When In-Laws Aren’t ‘Outlaws’


By Sweta Vikram, Guest Contributor  

A Personal Essay

Sweta Vikram

Sweta Vikram

I was chatting with my mother-in-law in Mumbai about an upcoming wedding in New Delhi, on one of my India visits, when she said, “Beta, the blouse for your sari is ready. It’s a beautiful red with a low back.” For a few seconds she kept quiet and then whispered, “It’s designed to show off your tattoo.” Her lowered tone was because of other relatives who had entered the house as she was speaking.

Her surprising acceptance of body art extended to another friend who confessed one day that she had always wanted a tattoo but was afraid of the pain. My mom-in-law promptly said, “Sweta said her tattoo didn’t hurt. I have seen tattoo stores in Lokhandwala. Since Sweta is here, let’s go now. Get yours done.” Leena and I laughed aloud. Her words made me realize that times have really changed.

Hindi films from the 70s and 80s often showed animosity between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. Actress Lalita Pawar was considered the queen of evilness, as she provided the outrage factor to audiences by torturing her daughters-in-law and holding her sons firmly in her spell. I was convinced that her lazy eye was the epicenter of her power. Be it bride burning, massaging the stairs with lubricant so the daughter-in-law slipped and broke her bones, to whispering incredulous stories in her son’s ears, she was brilliant at it all. The daughters-in-law weren’t exactly shy either. I remember a movie in the 80s where a character boiled milk with a house lizard and served that poison to their husband’s mother. Creative!

Fast forward to the aught, and here my mother-in-law and I were discussing wardrobes, politics, and cinema. Somewhere along the line, we had learnt to embrace our differences along with our similarities.

Why has this dynamic changed? I suspect the growing financial independence of young women has something to do with it. That combined with global exposure and higher education gives the younger lot a different sense of security and professional focus. Women today are educated and empowered. Also, the average age of marriage for women in India has gone up from 20-25 years to 24-28 years, a statistic testifying to the maturity of the new daughter-in-law.

Stock Photo

Stock Photo

My associate, Rajul is firm in her belief that her husband respects her because she brings in a paycheck!

“I’d like to keep things that way,” she adds. If daughters-in-law are getting more independent and outspoken, the mothers-in-laws are also creating lives for themselves outside the family. Sapna, a fifty-three-year-old social activist based out of New Delhi, told me unreservedly, “A couple of months after my son got married, I asked him to move out. I like my own life. I don’t want to be packing lunch for him and his wife. I am delighted to see them once a week, but I am not interested in taking care of them in my old age.”

Sapna wasn’t an exception. I interviewed several women in their fifties and sixties in India, and they shared similar feelings: live and let live. Madura said, “I am done with that phase in my life—waking up early, cooking meals, and making sure the homework is done. I am happy to spend time with my grandchildren but as a grandparent, not a parent.”

Two ladies cornered me and said, “Why would we want to leave our life of physical comfort in our old age and move in with our children in America? I don’t want to scrub toilets and cook any longer. I have maids in India who do that.”

In the past, the battle always has been over one common territory: the man also known as the son or the husband; however, it would seem both mother in laws and daughter-in-laws have learnt to respect boundaries. Between home, work, and commitments that come with them, there is always a scarcity of time. It’s quite possible that the new age mother-in-law and daughter-in-law are more empathetic towards each other’s mindsets.

Is it possible that instead of playing victim, both the parties are in fact making an effort to bridge up those gaps and find that agreeable balance?

Personal essay “When in-laws aren’t outlaws” excerpted with permission from the book “Mouth Full” published by JK Publishing. Copyright (c) 2012 Sweta Srivastava Vikram. All Rights Reserved. This piece also appeared in India Currents in its edited form.


 More About the Author:

Sweta Srivastava Vikram (www.swetavikram.com) is an award-winning poet, writer, novelist, author, essayist, columnist, and educator. Born in India, Sweta spent her formative years between India, North Africa, and the United States. She is the author of five chapbooks of poetry, two collaborative collections of poetry, a novel, and a nonfiction book. She also has two upcoming book-length collections of poetry in 2014.

Her work has also appeared in several anthologies, literary journals, and online publications across seven countries in three continents. Sweta has won three Pushcart Prize nominations, Queens Council on the Arts Grant, an International Poetry Award, Best of the Net Nomination, Nomination for Asian American Members’ Choice Awards 2011, and writing fellowships. A graduate of Columbia University, she lives in New York City with her husband and teaches creative writing across the globe & gives talks on gender studies. You can follow her on Twitter (@ssvik) or Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/Words.By.Sweta).


You can follow Sweta at: http://www.swetavikram.com


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  1. Sanober

    Most definitely. I love my in laws because I have never felt like an outsider. We ve always been on the same team. I may have been the only one out of my friends who had nothing to contribute to the “my MIL is a witch” conversation. Feel very proud and blessed for that. Times are changing. Let us leave petty in the past. I say go grab your mom in law and give her an unexpected hug and kiss right now!

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