December 16, 2006

It's my turn to change diapers

I missed the TV soap but its title - Saas bhi kabhi bahu thi - set me working on this piece, of which the theme is - Bahu meri bani beti. To those who find my use of desi words irksome I submit that words such as daughter and daughter-in-law, in plain English, sound mundane, and they do not convey the sense of distinction between a bahu and beti . Both are four-letter words. But beti is an endearing term; bahu , somewhat lower down on saas-sasur's endearment scale.

A bahu usually comes to in-laws place with pre-conceived notions, some social baggage; and she feels stifled by the terms of reverence she is constrained to adopt while staying with her in-laws. This needn't be so. The month my bahu, beta and our potha , Siddarth, spent with us in Mysore recently was a learning experience. For a start, I discovered that there are at least four versions of 'Ring Around Rosie'. This one, said to be mom of all ring-around nursery rhymes, predates Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. I couldn't figure out my bahu's favoured version, for she sing-songs in an accent I have problem grasping. Never mind the words. They all sound the same to our year-old Siddarth, so long as the rest of us are there to dance to his tune.

I can't say my daughter-in-law Meera fits into the traditional mould of a bahu. For one thing, she is America-born. And, as such, she is free from hang-ups of a home-grown daughter-in-law, who is portrayed in movies as some one who, in the presence of elders and strangers, hides her face behind gunghat ; someone who doesn't share dinner table with saas-sasur, but serves them instead, before she takes food. Far from wearing gunghat, Meera prefers to move about the house in T-shirt and slacks, which, I suspect, come from my son's wardrobe. Such informality is a kind of social licence to which only a beti would be entitled in standard Indian households.

But then neither my wife nor I has ever been saas-sasur to Meera. And we don't have a biological daughter. That Meera continues to address us aunty-uncle, as she did before her wedding, is not lost on some of our tradition-bound relations. I wouldn't have her address us any differently. If Meera were to call us Appa-Amma, as our son does, it would sound put on, phony.

Siddarth proved a cementing factor that brought each of us much closer to the other in the family. It was as if we discovered each other all over again and Siddarth-centric family dos gave us all a fresh perspective of life around us. I could not imagine that I, at 68, would ever get to play 'Ring Around the Rosie' with daughter-in-law and grandson. My wife joined us in clowning with our ever-smiling Siddarth. Our living room tuned into a kindergarten for adults, with even my aged mother joining in the fun. Family outings, to the zoo, to watch the dancing fountains at Brindavan Gardens, to picnic on the Karanji lakeside; taking in a round of mini-golf at Planet-X with son Ravi, our visits to Devaraj Urs Rd. Coffee Day, ordering pizza for dinner, or simply lounging on our living room sofa gossiping late into the night, all added value to our relationship, by way of sharing in-family private jokes; evolving our own code words for an incident, episode or an anecdotal reference.

Diaper-change is a code word for us. Whenever Meera mentions diaper-change I connect it to an incident. It happened on a day when Siddarth had tummy trouble, when the other three in the family, my wife, son and daughter-in-law, took turns to wipe Siddarth's behind and change diapers. I was the odd man out. When our little friend did it the fourth time, within hours, I heard Meera observe, disarmingly, 'wonder whose turn is it now'. It triggered all-round laughter in the family. A bahu wouldn't bring herself to so banter over diaper changing. A beti would. If I were to pick a defining moment, this was when, I would say, Meera became our beti. And you know what, she didn't let me get my hands on it, changing Siddarth's diapers.

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