After I got married, I found a distinct difference in the way guys started looking at me. People who had been my buddies for eons suddenly started treating me as “bhabhiji”* as soon as I tied the knot. And the weirdest part is that my hubby had been friends with them as long as I had. We were a group and all of them knew Nandy to be lacking a jealous bone in his body, yet I become “Jagat Bhabhi”*- devoid of any attractiveness or sex appeal. I felt like friends who used to hug me and punch my arm suddenly wanted to fold their hands and greet me with a serious “Pranaam Bhabhiji” when they saw me. It made me feel like an androgynous molecular animal.
After I had the baby and packed on the pounds, I felt like my husband also started leaning towards this attitude. A respectful namaste was a more appropriate hello than a cheery kiss (I’d have settled for the cheek, forget the lips). Luckily I never caught him calling me Bhabhi (only BabyA called me that all through her twos, parroting her maid), but he often let a “Mamma, can you read a book to A?” slip out. Granted it was always in the presence of BabyA, but the idea of my hubby calling me Mamma sent me into a tizzy! Isn’t that what couples did, long after the fire went out of their marriages, referring to each other as Mamma and Papa. Even if it was perfectly normal, it gave me the creeps!
I guess you couldn’t blame him because most nights, after BabyA entered our lives, went something like this: I would be trying to make BabyA sleep, doing my best Louis Armstrong bass voice, deep into the chorus of “What a Wonderful World” and I would hear snoring. Relieved, I would open my eyes imagining that the little devil had finally succumbed to sleep, but in the dark, I would see her doing leg lifts, back flips and other gymnastic feats, while the hubby had floated off to “la la land”- a land where Mammas sang loris* to him and kissed him goodnight. So how could you find fault with him for letting “Mamma” slip out a few times?
“Your relationship becomes completely platonic at the end of your life”, my Dadi* would philosophize often (Yes- those were her exact words! I have one cool Dadi). Well, if this was my state of affairs then she wasn’t so wrong after all, because I was ready to end my life very soon! Except that I had two kids to raise: one 3 and one 36.
It’s not like I wanted people to be hitting on me, but I would have greatly appreciated normality, where my friends still felt comfortable being the same way around me as they used to be: mischievous, funny, goofy, confiding and sometimes confrontational. I had become so devoid of femininity that I was now being regarded in everyone’s eyes as Mother India- like it was almost unholy to treat me in any way but with sisterly/ motherly respect- even by the husband.
Nargis’s character as Radha: The quintessential Mother India (in the movie by the same name) was a beautifully chalked out one for those times but it’s highly unrelatable in today’s age. This goddess-like, moral, sacrificial epitome of maternal-ness is something that moms of today may find too idealistic. We wear such one-dimensional labels (of Maata transforming into Jagat Maata/everyone’s mother) with a pained expression very similar to Radha’s while carrying the weight of the world and the “hal” on her shoulders in the iconic Mother India movie poster.
Speaking of Radha being a Maa, the Radhe Maa controversy is at its peak. Irrespective of whether it’s true or not, I have to say I can relate to what she must be feeling. Maybe the lady was fed up of being everyone’s mother and just wanted to discard her holiness, to remind people that she was still a woman- red mini skirt, matching knee high suede boots and all. Maybe Radhe Maa, during her pravachans (sermons), just wanted to grab the microphone with pizzazz and let people know that “Radha’s on the dance floor, Radha likes to party, Radha likes to move that sexy Radha body” but no one would listen.
And after this phase of bhabhiji/mummyji, I was accosted with some friends who wanted me to become “Behenji”. When Nandy and I were in the U.S. for his MBA, one of our very close Indian friends told me, “Rakhi’s coming! Why don’t you become my sister?” Mooh-boli* behen is a much loved concept in India. I have never understood why Indian men feel the need to instantly classify a friendship with a girl as being their “love-interest” or as their “behen”. Everything doesn’t have to be black or white. Why can’t we be comfy somewhere in between: as real friends!
I have enough of brothers. I told this friend of mine that I was completely ok being friends with a guy. I didn’t have to become his sister to be able to digest our relationship. Nor did my husband.
Bollywood movies also feed us with enough crap like “Ek ladka aur ladki kabhi dost nahin hote”. Why? Are our minds so screwed up that Indian men can only be comfortable around a woman as long as she falls into the categories of Behenji, Bhabhiji, Mummyji or Meri Oh-jee*! And even Monish Bahl expressed these regressive thoughts to Salman and Bhagyashri in the late 80’s in MPK. Surely we’ve come a long way since then.
“Or have we?”, I wonder as my maid tells BabyA to call her (4 month older) friend “Shaurya Bhaiya”. His mom and I both recoil, telling her that he’s just Shaurya to her. Their generation will hopefully be able to experience true friendship without the trappings of gender rules and expectations.
So as my daughter comes home and proudly tells me that BabaV* is her best friend forever (despite his affinity for balls and hers for dolls), BabaV’s mum (MY best friend forever) FaceTimes with us from Gurgaon because Baba would like to talk to Baby. And they talk in their stream of consciousness, nonsensical, toddler ways: having parallel conversations where no one is listening, and I hope that they can always maintain this pure friendship- where Baba and Baby never turn into Bhaiya and Behenji!
* Bhabhi- sister-in-law, Behen- sister, Maa- mother, Ji- respectful suffix, Jagat- of the world, Pranam- Respectful hello asking for blessings, Loris- lullabies, Dadi- paternal grandmother, GuruMaa- Teacher-mother, Mooh-boli behen- A girl who has become a sister because she tied ‘Rakhi’ (an Indian sibling custom) to a guy, Meri Oh-Jee- Wife, Baba- Indians call small boys Baba; different from little girls who are addressed as Baby.