A Crowded Loneliness

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There are several positive things about large and extended families (read the joint family system). Often, parents-in- law snoop into the private lives of their daughters-in- law. It’s stifling and suffocating. How can a mother-in- law crowd the bedroom of her son and daughter-in- law? Some families are so large that husbands and wives do not have their private space and time. The daughter-in- law, busy doing household chores, is lonely in a crowd. Tripti, a Delhi-based gynaecologist, fictionalizes real life incidents, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.

‘Doctor, I wish to tell you something.’ She spoke in a hushed voice.

I had just sent the patient outside to the washroom and this was her mother-in- law.

‘What happened?’

I fervently hoped she wouldn’t ask me to tell her daughter-in- law to start taking interest in house work. This was nothing unusual. I was often caught in such tricky situations. From harassed daughters-in- law asking me to tell her in-laws she needed to rest to the wary parents-in- law sick of their daughters-in- law lazing in bed all time, each wanting to go indirectly through me, I had seen them all. Both sides had my sympathies. In the much hyped great Indian joint family system breathed so many misgivings.

But this one had delivered normally just a week back.

‘Doctor, you didn’t advise them?’

‘About what?’ I was getting confused.

‘They should not be doing it?’ she whispered

I looked wide eyed at her. What was she leading upto?

‘I know they were upto ‘that’ yesterday? They are not supposed to do something like this now.

But how can I say that to my son?’ This was so weird ‘Your daughter-in- law complained to you?’ They never appeared so close.

She looked a little embarrassed.

‘Well, their room is just above mine. And around midnight I could kind of make out what they were doing.’ She looked around a little uncomfortable. Her daughter-in- law had once told me that they were a little too intrusive. Though I had let that pass, I could now comprehend her irritation more clearly.

‘You went to her bedroom to see them?’ Dear God, she was snooping on them.

‘Actually there was a lot of noise so I went upstairs to check. I didn’t go inside but I kind of stood in the dark and listened. Madam, you must advise them. She has got stitches there. Even she should have been wiser.’

I simmered. When would we start respecting each other’s privacy? No wonder many people were moving out of joint families.

The business families were the ones, which had largely stuck to joint families. As a child I used to be so envious of those living with uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents. There was never any dull moment in such families but I had never given any thought for the ‘woman’ silently suffering in such households.

Another old lady had once come to see me with a slightly different agenda.

‘Doctor, you have been treating my daughter-in- law for infertility. You know how anxious she is about not having a baby.’

I refrained from saying that it was she who was not ready to be patient. She never lost an opportunity to remind her daughter-in- law about the absence of a grandchild in the family. She kept a tab on her cycles and greeted her with a dejected smile at the end of her monthly cycle. Her pointed barbs were getting too much and the poor daughter in law had started dreading those days

The obsession some people have to have a grandchild drove them to obscene lengths. Her daughter-in- law once told me that she often checked the dustbins in her room and would look accusingly if she ever found a condom wrapper there! She became a bit wiser and the useless wrappers changed their route to her purse before they got thrown away, much to the relief of the agonised mother-in- law. Indeed a crowded family they lived in!

‘She has been taking those medicines. You have told them that this is the right time to have contact. But they are so irresponsible. My son came late yesterday night from a party.  And later, I could hear them quarreling. If she behaves so foolishly how will she get pregnant? Doesn’t she realise how much is at stake?’

I kept quiet but the misery on her face prompted me to reassure her.

‘You never know, they might have actually done it.’

Arre nhi (O no) madam, I know and that’s why I am upset. I and my husband were up the whole night.’

I desisted from asking her to elaborate. It was really funny the way parents were inside their children’s bedrooms these days.

‘You have to make them understand the gravity of the situation. They need to behave responsibly.’ The need to behave similarly failed to impact on her.

I often wondered about ‘the son’ in such households. Despite the wedding vows and the conjugal knots, he was always in the queue, the husband waiting to be born.

‘I think you should let them be. They will come around’. I had my limitations as a doctor. I was supposed to give them a medical advice only.

She looked at me with pent up frustration and I couldn’t help but pity her.

This was still a woman talking.  There was this patient with blind vagina who suffered  obvious complains. Strangely she was sent to the hospital with her father in law. And it was left onto him to give the detailed history as well as being explained the subsequent management. His familiarity raised many eyebrows though with all honesty I felt that it was once again the failure to draw line in our Indian households.

I recalled another patient who had a difficult pregnancy. Her baby failed to grow inside the uterus. She was advised to be on rest, yet she was sunk deep in her domestic chores. Once she broke down in front of me, ‘My husband is very caring and tells me to rest. He is even ready to eat outside and wash the laundry. But his parents who come apparently to take care of me are a different matter. I would rather they didn’t for all they do is keep me awake by talking all the time. They do not even let me rest in another room. They feel we exaggerate everything and a woman should just keep taking care of their house. I have to cook more as she never offers to do that. Plus they very subtly keep informing me all that my parents should do after the delivery Once when my husband asked me to take rest they reprimanded him and made no bones of telling him how low birth weight he himself was. The worst happened when my mother-in- law checked unwashed laundry. Very discreetly, when my husband was not around, my father-in- law asked me to do that daily. I was shocked and fumbled. He further advised me that I don’t have to follow everything that my husband says and neither what the doctors say. They just keep scaring people.’ I was amazed. This came from a senior male member of the family!

It was no wonder that her baby did not gain weight and had to be delivered early by cesarean. The poor woman  had an equally traumatic postpartum period where often the interfering parents did not let her sleep even after  a sleepless exhausting night with a frail baby who refused to feed. They were always critical of the ‘weak’ baby, waking him up in his sleep, even taking digs at the poor quality of breast milk for the baby was not gaining weight and was neither very fair in complexion. And to top it all, they started passing snide remarks about the poor quality of clothes her parents had sent, dropping broad hints at the absence of precious gifts in it.

An educated woman, yet she suffered the callous attitude of the family and a husband, who ignored the barbs. It had a deleterious effect on her psyche and she suffered severe depression.

I seriously wondered if things would have been different had she been alone.

Just few days back another couple sat in my clinic. The woman looked anxious. I waited for them to talk.

‘Are you pregnant?’ I asked teasingly

She broke into tears.

‘Actually ma’am, we are not into any physical relationship since I delivered a year back.’


As I finished her examination I could not find anything wrong with her.

Her husband echoed my thoughts, ‘She worries a lot. I keep saying the same thing. She reads on the internet and now feels she has some hormonal problem.’

She meant postpartum depression. Though it was a little far-fetched but I couldn’t with all honesty rule that out. Depression could have strange manifestations ‘I think you both really need to work it out together.’

‘I feel so guilty. I understand his frustration. We have tried everything. I even read and watch videos but nothing really turns me on ’

‘I hope there is no trouble in the family.’

Her husband interrupted, ‘No ma’am. We are a big family. There is always something going on, never a dull moment. Everyone loves her and she is very close to everyone in the family ’

‘May be she can go to her mom’s place for a few days’

“Arre ma’am, I leave her there but she comes back. Everyone is working there and she gets lonely. They even promise to take leave, but she doesn’t stay there for long. She has become so attached to us.’ He boasted

It sounded too good to be true. All women loved to go to their parents’ house. It was almost a universal feminine trait. Something was definitely wrong there. I looked at the woman but she nodded quietly.

‘Why don’t you plan a trip outside and relive the old days. May be you can rekindle the magic?’

‘Madam, we take so many trips abroad. And it’s never just the two of us but more than fifteen people of the family who go together.’

I felt a little stuffed but didn’t interrupt him ‘She comes from a nuclear family. When we were not married she wanted to be alone with me.

But now when I want to do that she prefers to be with my family.’

‘Don’t you think it’s a little abnormal for a woman not to want to be with her husband alone?’

He kept quiet. It should have hit him but engulfed in the pride being part of ‘the great joint family’ gave him, he could not apprehend her gradually receding away.

‘Performing a myriad of roles had consumed her and somewhere along the line she lost herself.’

She gave me a feeble smile. ‘Why don’t you go out and work? Exercise a little. Find something that you really enjoy doing. You will have a sense of satisfaction, a feeling of achievement. Go and indulge yourself.’

‘I bring such smart outfits for her. I love partying too but she prefers to remain confined. Even though we all encourage her, she is too uncomfortable with how the elders would react. She feels it’s not proper!’ Her husband looked frustrated. The bubble was slowly breaking.

‘There’s more to life than being a good mother, wife or daughter-in- law. Why don’t you discover yourself? It will make you happy.’ I interrupted the husband That brought a response from the dejected woman.

‘I have done MBA. I used to help my dad in his office before marriage.’

‘Why did you stop working after marriage?’

She simply shrugged. The expectations had ruined her.

A potential resource stood wasted, lost in a maze of designated roles. The telltale signs of stress were there, only her husband failed to see it.

‘It’s more important being happy than getting uptight about lack of physical intimacy. Get your relationship in the right order. Plan a trip with her, this time alone.’ I smiled at him.

The husband did not appear fully convinced. It was beyond him to fathom how his precious family could suffocate her. But the patient gave me a hesitant smile and promised to go along with the idea.

‘If things are really not turning out well, don’t hesitate to see a psychiatrist.’ I cautioned her.

The husband nodded. It was much easier to put blame on a psychological upset. I kept quiet. Life was the best teacher and he would grow up one day.

Loneliness and solitude! Such similar words but what a wealth of difference between the two.

One can get lonely in a crowd but solitude was always a bliss.

I switched on the television and beautiful ‘Kanjivaram saree’ clad women sprang on my screen. The older ones were busy gossiping and an obedient but an obviously pregnant ‘bahu’ was sent to the kitchen to make laddoos. Some stereotypes we suffer from. I sighed and changed the channel.

©Tripti Sharan

Pix from Net.

Tripti is a practising gynaecologist at BLK Super Speciality Hospital, New Delhi. Many of her writings are influenced by the pain and suffering she sees as a doctor. Her forthcoming book ‘The Chronicles of a Gynaecologist’ is being published by Bloomsbury India. She also has an anthology of poems,‘The Dewdrops..a journey begins’. She contributes poems and stories to many publications.