, I visited GG twice, surprised her by arriving there before she expected me to be there. And the first day that I got there GG was sitting on the bed. And to get on the bed you could only put one step on the ground from the door. So you had to make a hop on one foot towards the bed, and then from that foot – you didn’t have space to put down the second foot – you had to hop off of that foot straight onto the bed. So everything you see is, always remember, that is GG minus my cleaning. Don’t say that it’s equally my fault.
While it is true that my college apartment room was that messy (I was working on my senior thesis!), it is complete falsehood that Aditya is a net benefit in the cleaning department; during the same time period Aditya’s studio in California was nearly as messy. Really, we’re just messy (and busy) people.
Maa: What to say…
GG: It’s okay to say unflattering things. Whatever is on your mind.
Maa: Actually, I love you very much, all qualities, but the only thing, I can’t tolerate this much of untidiness. No, I think that, uh, you are since your childhood away from your mother, maybe that has affected you. Because only a mother can teach a daughter…
GG: My mother is also very messy.
Maa: Maybe, maybe because of that.
Maa: What you will do, please, you [GG] do the dusting and cleaning, let him do the vacuuming. Yes, do it together. That way you will enjoy it. Otherwise you’re doing it here, he’s doing it there. When Aditya told me that last time that Amy [the basement tenant] was here, that after Amy left, we’ll do the basement as the TV room or something like that. How is it possible that somebody is playing there, she’s playing here in her computer? This is not right. Whenever you’ll be at home, stay together. That is the first thing between husband and wife. You’ll see that in our house also, wherever Baba is I try to be, yes, because I don’t get to …
Baba: You see, when I want to avoid her, she’s always there! … Have you gone to church? Have you seen a dirty church?
GG: I don’t go to church.. I’ve only been a few times when I was little.
Baba: Okay, the ten times you’ve gone to church in your life, have you ever seen a dirty, stinking church?
Baba: Why? Cleanliness is next to godliness! And it is your house. You want that, you know, welcoming look. A house that is messy cannot be a happy house.
Point. Aditya and I really do need to stop living like we’re still in college.
GG: Okay, last two questions. Is there any advice that you would give to an American, or another Westerner who is dating an Indian, and is worried maybe that the parents won’t approve or anything like that?
Maa: Yes. There is something. Like [in] India, we are naturally very family-oriented. It is in our, uhh, in our heritage. But in Western country, people are so advanced, so educated, so independent, that sometimes, they feel, that…
Baba: They become islands.
Maa: Yes, they become islands. The space, their conception of personal space makes them very lonely, gradually. Everybody has some defects, some shortcomings – that is a girl also and a boy. Don’t look at the shortcomings. If you like somebody, if you love somebody, try to, both of, try to compromise on some points. If you can give only will you have something. Always if you – uh, not you, I mean general you – that giving away is much better than taking away.
Baba: No, actually, her question was actually if an Indian boy or a girl is dating an American boy or girl, what advice would be given to them. That is what she asked.
Maa: That is the advice! You have to give something to take something!
Baba: No, no, no… That you are talking about harmony in married life or in relationship. I would say that if they are dating an Indian boy, don’t just go by the boy. Unless he has decided to get out of the family altogether – cut off, I mean – not that [he is] in touch with them, they come and go… Otherwise, the boy should make it clear exactly how his parents or her parents would react to such a decision.
Like, you two are very nice. When you come to India, we [could have] decided no, you have to be like Indian girl, you have to put on a lot of oil, get up early in the morning, five o’clock, take a bath, go to temple, do puja, come back, then you go to the kitchen, cook food.
Maa: That type of family is still there in India.
Baba: A lot of them! The ones that – I have been reading your blog – most of the people they have got that type of problem when they go abroad, to their in-laws place. Therefore, it must be absolutely clear in mind [of the couple] what the expectations [are] at the other end. And if it is so, they should not go to India at all. Because a lot of disharmony would be created on such visits. And as far as we are concerned, as I told you, we are much more liberal, we know and we have got faith on our children, and things are different. I don’t think that one can, uh, judge parents just by seeing our family.
Maa: Even uh, Indian girls get lots of problems.
Baba: Indian girls get problems at their in-laws place because the culture, the practices are different.
GG: Would you suggest for a couple in that situation, that they just go along with the parents, or they say “no, we aren’t going to do that. She will not be getting up at five am”? Or some sort of compromise?
Baba: No, no, I would say if they’re going to live in US they should live like in US. They cannot live in US as [in] India. If you are going to live in India, live like India[ns]. You should not change your lifestyle because you are in a different country [for a short visit], you better live the style of the country [that] you live in.
GG: Anything else you want to share?
Maa: No, I told you that space is very…
Baba: Space should not make–
Maa: Make a man lonely.
Baba: No. That should not, I would say, divide a couple.
Aditya: I think it’s all about, when it comes to intercultural relationships, or really any relationship, it’s all about setting expectations. Like you should never get to the point where there is, like… In most Indian families parents are part of the married family. And you should never get to the point where those stakeholders are not on the same page.
Baba: That’s what I’m saying. And once – often courtship, like salesmanship – often the boy or the girl will tell little bit of half-truth. They will tell the facts just to impress, or hide things that maybe one [will] realize when you go to India. So that should be quite clear, how it is like at the other end. Like earlier, people used to get married, not to Americans, but a lot of people used to get married to the European girls, mainly British. And most of these people are sufficiently moneyed, but they were not like Rajas. But they used to give the impression that they were like small Rajas. And after the wedding they used to go, they used to find that things are not like what they heard during their courtship, and they had a lot of trouble during those days. The same way that I feel that one should be quite truthful, and put both sides on the right side of the picture, and then decide.
Maa: And husband and wife relationship should very, very based on honesty.