By Rita Kothari
Naathi maanu. The phrase leapt out with a host of scurrying sounds and swiftly moving images. There were naathi maanu mornings — mornings when we were promised the darshan of the sons-in-law.
On those mornings, you couldn’t continue to sleep, unless you were a man, but even that was generally avoidable. I would wake up to the sound of my bhabhi Smita’s swishing shalwar as she went from room to room, changing bedsheets, pillow covers, napkins, taking out new cutlery and crockery tucked away in a little cupboard. The pillow covers had ‘Welcome’ and ‘Home Sweet Home’ embroidered on them. They were taken out only when a son-in-law or naathi maanu visited.
Smita’s dupatta tied up across her body, she was like a labourer at work. She would have barely finished one task, and she heard ‘Ismita’ from her mother-in-law asking her to do the next. I would silently tiptoe into the bathroom, wear something ‘decent’ (Mummy decided what that was) and offer to help.
Biscuits, not poor man’s khaari or glucose, but rich, shainaita bisskate, with pista and cashews in them, were laid in plates to be taken out on those special occasions. Steel plates with petals embossed on the borders, and china cups that would be swiftly put away as soon as naathi maanu left.
Through those mornings, Mummy would be giving out orders, a sutradhar that conjoined and enacted a full three act play, or rather a Zubin Mehta who conducted a full blown orchestra. Please don’t get her wrong, she was not a Lalita Pawar mother-in-law in a Hindi movie simply giving orders. She also worked for her son-in-law, because the entire marriage rested on whether the naathi maanu was pleased with his in-laws or not. Saavra izzat dyan tha kina na? (Are your in-laws giving you your due respect or not?) This question would be asked to the sons when they had visited their in-laws, and if the answer was negative, there were serious consequences. Their wives, and why are we being hypothetical here, my sisters, would be taunted, harassed.
At least they were not beaten up, like they were in some homes. Although, I remember Smita being beaten up when her husband did not get enough izzat at his in-laws. So you could not risk displeasing naathi maanu.
If the son-in-law was vegetarian, paneer was the chief protagonist in the meal, and if he was a non-vegetarian, my mother would make her special teenvar, mutton with cardamoms. For my sake, I hoped he was the latter, but I was the least important entity on those days.
Working in the background, making beautiful things available, like today – a bit of Smita, a bit of myself, unavoidably woman. The male organizer of the manel announced my name, I sprung to my feet, all attention. He invited me to introduce others. I went, decently dressed, gave flowers, making the men comfortable, spouting post-truths on how much they accomplished and stepped off the stage, anonymous. The naathi maanu continues to visit.
Rita Kothari is an author and translator based in Gujarat.