The litmus test of a married couple’s success is how united they stand in the face of family. For family tests you in more ways than one. From the cousin’s spouse, who cannot stop bragging about his corporate career and giving unsolicited advice on the best ways to invest money, to the aunt whose sarcasm cuts deeper than a dagger, family tests your strength of mind and emotions relentlessly.
Certainly there must be things women do, in their parental homes, that irritate their spouses. However, men do not spend the amount of time women must in the home of their in-laws, at least in the traditional, big, fat Pakistani family set-up. Women therefore have extended opportunities to observe their husbands regressing to a pre-marital state of being where they are incapable of even the most basic of undertakings. As one of my friends memorably put it, their umbilical cords seem to attach themselves anew to the matriarch. They become incapable of toasting their own bread, hanging up used towels on the line to dry, putting soiled clothes in the laundry hamper. This ineptitude grows overnight, like mould. They quickly forget how to say please and thank you, how to handle a child throwing a tantrum in front of their sister’s in-laws, how to converse with the woman they will ordinarily refer to as their better half. They lap up all attention that is lavished on them, sit dazed in its glory and open their mouths occasionally to say things they shouldn’t.
Women, in these circumstances, progress from being baffled, to irritable, to furious. They cannot understand how the man who they have won over to their side, using logic, can go back to leaving his sodden bath towel in an unceremonious pile in the middle of their freshly-made bed. They are even more bewildered when this man casually suggests calling in domestic help to hang the towel up outside on the washing line instead of picking it up himself and doing the right thing. They look up expectantly at their husband sitting on the couch, his eyes glazed, while they have a battle of wills with their toddler. They cannot believe that they are asked to ‘Bring me a glass of water,’ without even a perfunctory ‘please’. And when the glass is received distractedly, with eyes glued on the TV, they are not just perplexed but humiliated. What has happened to the man who arrived at his parents’ home merely days ago, still very much in charge of himself and his family, still a gentleman?
Even more interestingly however, women find that they must become a part of this transformation. It’s either that or being labelled an uncaring wife by all their in-laws. When a woman looks ironically at her husband, who sits waiting for her to butter his toast, silently willing him to know she is on to him, she has one of two choices: either to flash a bright smile, pick up the piece of toast and butter every corner of it meticulously, or to give him a long sardonic glare, pick up his toast, spreading it with a miserly bit of butter and dropping it on his plate. If she chooses the former, her smile should be just bright enough not to appear shameless (it should lie somewhere in the middle of devoted and modest). Provided she can manage just the correct degree of both, she will please the Matriarch and earn the title of ‘a good wife’.
If, however, she chooses the latter, she will have sealed and stamped the Matriarch’s suspicion that her darling son has been beset by an evil witch who cares not a jot for his happiness and well-being. Depending on the breed of matriarchs, the Matriarch may proceed to do one of several things: she may purse her lips and look away. She may well up and scramble for a tissue. Or she may offer to butter her son’s toast herself, she always has and still can! At this, however, the wife might spontaneously combust.
Ah, the joys of home-coming.