“Give J___ Auntie a string of flowers,” my mother-in-law told me. Suddenly I grew tense with a sense of not knowing what to do.
I had a long string of jasmines which I had cut into small pieces and was giving out to my daughter’s friends at her Sankranti party. My mother-in-law and a couple of her friends were sitting on the sofa.
I busied myself in the kitchen so as not to have to respond to her instruction right away. Away from the crowd, I reflected, why had I become tense? I realized that it was because I was not sure how I could give flowers to J___ Auntie, while K___ Auntie was sitting right next to her. Then I realized that the solution was simple, give flowers to both J____ and K____ Auntie.
Why had this obvious solution not struck me right away? Why had there even been a “problem” requiring a solution?
Let us go back to the instruction, “Give J___ Auntie a string of flowers.” In giving this instruction, my mother-in-law had made an assumption. Someone who had not made that assumption might have had two questions:
1) Why had she instructed me to give flowers to J___ but not also to K___ Auntie?
2) Why hadn’t she herself given out the flowers?
For both questions, the reason stems from a distinction made between a married woman whose husband is alive and one whose husband is no longer alive. My mother-in-law had instructed me to give flowers to J___ Auntie because both of us fell into the former category. She did not give out the flowers, nor did she ask me to give flowers to K____ Auntie, because she and K___ Auntie fell into the latter category.
Upon hearing her instruction, I felt the tension of being unwilling to follow it, but it took me some time to unpack all this to understand why. Once I understood, I saw the way. I picked up three strings of flowers and gave one to each – my mother-in-law, J____Auntie, and K_____ Auntie. Taken by surprise, K___ Auntie immediately asked, “why me?” I just smiled. My mother-in-law explained, “she doesn’t believe that there should be that difference,” and put the flowers into her hair. K___ Auntie replied, “Yes, these customs should change.”
(originally written for the monthly newsletter of Association for India’s Development)