The Prince is Back, and other royal sagas.
A few weeks after my wedding, the husband and I were invited for dinner to a family friend’s place as part of the North Indian tradition of feeding a freshly-minted couple. It is a nice way to kick off a Punjabi’s journey of post-marital obesity.
After the ceremonial feeding was out of the way, my friend (the wife) got up to clear the plates. I instinctively got up to help her. My husband instinctively got up to help both of us.
My friend’s husband, who was burdened with no such instincts, sat there and watched as the three of us made laps of the kitchen to clear up. After my last lap, as I sat down next to him, he leaned over with a conspiratorial smile, pointed in the direction of my husband, and whispered, “Bada gharelu ladka dhoonda hai.” (What a homely boy you’ve picked.)
It was meant as a jibe to shame a man for helping out in ‘womanly’ tasks. And to shame me, as the woman, for ‘letting’ my man indulge in such trivial pursuits when it should be clear to all of us that men were put on the planet to do bigger things than clearing the table.
My friend’s husband belongs to a species we are discussing today – the ‘Raja Beta’ of an Indian household. The manly man who was always considered too precious a child by his parents to be taught basic life skills, and who takes pride in his continuing ignorance of them as an adult.
I gave this particular Raja Beta my best version of a fixed social smile, even as I said a little prayer in my heart for my friend who has to spend a lifetime with this domestically challenged manchild.
This edition is dedicated to my friend, and to all the other women out there, living with royalty.
The Prince is Back.
Kriti and her husband were based in London. Living in another country where house help is not affordable, both of them would contribute to household chores. However, the dynamic suddenly changed the first time his parents visited them.
“One day, I was doing some office work from home, when I ran out of drinking water in my glass. I asked my husband to please get me a refill – something we do for each other all the time. My mother-in-law was horrified to see her son fetch a glass of water for his wife. She kept an eye on my glass and the next time it was empty, she raced to the kitchen to get it so I don’t ask him to.”
This set a pattern that has repeated every time Kriti’s in-laws have been in the house over the years.
“Whenever my in-laws visit us, or we visit them, my husband seems to magically lose the ability to pick up dirty plates and carry them to the kitchen, stack the dishwasher, make the bed in the morning when he wakes up after me, etc.”
Kriti has come up with a gentle reminder she gives him now, whenever she sees the pattern repeating. It doesn’t help a lot with him, but it did inspire the title of this piece.
“These days, whenever I see this behaviour starting again, I tell him, ‘The Prince is back’. And after my mother-in-law leaves, he has to be ‘house-trained’ all over again!”
The House of Magic
Sonal and her husband have similar working hours. Sonal delivered their baby six months back and has recently joined work again. Her husband’s parents are staying with them to help with the baby.
Sonal often has to work long hours. She is also breastfeeding the baby so she keeps pumping milk even while at work.
“Between work, and breastfeeding, and driving in the crazy Bangalore traffic, I am beyond exhausted by the time I get home. There have been many days when I come back and find my husband relaxing on the couch, while his mother is managing the kitchen.”
Sonal says that she is always expected to join her mother-in-law in the kitchen to help with dinner as soon as she gets home.
“Some days, if I need to take a few minutes of rest in our room, my mother-in-law will leave the kitchen, walk by her son who got home before me and is watching TV on the couch, and knock on my door to ask me to come out and help her. My husband does not react. He does not step up and say to his mother, ‘Let Sonal rest, I will help you.’ A glass of water magically appears before him, dinner is magically on the table, and he does not stop to think who put it all there.”
Sonal says that she has sometimes tried including her husband in the kitchen work but her efforts always get intercepted.
“When I do this, my mother-in-law stops me and says, ‘Oh, let him rest. He has had a long day.’ What does she think I have had? And why does my husband, who is usually a fairly equal partner, suddenly turn into a slob when his parents are around?”
Sonal says that she understands a mother’s love.
“I get that her son holds a bigger space in her heart than I do. It is natural. Even my mother loves me like that. But when my mother visits us, she never says, ‘Let my daughter rest’ while demanding that my husband help her in the kitchen.”
Those were the days, my friend.
Shrimi and her now-husband lived together for a year before they got married and she says he was the dream partner then.
“He would chop vegetables before I came back from office, and greet me with a refresher drink. The maid would have already cooked the rotis. I just had to cook the veggies. Those were the days.”
But, she says, as soon as they got married, it was as if a switch flipped in his head.
“His contribution at home tapered off and, pretty soon, he stopped doing anything without my nudge. The physical and mental load took big toll on me. Getting any chore done by him became an uphill battle.”
A few years ago, they had a son. Shrimi’s parents-in-law came to stay with them to help out.
“That was when I first saw his Raja Beta avatar. The treatment he got was eye opening. My mother-in-law offloaded all kitchen work off of me, but would not have her son lift a finger around the house. I would regularly have arguments with mother and son as to why he can’t do the dishes or dusting anymore. His mother would say, ‘He has never done such work till date, I can do it on his behalf.’ I really don’t understand why most Indian mothers try to protect their sons from their responsibilities. And why do the sons let them?”
The ‘baccha’ who has a baccha
Preiti relates well to the princely patterns.
“Whenever we visit our in-laws place, my husband doesn’t even get up to fetch his own food from the kitchen. My mother-in-law serves his food and clears the plates after he is done eating. When they visit us, my husband tries to pretend that the whole house is run by me, even though he does help out in their absence. He does it to protect the image of us as a good traditional couple that they would approve of.”
Preiti, who did not get the memo of what a ‘good traditional couple’ should act like, once asked her husband to do the dishes. Her mother-in-law swooped in immediately and took over the job.
“She said, ‘Baccha bartan karta hua achha nahi lagta’ (Doesn’t look nice if the child does the dishes.) It made me wonder how she thought it was okay for me to do the dishes, but not him. I was born an adult, and he is still a child?”
Preiti and her husband were once having a small argument over some housework. His father was in the house and decided to play judge, jury, and executioner.
“My father-in-law interrupted us and said to me, ‘He already does so much for your son. I haven’t seen anybody else do this much. So you should behave yourself.’ My husband occasionally picks up and feeds our son in front of his parents and that is earth-shattering to them, because in their worldview, the child is ‘mine’. Any parenting my husband does is something I should be grateful for.”
“My father-in-law went on to add that this is why he didn’t want a daughter-in-law who had a job. My husband remained silent.”
Under her own roof.
When Ritu and her husband met as MBA students at an IIM and fell in love, his family was dead against the union.
“It was an inter-caste marriage and they were not ready to accept me. Over time they reluctantly agreed and my husband still thinks that we should feel indebted to them for this forever.”
Meanwhile, the reluctant acceptance continues to wax and wane with the daily ups and downs of the marriage.
“When we were getting married, and I had a great career, my mother-in-law would question how I would take care of their grandchild with my job. Recently, I took a break from my career after having a baby, and they ask me every day when I will find a job.”
Their objections to her life choices and parenting choices are unending, and end up with Ritu facing casteist slurs under her own roof.
“Whenever my mother-in-law does not like something I do, she taunts me, saying, ‘Hamare caste ki hoti toh kuch tameez hoti. Tune toh sirf padhai ki hai, but tujhe kisi ne sanskaar nahi diye.’ (If you were of our caste, you would have had some manners. You may be highly educated but no one has taught you values.)”
“My husband, their Raja Beta, thinks that his parents have done their bit by ‘allowing’ us to get married. So when they say such things to me, he sits quietly and never answers back.”
If this is the treatment IIM graduate women in our country are tolerating in their own homes, I shudder to imagine what the rest of this country’s women face.
PS: Don’t assume this is not you. Check with wife.
Let’s get the basics out of the way. We all love our parents. And our parents love us, even if that love might sometimes express itself problematically, especially in the case of sons.
This newsletter is not being read by too many parents-in-law (except maybe mine, and let the record reflect that this is not their story). Nor is it fair to expect people to let go of their deeply held beliefs after a certain age.
But it is being read by a number of husbands, many of whom might be getting the royal package of parenting without even realizing it.
As Sonal puts it, “Husbands need to be more observant. When they see their parents, they default into Child Mode. They become the kid who gets to sit back and relax and have his favourite dishes served for dinner. But in the process, they fail to notice that their wife has to stay in Adult Mode. If this is happening, we need our husband to buck up and play the role of a shield between us and their parents.”
Before they had the baby, Sonal’s husband took a break for a year from his career. For her parents, it was shocking to seeing their son-in-law not bringing in the dough.
“They would call me everyday and ask what his plans are. When they spoke to him, they would indirectly start talking about how so-and-so’s career is going great guns – a thinly veiled attempt to nudge him to go back to work. I knew he was thinking of starting a business on his own and did not need the added pressure from my parents. So I told them to direct all their questions only to me and not bring it up to him at all.”
I am ending with this story because I want to leave the Raja Betas (PS: Don’t assume you are not one. Check with wife.) with this question:
If a wife can shield her husband from her parents’ gendered expectations (a man’s role is to bring in the money) then why can’t a husband shield his wife from his parent’s gendered expectations (a woman should cook and clean and manage the kids by herself)?
Something to think about, Your Highness?
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