Those who saw — long before everyone else — that the British had no business ruling in India, or that Sati was inhuman, saw something more fundamental than foreign domination or ritual wrong-doing. They saw that a different social reality was possible. The recent Supreme Court ruling granting divorce to a man from his wife who refused to share a home with his parents gives us an opportunity to talk about an issue that is as old as the hills but one which we have left unchallenged. Ask any parent who has raised and loved a daughter and they will tell you of the grief they felt when their daughter left their home and family after marriage.
The finality and severity of this departure differs to a significant degree across households and regions in India. It ranges from families where the bahu has to take permission to go to her natal home, if at all she must go, to the minority where there is no restriction on how deep her ties are to her parents. Irrespective of where families lie on this continuum, the expectation that the girl sever her ties with her family and adopt the husband’s family as her own is near universal.
The first family for every individual, male or female, is the family we were born and/or raised in and where we are loved for no reason at all. To expect the woman to sever or reorder her ties with this family and embrace an alien one is a cruel expectation. Despite all the pretence, it has never worked. This model is not working out for anyone and so it is time we jettison it. One has to only imagine the loneliness of parents whose daughters are married and are unable to attend to them. Imagine the emotions these daughters go through as they serve an alien place they have dutifully made home, while their own parents are yearning for a visit.
This model is not good for the son and his parents either. The saas-bahu serials wouldn’t be such a hit if it was. What this home sees is an endless tug-of-war of pleasing and being displeased. An endless clash of expectations from all sides. It’s not only the saas bahu who suffer from a lack of peace of mind, every member of the family does.
The alternative to the current scenario is not complicated. Let us celebrate the birth of every child, because no child, male or female is ever going to “go away”. When these people grow up and choose to marry, let the choice be between staying in an independent house, or the house of the son’s parents or the daughter’s parents — decided by all parties based on circumstance and convenience rather than rigid social tradition. And when it comes to the question of attending to the needs of parents is it not obvious that both sets of parents need to be cared for? This will require massive social, legal restructuring. But when what we want to achieve is in clear sight, everything that needs to be done to get there is just a step on the way.