Sunday, December 5, 2010

A House, A Home

Masiji returned to our home this afternoon. Ravi's 83 year old aunt has been living with us for the past four years. She shares a room with her sister (Ravi's Mom) who is 93 and though most of the time they get along pretty well, there are days that feel vaguely reminiscent of the sibling rivalry we endured when our children were young. Mummy can't stop bossing and Masiji's feelings are always getting bruised. I negotiate, comfort and cajole. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

That's fine. I can deal with the ups and downs of a relationship this solid and well-established.

What I find difficult is the way each person's views, values, preferences and tastes have to be incorporated into the fabric of a home. When you marry, you choose your spouse (most of the time) based on common understandings and principles. The inevitable adjustments are part of the experience and a good marriage is full of compromise. You bring up your children according to your shared views and values and while this too can be both challenging and revealing, I've found it enriching and (most of the time) a pleasure.

But a joint family presents challenges that even I (I grew up in a house with three resident grandparents and a long train of aunts, uncles, cousins and strays) can find difficult and exasperating and at times even infuriating. I could not be luckier with my mother-in-law. But her sister is another thing entirely.

I love Masiji. I am lost in admiration for the life she has endured. She lived in a shack on a footpath for years after the partition riots that swept India immediately following Independence. Her family lost everything. She witnessed scenes of unspeakable brutality and violence. She cooked meals for her family over a fire on the street, the wood for which she gathered as best she could. She carried water in a brass vessel on her head. No indoor plumbing. Five children, one with a severe disability. She endured.

So if she insists on making the dahi by wrapping the vessel in my favorite tea cosy and then again in a towel and then again in an old black shawl, what the heck? And if she must use a hair oil that stains the bathroom floor and a knee balm that stinks up the whole house, how does it matter? She's entitled. She endured.

But there are those prejudices that also endured: the fixed beliefs about Muslims, about poor people, about  servants who are just waiting for you to turn your back so they can steal your sugar or help themselves to butter on their bread.

And I cannot abide the fact that these prejudices keep creeping their way into MY home, making this a place where damage control is always required, where I have to sneak into the kitchen after she has left and reassure my cook that she really can eat whatever she wants, that she needn't be furtive or anxious, that I am in charge, not Masiji. Because you know what they say (and it's true): if you have to insist that you're in charge, you're not.

Yet when I think about inclusion and all the lovely things I am so fond of saying, I know my fuming about Masiji is beneath me. My friend and guide Manju once remarked that most elderly women in India are insecure, worried in some fundamental way about their right to be where they are. For Masiji, who lives with her nephew and not her son, this is more true than usual.

So I swallow my outrage, make sure my cook has plenty of butter for her bread and sugar for her tea, and carry on. This is my home. But it's hers too.

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