It is safe to say that from the day he is born, every Indian mother dreams of her son’s wedding day. As she slings a water bottle around his neck and sends him off to kindergarten, and years later lovingly sorts through his semester’s worth of dirty laundry, she is thinking about the day he’ll dress up like a maharaja and stride into a shamiana bedecked with marigolds and fairy lights. It will be a ‘grand’ reception and the bride’s father would have paid for all of it.

Over the next two decades, Mummyji works on her dream, filling in the details. She will choose the bride from among a thousand applicants. The girl will be fair, tall and thin. She will be educated and smart, and eager to forsake her career for her husband. For the wedding, the bride will wear a sari with a six-figure price tag, and her son will buck tradition and land at the venue in a helicopter. No expenses will be spared, she’ll make sure she’ll tell the bride’s father, that the flowers have to be orchids from Thailand and the DJ has to have played a whole season in Ibiza.

It is inevitable that when her son comes home and gently breaks the news that he knows who he wants to marry, Mummyji’s heart will break. She will clap her palm to her mouth, shake her head in disbelief and run to her room to cry. She has seen this happen on TV, but she never thought it would happen to her. Slowly, over the next few days, Mummyji passes through all the stages of grief. From disbelief, she leapfrogs to anger at the vixen who has waylaid her son so, and eventually to a vow of retribution.

No matter whom the son has picked, Mummyji is not going to be swayed. Even if she ticks all the boxes and would have been the kind of daughter-in-law Mummyji herself would have chosen, the fact that she wasn’t the one to choose is reason enough to never accept her.

Anshika Dewani would have definitely been in Rohit’s mom’s shortlist of potential daughters-in-law. She belonged to not just the same Sindhi community as Rohit’s family, but even the same sub-community. And they both grew up in the same Mumbai suburb. In fact, there already were marriages between the two families. Anshika’s aunt had married Rohit’s uncle. On paper, Rohit and Anshika’s was a match made in arranged marriage heaven.

I met Anshika outside the Sidhi Vinayak temple at Dadar on a Tuesday evening. ‘I’m wearing a yellow salwar kamez with a hot pink print on it,’ she had told me over the phone earlier, ‘you can’t miss me.’ She was right. Even in colourful Mumbai, she stood out like a tropical macaw. The twenty seven year old teaches in a posh Mumbai school. It was the beginning of the year and she had promised herself she would go to the Sidhi Vinayak temple eight Tuesdays in a row, directly after school.

She couldn’t meet me after work on other days. It would require permission from her Mummyji and in all probability, it was likely to be refused. So we decided to chat on the slow commute home from the temple. This way she could continue with her campaign of trying to be the good daughter-in-law. She’d been trying for three years and things weren’t going well on Project Good Daughter-in-Law. But Anshika was determined to make it work.

‘But why,’ I ask her when she told me how hard she was trying to please her mother-in-law.

‘Arre, because,’ was her reply.

Anshika is one of the liveliest people I have met. She sprinted to the taxi I was waiting in, and before she had set her bag down or caught her breath, she started talking. Her straight hair was pulled away from her face and some of it was tied on top of her head, in what I later discovered was called a half pony. What stood out about Anshika’s looks were her eyes; they were expressive and mischievous. Her mother-in-law hadn’t yet managed to wipe out their sparkle.

Through our car ride, Anskika spoke non-stop. I could barely get a question in. She has a really zingy sense of humour and is the first to laugh at what she says, often even before she has said it. Her voice has a strange pitch, as though she is just recovering from a cough and that made her laugh a cackly boom. I found myself laughing a lot with her. If I had to guess, I would have thought, she was the kind of woman who would walk up to her future mother-in-law and charm the diamonds off her.

‘So Rohit and I were childhood sweethearts,’ she began. She remembers meeting Rohit for the first time at a common friend’s birthday party. They were both in the fourth standard. But because they were both Sindhis living in the same locality in Mumbai and they even belonged to the same sub-sect, it was possible that they knew each other ‘practically since birth.’ When they were in class nine, they went to the same place for their tuitions. They began to see a lot more of each other and eventually, before the year was over, they were  ‘going around’. They were one of those inevitable couples, two people that everyone around them knows will end up together. Anshika was certain even then that this was the guy she would marry.

Despite the close circles they moved in, Anshika managed to avoid meeting her future mother-in-law. She knew from Rohit that she was strict and conservative. In fact, among their gang of friends, they called Rohit Cinderella, since he had to rush home at midnight, or else his mother would get mad. ‘Can you imagine a big group of people and this one guy says my mummy will scold me if I go home late? We used to tease him all the time. Like, I mean, ALL THE TIME,’ she says.

Though Anshika and Rohit were dating for years, they were careful to hide it from their families. Anshika avoided the family and community events where she was certain Rohit’s mother would be present. They both graduated. Rohit started working in the family business, trading in textiles and fashion accessories. Anshika’s parents decided to move to Guwahati to pursue their business interests there. But she wanted to stay on in the city.

Her parents had raised her to be independent and ambitious and they had no qualms at all about leaving their daughter of ‘marriageable age’ alone in the city. Anshika found a job teaching the junior programme in an international school and her parents let her continue living in their Bombay house. The cook and two maids were instructed to look after her. But then suddenly, in the midst of this, everyone came to discover her relationship with Rohit.

Anshika’s parents were shocked and her mother was appalled. Her aunt who was already married into Rohit’s family had told her enough horror stories about Rohit’s mother. She knew her daughter would not have an easy life there. She sat Anshika down and told her graphic stories about her future mother-in-law and tried to convince her that she was making a mistake. Eventually, when she realized that Anshika wasn’t going to listen to reason, she gave up with the ultimatum that she was not to come back crying to her in the future. ‘But you know how it is when you are in love, no?’ Anshika asks me, ‘you don’t want to think of anything negative and you just agree to everything. To be honest, at that time, I was sure I could handle anything. Or anyone.’

Pandemonium reigned at Rohit’s home too. How could he be audacious enough to choose his own wife? That was Mummyji’s dream! And if he did have to go and choose his own wife, couldn’t he have chosen someone who was fair and thin? Why didn’t he consider his poor mother before making this decision, Mummyji asked him. Did he not think of the humiliation she would now have to endure? Taking this dark, fat girl and introducing her as her daughter-in-law? Why, everyone would be laughing behind her back.

As Anshika told me this, I nodded my head as absently. It was only after she had progressed further into her story that I sat up with a start. Because, Anshika is fair and of average build. ‘But you are fair,’ I blurted. ‘Well, no. I am only wheatish,’ she said. After a long pause, she added, ‘I don’t think I can ever be fair enough for my mother-in-law. I mean, even if I was the colour of milk, she still wouldn’t think of me as being fair enough.’

At first, Anshika couldn’t believe Rohit’s Mummy would not accept her. Even Rohit was surprised. Not one to give up, Anshika began working on becoming the ideal daughter-in-law. First, she gathered as much information as she could about the family. This was easy as they knew many people in common. Soon Anshika discovered where the chink in the armour was. The daughter! Rohit’s sister, Reshma, was married and living a few buildings away in Lokhandwala. It was she and her husband, Anand, who made all decisions for the family. If Reshma or Anand said a spoon was a fork, then it was a fork. No questions asked.

The way to her mother-in-law’s heart, Anshika decided, was through her daughter. So she set out to woo Reshma. She called and spoke to her everyday. She bought her presents. She would visit her on all the special occasions –  early in the day, before her mother-in-law appeared – for her birthday, her daughter’s birthday, her husband’s birthday, for a puja, for an anniversary, sometimes simply because it was a day that ended in ‘y’. The effort paid off. Reshma put in a few good words about Anshika to her mother.

Soon, a family wedding came up. It was the son of Anshika’s aunt, the one who had pioneered liaison with Rohit’s family. It was inevitable that Anshika would meet her mother-in-law there. She spent the day in the beauty salon, trying to get as ‘fair’ as she possibly could. She also dressed in clothes that would make her seem thinner and taller. At the wedding, Reshma took her over and introduced her to her mother. ‘I don’t remember what she asked me. It was very formal and quite stiff. I don’t think it would have lasted more than a minute, but it felt much, much longer,’ she says. She focused on smiling and trying to look coy and proper.

After that first meeting, Reshma started talking in slightly more concrete terms. The conditions under which she could possibly be considered as the daughter-in-law of the family were laid down one by one. She would never get permission to work, she told her. Anshika agreed. She would never be allowed to wear revealing clothes. Anshika agreed. Not even sleeveless. Anshika gulped but nodded her head.

A few days later, Anshika received a call from Reshma asking her if she was free to meet. The venue – in typical Bombay fashion – was ‘below the building’. Below Rohit’s building, that is. Sensing that this might be significant, Anshika went appropriately dressed – in a long top that nearly fell to her knees and full sleeves. Reshma met her downstairs and told her that her mother wanted ‘to talk’.

By talk, she meant, Rohit’s mother would ask questions. ‘It was like a rapid fire round in a quiz show,’ Anshika recalls. She was asked what she did all day, what time did she go to work, what time did she come back home. Whether she went out at night. If yes, how often. But the questions always returned to the central one - did she know how to cook.

Most of Anshika’s answers were truthful, she says. ‘I told her that I didn’t know the C of cooking,’ she says, ‘to which she said, don’t worry, I’ll teach you; which I thought was very sweet, you know.’ Then Mummyji stated her first non-negotiable rule. She would not be allowed to continue working. Anshika nodded her head in earnest agreement.

‘She was quite open and direct,’ Anshika says, ‘she told me I expect you to cook, I expect you to clean, I expect you to stay home and do whatever I ask you to.’ Anshika nearly headed to the kitchen right then to start doing the dishes. She had nothing to ask her future mother-in-law. Rohit’s mother did not speak English and Anshika just kept saying ok aunty, ok aunty, to everything. ‘Then I ran off from there,’ she says.

The promise to teach her cooking was the sign that she had been approved. Preparations for the wedding could now begin. This was going to be a three-round affair, spread over twelve months. Stage one, was a roka. Stage two: an engagement. And stage three: the grand finale – a destination wedding in Goa was what Anshika and Rohit had in mind.

The Indian wedding industry is worth thirty five billion dollars and Anshika was determined to help it grow. She had dreamed of this day all her life and she wanted it to be as perfect as possible. No costs would be spared. She was going to beg, plead, cry and cajole to get things done just right.

Anshika’s parents came from Guwahati to formally meet Rohit’s parents and seek their approval for the roka. It went well. Though they were a bit jittery with the family, they absolutely loved Rohit and couldn’t be happier for their daughter. Things progressed at a fast clip to the roka. There was no talk about dowry, but her mother-in-law told her parents that all the wedding functions must be grand. Several times.

Of course, as the bride’s parents not only do they have to pay for all the functions, but they also have to take prior approval from Rohit’s mother and brace themselves for all kinds of criticism later. Anshika’s parents shortlisted a venue for the roka and took Rohit’s parents for a walk through. They looked happy enough about the place and said it was ok. ‘Of course, after the wedding they told me they hated the place!’ says Anshika.

Unaware of this at the time, Anshika’s parent went into full-blown ‘Sindhi parents of the bride’ mode. Rohit’s mother sent a long list of things that were needed for the puja. This was the Holy Grail and it was followed to a T. Then Anshika’s parents sent twenty one goodie baskets – one contained the best whiskies, another the best chocolates, the third had an assortment of the best mithai and so on. This was so Rohit’s family could distribute it to their relatives and friends. The baskets of goods are a sign that the announcement of an engagement will soon follow. For the roka, Reshma called Anshika early on and told her not to wear a sleeveless dress. ‘No one in our family wears it,’ she said. Of course, come roka day, Anshika was in full sleeves and Reshma herself had her shoulders on full display!

But Anshika was too thrilled to finally be Rohit’s fiancée to care about her undisplayed arms. Soon after the ceremony, she decided to quit her job and go to Guwahati. There was less than a year to go for the wedding and she had to learn to cook. But before she left, her parents came to Mumbai to discuss the details of the wedding. Both Rohit and Anshika were keen on getting married in Goa. Rohit’s mother said if the wedding was in Goa, Anshika’s parents would have to book hotel rooms for all their guests as well.

Her parents agreed, but Anshika thought this was highly unreasonable. If the wedding was in Bombay, Rohit’s parents would foot the hotel bills of their relatives, it was only logical that they do so in Goa too. She tried to get Rohit to reason with his parents first – since a Goa wedding was a shared dream – but he was unsuccessful.  Much back and forth ensued. Anshika had already planned quite a few of the finer details of the Goa wedding. But eventually, she decided it wasn’t worth being bullied so much for.

So they gave up the idea and decided to marry in Bombay where Rohit’s family would at least take care of lodging their guests. Having settled on a date and a city, Anshika left with her parents to Guwahati. There she started her cooking lessons. Since she had been living in an apartment in Mumbai by herself with three people to cook and clean; her first lesson was on how to boil water.

In a few months, of course, wedding preparations shifted up a gear and things were beginning to get to that frenzied state of anxiety and excitement. With a couple of months to go for the wedding, Anshika went to Delhi to shop for her trousseau. According to the custom in their community, the boy’s family is expected to gift the bride one outfit – usually the one that is worn for the reception. In Delhi, she found her dream reception outfit. It was a lehenga in a rich shade of maroon, embellished with embroidery in an antique gold polish. It was classy and elegant. It was everything she wanted it to be.

So, in a fit of shopping induced euphoria and confidence, she called her future mother-in-law up . With her fingers firmly crossed, tentatively and shyly, she asked if she could go ahead and buy the outfit. Her mother-in-law could pay for it later so that it would be a gift from her. Mother-in-law said no. ‘I was wondering if I heard her wrong for a moment. Then she took off on me. She said what kind of a girl are you? What kind of a person is your mother that she allows you to call me – your future mother-in-law – and ask for money for an outfit? You can’t choose it by yourself. It’s our outfit. She went on and on like that,’ Anshika says.

But Anshika was so sold on that dress that she told her mother she would buy it nevertheless and that when she returned to Bombay before the wedding, she would somehow manage to convince her mother-in-law. It cost Rs 35,000 and Anshika felt certain her mother-in-law would love it when she saw it.

A few weeks later, she came to Bombay and met Mummy. She showed her the stuff she had bought. ‘When would you wear this?’ her mother-in-law asked picking up the disputed dress. ‘That’s the dress I really, really loved and thought I could wear for the reception,’ Anshika said, shaking the dress out and displaying it properly.

‘Reception outfit?’ he mother-in-law asked, her face turning wedding sari red.

‘Yes, I really, really loved this one,’ Anshika mumbled.

‘No,’ her mother-in-law said, ‘we will go and buy your reception outfit. It has to be EVERYBODY’S choice.’

Anshika pleaded with her. But her mother-in-law remained firm. ‘I don’t care what you do with the outfit you bought. Return it, burn it, whatever. What you will wear is what we will all go and choose. Together,’ Rohit’s mother said.

In retrospect, Anshika feels she should have put her foot down then. But at the time, she didn’t have the courage to take her mother-in-law on like that. So with a broken heart, she resigned herself to the fact that she would not be able to wear what she loved. ‘I knew that she didn’t approve of me. I knew that I don’t have the physical attributes she wanted in a daughter-in-law. And I was so low in confidence because of that, that I was a pushover,’ she says.

The following week, six of them – Rohit’s parents, Reshma and Anand, Rohit and Anshika – went shopping for the reception dress. While Anshika had shopped for her entire trousseau in two days in Delhi, it took two weeks for them to eventually find that one outfit. Everyone’s choice mattered, except of course, her own. Eventually, they decided on a blingy, crystal studded ‘as Sindhi as you could possibly get’ outfit.  Anshika hated it, but her brother-in-law said that was the one he liked the best. So that was the dress she wore.

Even though Anshika was telling me the story three years on, it was evident that she was still affected by it. The flowers she held in her hand – the prasad from the temple – were crushed to pulp in her hands and her sunshine smile dimmed. She stared out of the car window and shook her head slowly as we crossed Bandra and then Juhu. In many ways, Anshika thinks of this as the battle that changed everything. It showed her up as weak and as a person who could easily be bullied. ‘Well, at least I made sure they bought a more expensive dress than the one I had,’ she shrugged.

Anshika was a nervous wreck by the time the wedding came around. There were so many ‘instructions’. She had to alter pretty much most of her outfits in keeping with the mother-in-law’s wishes. ‘I was running around like crazy, keeping up with her orders. I was constantly going shit, shit, shit, she should be happy. I told my make up artist to paint me as fair as possible. She would keep telling me and other people in front of me, mera beta kitna gora hai.’ My mother, of course, just washed her hands off me. She told me she had warned me about this and I had to suffer for my choices.’

Anyway, despite all the heartache, the wedding went off well and Anshika was thrilled to be Rohit’s wife. Then, there was the matter of where to go for the honeymoon. But wiser from her experiences, Anshika merely waited for her brother-in-law to decide and went to Australia on an itinerary that he had planned. I was a bit surprised when she didn’t add that Anand and Reshma joined them for their honeymoon. I was pretty certain that was where this story was headed.

Back in Mumbai, Anshika tried to settle in to the rhythm of her new home. Her mother-in-law welcomed her into the house and told her that she was almost like a daughter to her now. Almost. Mummy began every sentence with ‘in our house’, which implied this was a rule to be obeyed without any questions. Not only were there rules, there were also admonishments.

Within the week of starting her married life, Mummy began scolding her. She nagged her for waking up late, for leaving her shoes askew, for switching on the bathroom light two seconds earlier than it was necessary. Anshika did her ‘yes mummy, sorry mummy,’ bit and tried to get into her good books. That same week, the cook was relieved of his responsibilities. Anshika was told that she would have to take care of breakfast and lunch. This meant waking up early in the morning and cooking two meals before nine so that Rohit could take his lunch box with him.

Dinner was supposed to be mother-in-law’s responsibility. But soon, the dinner parties began. They had guests over at least a couple of times a week, and as the new daughter-in-law Anshika was expected to demonstrate her superb cooking skills.  Like the operations head of a company, her mother-in-law had a system for her dinner parties. As soon as the guests arrived, they should be given water. Exactly, two minutes later a tray of dry fruits should be presented. Six minutes after would come the snack. Then the first starter, the second, and so on, until dessert. ‘I would just kill myself getting all of this done. Then she would criticize everything. This doesn’t have any chillies, that is undercooked, this is overcooked, things like that,’ she says.

Initially, Mummy was kind. She wouldn’t say that a dish was awful, outright. She would say she taught her daughter to cook this so beautifully that once you ate that version, you would know how bad this one was. The implication of this was that Anshika’s mother had done a bad job raising her. After a few weeks, she stopped bothering with the insinuation. As soon as the guests left, she would come into the kitchen and yell at Anshika, telling her how badly brought up she was, how her mother was evidently useless and things like that.

‘One dinner, they criticized everything I did. And she came into the kitchen and started banging the vessels. What was this rubbish you gave us, the food was so bad it wasn’t even worthy of feeding the servants She was clanging plates and cutlery barely inches from my face. I was so scared; I didn’t know what to do. I just ran into my room and burst into tears,’ she says.

She hoped Rohit would tell her what she should do. Rohit is a boyish twenty seven year-old. In photographs he looks like he is in his teens. He has always been scared of his mother and had never felt the need or had the gumption to question his parents’ authority. When they married, he had just started on the family business and was still learning its ropes. He wasn’t at a place where he could make a bold move or even suggest his new wife take one. He was entirely sympathetic about what Anshika was going through but he did not know how he could set that right. He asked her not to take his mother seriously. He loved her and that was all he could do.

Anshika was caught between trying to make her post wedding romantic fantasies come true and dealing with the daily dirt that was reality. What she wanted to do was spend time with her new husband – go for movies and candle lit dinners and long drives late in the night. What she was stuck with was spending most of her waking hours cooking and cleaning under her mother-in-law’s watchful eyes. Real married life, she was beginning to see, was not as fun as she’d imagined it would be. But she was a chirpy sort, so she hung on to hope and got on with her life.

Rohit, thankfully, made it all worthwhile. He was kind, gentle and loving; everything Anshika had wanted in a husband. He was her biggest fan and supported her in everything she wanted to do. But despite his best intentions, he simply could not take his parents on. He had always lived under their authority and he had always been a little scared of them. In many ways, he was in competition with that perfect specimen of manhood – his brother-in-law, Anand.

Some four months after the wedding, Anshika met a friend who was wearing a lovely pair of earrings. Rohit’s family had given her some jewellery, but since they had shopped for them without her, none of it was of her choice. They were all lying in the locker, never to be worn. When Anshika saw these earrings, she loved them so much, that she asked her mother-in-law if she could re-design one of the pieces they had given her.

Mummy did not say anything at the time. That evening, Rohit and Anshika were leaving home to go watch a movie. Like a scene straight out of a Bollywood film from the 1980s, mother-in-law’s voice boomed ‘stop’ as they were opening the door to leave. Rohit and Anshika froze.

‘Do you know that your wife wants to sell the jewellery we gave her?’ she asked.  Then she really began to scream. ‘What kind of a family are you from?’ she yelled at Anshika, ‘in our family we don’t believe in redesigning our jewellery. We don’t believe in being disrespectful.’ That was the warm-up exercise. Then she quickly moved to ‘you don’t do any work around the house. You should clean the refrigerator. You should clean the cupboards.’ Anshika couldn’t quite fathom how she had moved from earrings to the cleaning. Rohit was frozen, She sat down and began to cry.

Then, not one to waste a good fight, her father-in-law, joined in too. He began by abusing Anshika as well as her father. ‘What does he think of himself? He did not give us enough respect during the wedding. He does not give us enough respect now’. Then, since he had come so far, he let loose a string of abuses against her dad, in the kind of language Anshika had never heard used in her family –motherfucker, sisterfucker, all in pure Hindi..

When the father-in-law’s abuses ended, mother-in-law resumed. It took Anshika a few seconds to understand what she was saying, but she was complaining about the venue for the roka ceremony. ‘That place was so bad, how could your father stoop so low and pick a place like that?’ mother-in-law screamed. ‘And the DJ played such loud music,’ father-in-law backed her up. And when they were done with that, mother-in-law brought up the ‘covers’. These were envelopes of cash, which were gifted to Anshika during festivals before the wedding. She had accepted the gifts and spent the money.

That evening, she learned that she was actually expected to bring that money back. ‘You should have brought it back. You have no culture. And now you dare tell us you don’t like the design of our jewellery?’ At last it came a full circle. Anshika was too distraught to even try defending herself or her family. Rohit was aghast. ‘What are you saying?’ he kept asking his parents and tried to talk some sense into them. They asked him to shut up and carried on. Finally, her mother-in-law asked the two of them to get out of the house for the evening. She didn’t want to see their faces.

Anshika and Rohit sat in the car and cried. This was a trap neither of them could see a way out of. Rohit couldn’t possibly abandon the family business. His parents would never allow him to move out and live with his wife. It was all too complicated and all too messy. There was nothing to do but cry.

The next morning, Anshika began to try even harder to please her mother-in-law.

‘Why?’ I ask.

‘Arre because na!’

She stopped going out. She didn’t spend time chatting on the phone with her friends. She called Reshma and paid her ‘respects’, every day.  She cleaned the refrigerator. Thoroughly and often. She buzzed around her mother-in-law, like a little puppy. ‘What shall I cook mummy?’ ‘What shall I clean mummy?’ ‘What shall I get you mummy?’ Rohit was shocked. He asked her not to bother. He warned her nothing would come out of this. He told her she should just do what she wanted and ignore his unreasonable parents.

‘But the minute Rohit left for work, I’d go mummy, mummy, mummy. I think life is too short to live in an unpleasant manner. I don’t have much of an ego. And most importantly, I wanted her to be happy with me. That was the only way I could be happy living with her,’ she says.

But how long can you be fake? Five or six months later, Anshika began to forget who she should be and slowly reverted to who she was. She and Rohit began going out again in the evenings. The refrigerator wasn’t at the receiving end of multiple daily clean ups. The cupboards saw the duster more rarely. Three months later, there was another ‘meeting’. The same issues were aired out. Earrings, refrigerator, respect, roka, culture, get out.

Maybe because it lacked the element of surprise this time, Anshika felt it sting less. She cried but ‘not full on’ like the first time. Rohit asked his parents to stop but not with all his might. When they were asked to leave, they didn’t sit in the car and cry for hours like the first time. Anshika sobbed for a bit, then fixed her make up and they went on with their evening.

The following morning, mother-in-law started some stealth operations. It was entirely based on unpredictability and injecting an element of surprise in everyday tasks. Anshika would ask her what she should cook and her she would pointedly turn her head away and ignore her. She would then come to the kitchen and taunt Anshika, calling her names, insulting her mother. Then just as suddenly, she would stop talking to her.

Even though a new cook was hired by then, Anshika’s mother-in-law insisted she do the cooking. She told her that her relationship with her husband and in-laws would be strengthened only if she slaved for them over the stove everyday.

Anshika was becoming a nervous wreck. She had to take deep breaths to steel herself before she walked out of her room in the morning. It wasn’t the kind of life that a young, educated woman living by herself in Mumbai would want to live. It wasn’t the kind of life anyone would aspire for, in fact.

Due to this stress and anxiety, Anshika often fell ill during the first eighteen months.

‘You know how when you are sick your mother would make you khichdi and you get to relax? Here, she would tell me that if I was too lazy to do the housework, I could just sleep. You don’t have to tell lies over and above all this, she would tell me,’ Anshika says.

In the meantime the taunts over Anshika’s appearance hadn’t ended. Mummy would yell at her to go to the gym and work out everyday. ‘Look how fat you are,’ she would point out. All the time. ALL.THE.TIME. ‘I’d be like, you just told me I was fat ten minutes ago. Surely, I haven’t grown fatter in ten minutes that you have to say it again!’ she tells me.

Anshika decided that there was only one solution to her problems. The obvious solution – moving out and living alone with Rohit- was not an option. No, the only way she would be able to stay sane in this marriage was if she managed to go back to work. Project back to school took shape in her mind and she immediately started work on it.

Like a North Korean dictator, one of Mummyji’s orders was that Anshika was to sit with her from 2- 5 PM for a ‘chat session’. That is, Mummyji would chat and Anshika had to constantly and continuously maintain eye contact and nod her head in agreement. Usually, these conversations were about Anshika’s shortcomings and how ‘perfect’ their family was. Her mother-in-law would tell her how the five of them – that is the two parents-in-law, Reshma, Anand and Rohit, were the five fingers in a hand. So obviously there was no room for Anshika. Anshika would listen and agree with her mother-in-law about everything.

Once the back to school idea germinated, Anshika began using this time to push the idea with Mummy. She began telling her how posh the school was and regaled her with stories and gossip about Bollywood stars and business leaders who were the parents of her students. She thought if she made it aspirational, her mother-in-law would like the reflected glory of being part of this institution.

Once the school bit was over, Anshika would move on to praising Reshma and Anand. She told her mother-in-law how much she idolized Reshma, how Anand was such a perfect gentleman. ‘I brainwashed her everyday. I tried to keep the conversation positive and cheerful. I took all the insulting things she said about me and my family without a whimper. I knew this was my only chance,’ she says. Finally, when she thought she had softened her mother-in-law enough, she came right out and asked her. ‘Mummy can I go back to working in the school, please? I would really love it, if I could.’ Mummy didn’t bat an eyelid. ‘No,’ she said.

So she took it up with Rohit. She told him she was going crazy sitting at home. Their marriage was crumbling under the pressure of his mother. Every evening, Mummy would have a list of at least five complaints about her, which she would relate to Rohit as soon as he came home. Then, when he entered their room, Anshika, in her frustration, would take off on him.

Some days Rohit would calm her down. Other days, he would snap at her and the two of them would end up fighting. Anshika wouldn’t allow him to hold her. She withheld sex. Rohit was patient and understanding, but months of crossfire wore even him down. They went to bed fighting. And woke up sour at each other. ‘My mother-in-law was beginning to be the cancerous tumour in our marriage,’ Anshika tells me. And since Mummy often behaved super sweetly with her when Rohit was around, Anshika began to wonder if Rohit thought she was making up all these stories about his mother. There were more shadows than people and they were all slowly going crazy.

Rohit thought Anshika going back to work was a good idea. If nothing, it would get her out of the house for a large part of the day. So he talked to his father first and asked him for permission to allow his wife to take up a job. Father refused. Then he spoke to his mother. She also refused. It was against the family’s custom, he was told, their honour would be dragged through mud.

Then Anshika hit up on her fail-safe plan. Getting Reshma and Anand to agree. Apart from Rohit, Reshma was the only one who even bothered to listen to her. And although she wasn’t supportive of everything Anshika said, she was at least open to some amount of  reason. Anshika went to Reshma’s house and did the sell. She told her about the star kids in school and shared some inside gossip. And she eventually pleaded with the ‘modern woman’ in Reshma to see the benefits of her going back to work. She kept at it, day after day, week after week. Finally, Reshma said ok. And that evening, Anand came over and told his in-laws casually that maybe Anshika could go back to work. And just like that, she was granted permission! Customs, honour, none of it mattered, now that the plan had son-in-law’s approval.

The rules now had to be rejigged. The dress code was further tightened. There was to be no work related excuse for coming home late in the evenings. Since she had to leave for school by six thirty, Anshika was exempted from cooking on weekdays. Weekends continued to be her responsibility. There would be no weekends out, no matter what came up at school, and she couldn’t bring home and entertain any of her colleagues or friends. Despite these conditions, Anshika was thrilled. She got to do what she loved, she got to stay out of the house and away from Mummy’s disapproval all day. She also got a chance to talk to people. ‘I feel that after three years, I am finally living,’ she says.

Anshika’s horror stories about her mother-in-law caused shock and consternation in the staff room. Earlier, she would tell herself that this was how most people lived. Now she is certain her situation is abnormal. This has given her more courage. She does a lot more of what she wants to do now. She has a mini-wardrobe in her car, for example. So if she is going out with Rohit to a nightclub, she leaves the house in Mummyji approved gear and strips off the tights and scarves and changes to what she wants in the car.

The first time she officially stood up to her mother-in-law was three months before we met. It was another dinner party. There were about eight guests and the sequence of events had gone in the usual militarized fashion. When it was time for dinner, the system broke down a bit. The chapattis weren’t coming fast enough. Once the first round was over, there was a wait as Anshika went on a rolling and flipping frenzy in the kitchen. Still, she wasn’t quick enough and her mother-in-law popped in several times and hissed at her to serve the chappatis quicker. Finally when she came for the sixth time, Anshika lost her cool and snapped, ‘shall I just sit on the tawa myself?’

‘Is that the way to talk to me,’ Mummy asked her, set her lips tightly and walked away.

‘I don’t know what came over me,’ Anshika told me, ‘but she was stressing me out and I just blurted it.’

After the guests left, of course, there was a detailed dissection about this. All the old issues – starting with the earrings and ending with the roka venue – were once again given an airing. But it hurts her less and less. It’s just noise, in fact, she doesn’t even really hear the words anymore.

Anshika has made several other subtle changes too. Each time a gift came for her, it would be sent directly to Reshma’s. During festivals, especially, her mother and aunts would send her loads of stuff; clothes, jewellery, accessories, bed linen, crystal vases. Anshika would not even get to see any of this because they were just dispatched straight to Reshma’s house.

Finally, Anshika told her family to stop sending her stuff. If they wanted to give her gifts, they could give her cash. When the next festival came around, the lack of gifts from her family was observed and commented on. Her mother-in-law came right out and asked her why her mother wasn’t sending anything. Anshika quietly told her they had changed the system. ‘My mother sent me money so I could buy something of my choice,’ she said quietly, ‘maybe a new pair of gold earrings.’

Other battles are still on. As part of the whole ‘respect’ exercise, each time anyone in her family visits Mumbai, they are expected to call her mother-in-law. This is not just her parents and sibling, but also includes a wide range of assorted uncles and aunts. Once they call to pay their respects, they may or may not be offered a dinner invitation. If offered one, they are expected to turn up gift laden and spend an evening listening about Anshika’s many  shortcomings.

‘Look how fat she has become. And going back to work has tanned her so she is even darker now than she was,’ they are told. After enduring this evening, they are obligated to call and speak to Mummy at least once more before they leave town. ‘My uncles and aunts are tired of them. They are like we can’t suffer them anymore,’ she says.

But since the families are related, it is inevitable that her mother-in-law will discover if someone was in town. ‘Half the time I am stressing out, making sure they call and visit and all that. And someone or the other is always coming over. My brother was here fifteen days ago. He called, came over with a bottle of whisky etc and he left yesterday. He is coming back in a week’s time, when he is expected to do all of this all over again,’ she says.

It isn’t like Anshika gets away with her new found cattiness. She is also sufficiently punished for it. Her mother-in-law’s favourite strategy is to terminate the services of the domestic help and make her do all the work. She doesn’t even bother making an excuse about it. The help is told that she needn’t bother coming for work the following day because the lazy daughter-in-law is growing fat and needs the exercise.

The Sunday before we met was her birthday. Anshika hoped she would be able to celebrate it just with Rohit, but that was of course out of question. It had to be the whole family. She suggested then that they go for a continental brunch, since it was a Sunday and they always ended up going for dinner. Eventually, of course, Anand decided that it would be Chinese food and it would be dinner. And so it was. Even though the birthday was hers.  ‘I sometimes think about what my mother-in-law said – that I would be like a daughter to her. And I can’t stop laughing,’ she says.

The pressure to have a child has begun, now that it’s three years since the wedding. Her mother-in-law is beginning to insist that she go to a doctor. ‘I am sure there is a problem with you,’ she tells her constantly. ‘I tell her that Rohit doesn’t want to have kids yet, because really, even I know how foolish it sounds if I tell her that I have a choice too. So then she takes off on her on how much she has ‘damaged’ Rohit. ‘My son was never like this’, she tells Anshika, ‘you have ruined him,’ she says.

We had reached Lokhandwala and were parked in front of her apartment for more than half an hour by then. ‘I am glad I started giving it back to her a little bit,’ she tells me. Her colleagues are supportive of her and they have continuously encouraged her to stand up to her mother-in-law. ‘I am brave now, I am not scared of her anymore,’ she says. Just then her phone rings. She fishes it out of her bag and flips it open. ‘Mummyji,’ she gasps and in less than a second she is out of the car and running home.

Excepted from The Mother-In-Law with permission from Penguin India.