An Ode to My Mother-in-law by Tara Kaushal

July 2018: Roopshikha Mane | 07.10.58-07.07.18 | No more, no less

Sahil and Ami's mum lost her long battle with cancer yesterday, after a few particularly hard last months. She'd told us she would go when her children were ready; when we rushed her to the hospital struggling to breathe the last time, we were. For someone so full of life, a life bereft of life was not living. Love truly means letting go, in the end.

You know, mothers-in-law in India get a bad rap that they often deserve. Mine was one of my favourite people in the world; I know I was one of hers, one of her three children.

Some of you know that Sahil and I met as colleagues who became best friends for two years as I dealt with the Bombay migrant experience, my father's death, a divorce and an alcoholic live-in boyfriend. My first interaction with my future MIL? She got Anshuman and I, new friends of her son's she had not yet met, these cool mugs from the Kala Ghoda Fest. "Why is your mum getting presents for some random friends of yours?" I asked S, confused. "She is like that only." And she was, bursting with life and love and laughter that touched everyone who had had the fortune to know her. At her funeral, I stopped counting the number of people I consoled with the words, "I know how important she was to you."

Shortly after, on Valentine's Day 2007, Anshuman and I met her when we went to their home for dinner. When Sahil and I finally got together 1 1/2 years later, I would find out that Ma had told Dad that night: "She may be divorced, older, living with someone, etc (other things that made me ineligible as an Indian bahu), I don't care. I know that this is the girl that will make my son happy." And she tried, sometimes not so subtly, to orchestrate this eventuality. Once, she told me, "Our Guru has said that it doesn't matter if the girl is older than a boy or taller, if they love each other they should get married." (I'm both, older and taller.) "Aunty, I am not interested in Sahil, he's like my brother!" I protested, struggling to find a word to describe our intense platonic friendship. (Six months later I would have to justify this statement in light of new developments, obviously; that it had been true at the time.)

Not that it was all smooth sailing. I live a highly feminist—therefore atraditional—life. I wear clothes much shorter, travel much later, live much more dangerously than she would've preferred. I am apathetic agnostic, in contrast to her strong religious beliefs. Although she knew all this from the get-go and saw me for me, outside a social lens, it was easier said than done to swallow it all at once. We've tread on each other's toes quite a bit. But she established, from the beginning, that love was the guiding principle of our relationship. 'With friends and family, you fight, forgive and forget' was her motto. And, whether or not she approved of what whatever you chose to do, she enabled you to do it and was firmly in your corner. Once she shut down this snarky aunty trying to rake up an issue with what I was wearing by saying, "But I bought it for her!" (She had.) She taught me that you have to love people the way THEY need/want to be loved, not impose on them your idea of who you'd like them to be. She was the biggest supporter of WIMR, financial and otherwise. That uncomfortable position that sons are often put in, to side with/choose either their wives or their mothers? That never happened. Her children's happiness was above all.

She'd hate me for saying this (because she really wanted grandkids!) but she's also one of the reasons I don't want to have children. Ma ho toh aisi, and I don't have it in me to love as selflessly as she did. She set the bar for motherhood too high.

... Maybe not only motherhood, but awesome-human-being-hood in general. In Ami's words, she did more in a week than we did in a year. Apart from the passionate love she showed so many people and her devoted religious service, she continued her architecture career, even correcting some drawings the day before she died. And what can I say about her incredible sense of style? Her love for Indian textiles showed in the houses she designed and her legendary saree collection. When she was dressed up—saree, hair pin, accessories—she was a sight to behold. Then there was her cooking, her (very bad) humour, her fabulous marriage, her everything. There is a giant Neeru-Mane-shaped hole in the universe.

Bye, my beloved Ma. As a spiritual seeker, you sought salvation that I hope you have received. If not someone as otherworldly as you, then who?

This piece was written in July 2018. Read the obituary I wrote for my father here.