One evening, we were invited to dinner by my husband’s junior colleague. He got married last April and had been keen to host us with his wife ever since. It was a warm summer night, and though I was worried that I’d be sweating in a sari, I didn’t. We made it at a decent hour, around 8 PM and were ushered into their living room by the host. His father joined us too and we soon began a normal conversation about the weather, the political upheavals, the decrepit roads of the district interiors, the predominant culture and customs of the people of our immediate neighbourhood and what food one should prefer in such a sultry weather. The father did most of the talking, leading one topic after the other, my husband punctuating each with an anecdote and a consequent laughter.
An old lady, clad in the white traditional clothes of a widow, entered the room. She had a weak but pleasing smile and you could imagine that she must have been a beautiful woman in her youth. Our host introduced her as his maternal grandmother, as she sat next to me and smiled. The conversation between the men continued with renewed energy at each joke, while she and I looked at each other occasionally. After some more time of pleasing silence, I asked where she lived. She seemed relieved to have been spoken to finally and said that she lived in the next village along with her sons. I didn’t realise that I had opened the gate. She went on telling me how she follows a certain profound spiritual faith propounded by a guru, how (in her younger days) she used to spend hours without a break working at the guru’s ashram, and how her own sons do not subscribe to it nor give her money to attend the spiritual workshops that the ashram organizes each year. “The ashram gets innumerable devotees gathering on different occasions each year and you have to pay the least minimum amount to enable to feed so many mouths three to five times a day,” she said. While her vigour to explain to me the power of her faith did not fall short of breath, she occasionally incurred a drop in the energy because of her sons’ lack of involvement in the same. If not that, she’d refer to the cataract operation she recently had, which marred her eyesight more than make it. Her son-in-law proudly commented on how diligent and devoted she has been to her faith, perhaps because he conformed to it too.
The host’s mother came into the room, every now and then, with a tray full of fruits or tea and biscuits or juice. She is a schoolteacher and apparently takes a bus few miles off to reach her school. If you looked at her, you’d know she had been running around the whole day, despite the heat. Her husband paused her once, flippantly suggesting that she should let the new bride do these chores instead. Wasn’t she the younger one after all? What was she doing inside anyway? We all smiled uncomfortably in our seats. For an instant, I felt like one of those not so pleasantly plump, elderly aunties who visit people’s houses to judge their new brides on her dexterity to serve guests. I shifted my leg that crossed over the other, swiftly to the ground. Very obviously next time, the new bride entered with folded hands in a greeting and her head held down. We spoke to her and found out she is a Sanskrit postgraduate, with a Bachelors degree in Education, probably seeking a teacher’s job soon enough.
An hour later, we were taken to the dining room and served a well-prepared platter of vegetarian and non-vegetarian delicacies. We enjoyed the food and thanked the hosts. I trust I wasn’t emitting any judging signs through my demeanour but the host’s father thought it pertinent to mention that the food prepared was actually not by his daughter-in-law, since as he put it, ‘she tries hard but it’s often tasteless’. My husband and I did not pay attention to his musings and thought it better to express our gratitude more overwhelmingly.
Later, as we were driving back home, I pondered over this. It didn’t look like a family that stereotypes women to be a creature of the kitchen. After all, the matron the family is a schoolteacher and her mother persistently followed her own faith. But I couldn’t easily shirk off the feeling that the father-in-law was distinctly setting the tone by weighing the bride’s qualities simply by virtue of her culinary skills; as if she must entitle herself to it, to qualify to be there. I wasn’t very comfortable with it. I don’t know if questioning something so subtle, socially, would be wise for me to do, since there is evidence contrary to mere hospitality. But I hope that she finds her ground soon and entrenches her identity well enough for anyone to think before labelling her according to his/her understanding of her office.