“Ugh! Forgot to lock the door. Where’s Bhabi? Hey Bhabi! Can you lock the door please?”
“I don’t feel like going out with Ami tonight. Why are there so many wedding invitations this year? It’s easy enough for Bhabi to excuse herself from all social expectations because she just gave birth. That’s not fair to me. Well! Tonight Bhabi will have to go. She will just have to wing being a daughter-in-law and a mother tonight. Bhabi will have to take one for the team tonight”.
“Bhabi! Can you get the door?”
“Bhabi! Can you make two extra cups of tea for my friends? And can we have something to go with it? Please! You’re the best.”
“Bhabi! Can you get Ami’s medicine and give it to her?”
“Bhabi! Can you please get the mail?”
The dynamic that a Pakistani household is can be empowering for the women born in it. It can also be suffocating for the women who are married into it.
Bhabi is a term of endearment for a brother’s wife. Usually the endearment ends right at the term. Nothing follows.
Pakistani women know what I’m talking about when I mention the power players in order of power.
4. Father- in-law
7. House help
9. The entire extended in-law family including siblings of both parents-in-law.
10. The unmarried SIL’s future in-laws (real or targeted)
11. The coveted house help who is the most revered person in the whole neighborhood
12. The milkman
14. Father-in-law’s office colleagues
15. Brother-in-law’s friends
16. Husband’s ex
17. Brother-in-law’s girlfriend whom everybody hates
Yes there’s that Bhabi at the bottom of the list. Spotted her yet? Did you? Yeah hard to notice immediately but also hard to miss because of the vantage point that she enjoys while being at the bottom.
You see, while we have plonked her at the bottom of the power players list, we have placed her at a unique station. She is at a place where she isn’t a part of any major decisions but is essential to the execution of most of them.
And while we are being idiotic in-laws, she is actually taking inventory of our poor lifestyle choices and our naked stupidity. She can see all our flaws in all their glory. She sees us as brown people who are looking for a light-skinned daughter-in-law , then looks at her whiter than white complexion in the mirror and wonders if the next light-skinned woman would be treated how she has been.
While we make fun of people and comment on them with a ruthlessness that’s unique to us, she’s comparing how her own mother wouldn’t have approved of insults that came at someone’s physicality. She’s judging us. Yes she is! And rightfully so. She is put in a position where she can’t give feedback without facing alienation and retaliation. She has learned to stay quiet.
While we make our brother, who is married to her and father to her kids, dance at our whims like a puppet, she is quietly making plans to raise a son who has a backbone and can tell his adult siblings how to become more resourceful about their basic needs. She is consciously raising a son as different from his father as she can. This is her revenge at life. This is also her way of ending this vicious circle of weak men giving birth to weak men.
When we are rejecting one proposal after another claiming that no one either fits the description that we have of Mr. Right or that no one deserves us, she’s quietly laughing at our audacity. She listens with pain when we make fun of every man who made a mistake of proposing to us. She hears with horror when we all get together and comment on every guy’s sisters’ and mother’s appearance and looks. She wonders why we don’t see the mirror. She knows our heads are full of ourselves but this is too much. She sighs when she remembers all the men who proposed to her and how she chose us only because we “seemed nice “. She knows that women like us who make fun of every guy who walks through the door are usually insecure of themselves and will likely end up with a similar guy that they’re getting now, just ten years later.
While we pick faults with her cooking she takes it on her chin. She doesn’t mind. Unfortunately she has been a victim of our cooking and if she wasn’t polite she would have recounted all the times that we tried to cook something and she ended up saving the day for us.
When we try to discipline her kids she marvels at how objective we are with others’ kids but fail to see how our own parents didn’t raise us right. She stays quiet because she knows that we don’t know any better. What she consciously does is stay away from all our parenting advice.
When we tell her that she shouldn’t care for her parents because she’s married and has responsibility is only towards her husband and kids, she is derisive. That’s funny because her husband and kids are the last people on her list to take care of. She’s usually taking care of us. She however continues to care for her parents, calls them everyday, makes excuses to visit them and stays as involved with their medical care as they need.
When we try to insult her over her delay in performing household chores she doesn’t try to prove she’s any more efficient than she was yesterday. She knows that this isn’t how she can spend her life. She isn’t here to do our bidding. She’ll get to it when she’ll get to it.
When we get married and visit our parents, she welcomes us. Would we have liked more warmth? Yes. But we can now sense her quiet resentment of us and we don’t probe or confront. We don’t question it. May be because we have developed some of that towards our in-laws too. May be because years of bad behavior towards her is harder to ignore now when we are a victim to the same behavior at our place.
But now Bhabi looks emancipated from tears, arguments and fights. She looks peaceful. She has taken Ami’s old age and worsening sarcasm with patience and fortitude. She shows her kids how to be respectful by modeling respect.
Bhabi and Bhai take good care of Ami and Abu. How does Bhabi do it? She takes care of her own parents too. We don’t get time to see our parents as much. If we didn’t have Bhabi, who would’ve taken care of our parents?
But why doesn’t Bhabi talk? When she was newly married we thought she was shy and self-conscious. It has been decades that she has been with us. Why isn’t she more like a sister to us? Does she not feel included? But we’ve always included her. On so many occasions. We can’t think of any but we surely did. How could we not? She’s a family member. How could we not be welcoming to her? Surely we were welcoming to her. Were we?
Or did she take all our jokes negatively? Sure some were harsh but that’s the thing with humor. You’ve got to go all the way. May be she didn’t get them. Or may be she got hurt. Well humor can be hurtful. I know she cried once when Ami commented on her nose. I wish Ami didn’t do that. I wish I told Ami that in the moment.
Ami left us. Abu soon after. Sometimes we feel suffocated and want to be somewhere where there are no social demands. No in-laws, just old times and familiar places. But we don’t feel welcomed by Bhabi. She doesn’t say anything but that’s the whole point. She doesn’t say anything. She has never said anything. And the few times she did, it was to ask what else she could do. The few times we heard her laugh was when her kids were being goofy. The few times we saw her genuinely smile it was because Bhai stood up for her.
Did we miss something with her? But we were always so supportive and nice. We never stopped her from doing anything. We facilitated everything. Can’t remember what but we must have. I suppose we could’ve helped her more with the chores. Not helping her would be just as unkind as my in-laws. Well now let’s not compare Bhabi and us with my in-laws. Bhabi had it easy with us.
But then why is she nice but not close to us? I want to ask her advice about so much going on in my married life but she is so reserved. I know we never shared much with her before but we need her now. Before we were all together so we didn’t really need her. Now we need her. Isn’t that her job to be there for us when we need her? Gosh! She has been married so many years and still continues to disappoint us.
Well guess we’ll just have to let her be. Now her son is married and she doesn’t need us. Her daughter-in-law and her are like two friends. Always chatting, laughing together, going on lunches together. Bhabi cares for her kids like she cared for her own. She was good with kids. I wonder why she doesn’t keep her daughter-in-law at arm’s length. This isn’t how a MIL is supposed to be. If Ami lived the way Bhabi is living would Ami have survived?
But why is the question one of survival and like we are in a battle? We were a family. Bhabi was a part of it. May be Ami wouldn’t have always had the last word but there would’ve been love. If Ami had been fair and equally loving to all of us, we would’ve had a family after Ami too. Ami would’ve not felt obliged to Bhabi for using her services in her last days. Ami could’ve had a more dignified life and death. Had she made Bhabi her own!
Kids model our behavior. Even subtle behavior. And then they grow up to be that. Treating the women who marry into our families with the disrespect and contempt that some of us reserve for them is not okay. DILs are not unpaid maids. They aren’t our emotional punching bags. They’re not women to hold in comparison with our daughters. DILs are our sons’ wives. Their position in our life is unique and undisputed.
DILs also aren’t inferior to us. So jokes at the expense of their families and their own selves aren’t civil. Before speaking with a daughter-in-law we should weigh our words because we are exposed to her in many ways. She actually lives with us and is a part of our family. She really has a bird’s eye view of the quirks and oddities of our family. She has an opinion of us just as we have an opinion of her. And if truth be told, her opinion is usually based in observation and truth. Ours is usually based in jealousy and hatred. Opening our hearts to her is the only decent way to be. No artificial games. No power play. Just a place in our hearts.