Oy vey! My traditional Indian mother!

Since I moved in with my boyfriend, things are not so chummy between me and Mummy

Cary Tennis
September 13, 2011 4:01AM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I suppose I'll begin by putting things plainly: I fell in love with a boy I knew my mother wouldn't approve of. Now, two years later, my boyfriend and I live quite happily together while my mother and I hardly talk. But there's more to it than that. I come from a very traditional Indian family. My mother doesn't approve, and she is very passive-aggressive about it. She won't even acknowledge that my boyfriend exists and pretends that I'm not in a relationship at all. She talks constantly about when I'm going to get married (to someone of her choosing) and completely shuts down when I try to talk to her about my relationship. That's just our normal drama. But what gets me is when she brings other people into it just to try and shame or hurt me. She'll say things like, "What do you think will happen to your grandmother when she finds out?" Sometimes it's mild, like, "What kind of example are you setting for your brother?" But then she brings my father into it. He passed away just three years ago, and the wounds are still fresh. She constantly mentions him and how I haven't done anything for him to be proud of, or how it was good that he passed away since he doesn't have to deal with my indiscretions now.


I knew it would be hard to be in a relationship with someone my mother didn't approve of, but I guess I always just thought she would come around. I wish I could just introduce them to each other (and my boyfriend would love nothing more than to meet her), but we live in far-away cities, and it really isn't an option.

How do I start an open dialogue with her? I understand that she's worried about me, and a lot of her actions spark from her concern as a mother. I know that if she really hated me she wouldn't pick up my calls, and that we both just want the other in our lives. However, it seems like anything I do or say is just another excuse for her to make a passive-aggressive remark or point out how selfish I'm being. Even if we never agree, it'd be nice to be able to express myself without having to go on the defensive or work past layers of passive-aggressive remarks to do it. How can I get my mother to speak without pretense?

After two long years I have to ask, is romance and family too much to ask for in my situation?


Worn-Down Daughter

Dear Worn Down,

Sometimes it is helpful to imagine mothers not as humans but as natural forces, so we see that arguing with them is like arguing with the wind. You have chosen to chart a path directly into this headwind, and you are trying to have a dialogue with it. "Oh, wind," you ask, "why do you blow so incessantly against me? Why won't you admit that you're just the wind and not some omnipotent force? You and I know each other well. I wish you'd just stop with your blowing so we could talk like two regular folks."


If the wind chose to talk to you, it might tell you, rather incredulously, that what you're asking is impossible. "I'm the wind, for heaven's sake," it might say. "I don't get down and discuss with the feathers or the leaves where they'd like to go or what their preference is for velocity and direction. I blow things around. That's all I do. "

Culture is like a wind always blowing on us. If we are lucky and are going the same direction, then we have the wind at our backs, as it were. But if we are on the vanguard of change, then the wind is always in our face, stinging our eyes, roaring in our ears, pushing us backward if we so much as pause to rest.


So you are a young adult female in a quickly modernizing traditional society. You are the spearhead of change. And your traditional culture is embodied in people such as your mother. What you have done is challenge who she is and what she believes; you have challenged her existential foundation. She is her culture. Up till now, there has been no reason for her to question her culture. It is who she is. Now, you are asking her to separate into parts; you are asking her to do a particularly modern and delicate procedure on herself, to whip up for herself a whole new being, autonomous and self-directed, secular and individual, egalitarian and "open."

You are asking her to do this without any recipe. Where is the recipe by which she is expected to whip up this wholly new, modern self, detached from tradition while intellectually conscious of it, aware of separate spheres of "individual" emotions and beliefs and "culturally derived" emotions and beliefs, endowed with the capacity to listen critically and empathically to admissions that sound blasphemous and criminal and shameful, with the ability to think along three or more simultaneous levels at once, to have a multifarious consciousness of herself as an individual, herself as a mother, herself as a wife, herself as a daughter in traditional society and also those same roles in a modern or transitional society?

You're asking a lot of the wind, is what I'm saying.


My suggestion to you is to try to depersonalize your relationship with your mother and recognize that this dialogue you are having is actually a dialogue between two cultures. Right now, when you are speaking to your mother, you may be wishing for something very personal and dear to you, a benediction, a blessing for you as a free individual. But that wish is in conflict with her nature; you have stepped outside the bounds of what she can know and approve. In a sense, not to be mean about it, you have disqualified yourself from receiving what you are asking for. The love you need from your mother is probably at this point an impossibility. Your need for it is intense and real, but it is ultimately unachievable in the personal realm. You can achieve what you need, but it will not come from your mother. She is not going to grant you the full and unconditional love that you may secretly seek. It is not going to come from her. You are going to have to give it to yourself. That will be your task, as you create this new culture out of the old. As you live with your boyfriend and experience the loss of cultural warmth and stability that you knew as a daughter in a traditional family, you are going to have to create what you need.

You are creating a new kind of society. The loss of stability and permanence is going to be but one of many high costs of this new culture.

For your mother, this situation may well feel like a kind of death. It is, for her, a tragedy. That can't be helped. But it may help you to at least realize it; it may help you to realize these things and get some distance on the situation, to realize that when you are talking to your mother these days, you are not just talking to your mother; you are talking to the whole of traditional Indian family history. And that is very much like talking to the wind.



Citizens of the Dream

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

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