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Opinion | Love and friendship across boundaries

In our village home, two sets of extended families share the same space

In our village home, two sets of extended families share the same space. Photo: Natasha Badhwar
In our village home, two sets of extended families share the same space. Photo: Natasha Badhwar

Last week I went back to my husband’s home in a village in east(ERN) Uttar Pradesh very suddenly. I was leaving home in the morning to drop my daughter off to school, when I heard my husband receive a phone call that alarmed me. From his words, it seemed that someone was either gravely ill or had died.

It turned out to be Maqsoodan phuphu, the woman who had worked with my in-laws in their home all her life. For her, my father-in-law was bhaiya (elder brother) and for the younger generation, she was phuphu or aunt. Her youngest daughter, Taslimun, is my 90-year-old father-in-law’s constant companion, nurse and caregiver. She is also someone I try my best to be a friend to.

When I heard that Taslimun’s mother had died suddenly, I knew I had to rush to be with her. I wanted her to know that I am serious about being next to her when she needs support. Ever since I have known her, I have witnessed how she has cared for everyone who needs her, not only from a sense of duty but with a genuine love that heals.

Taslimun is one of the most gifted women I know. She has a keen intelligence, intuitive problem-solving skills, wit, empathy and an ability to connect that always takes me by surprise.

The main difference between Taslimun and me is that I have been educated in big cities as a child and she didn’t go to school at all. I was born to parents who could afford to translate their love into opportunities for me, and she is the daughter of a woman with no means to break free.

Our lives have intersected intimately many times since I have been married. When I first saw her she was newly married too. She was wearing red sindoor all the way from her forehead to the back of her head in the parting in her hair. I remember being fascinated specially because I had been thinking about whether or not to wear a bindi on my forehead while I was with our Muslim family in the village.

“Take it easy," she seemed to be saying to me that day. “It’s all nicely mixed up here."

Every time I meet Taslimun, I learn something valuable about the capacity of human beings to influence lives. She feels all her emotions in a big, expanded way. When she laughs, she seems to be laughing for all the rest of us who are etiquette-bound to contain our mirth.

And when Taslimun is grieving, she doesn’t just cry. She tears herself open. She goes from being a woman with profound self-control to one who has broken down completely. Perhaps it is accumulated grief and injustice. Perhaps she is outraging on behalf of many others. This is the Taslimun I met when I reached the village last week. A woman who will not forgive the universe for taking away her mother.

The story that I want to write here is the story of my friendship with Taslimun. It is also a story I have resisted writing for years. It has to ring true before it can be told. In our early years together, I was so captivated by her personality that I wanted to make a film on her. But I held myself back. Watch her. Listen. Understand where her life is situated first, I tell myself.

In our village home, two sets of extended families live simultaneously in the same space. One is my husband’s family of uncles, aunts and their children and grandchildren. These are the people who collectively own this network of homes, or haveli, as it is called in the village. The other is Maqsoodan phuphu’s family—her children and grandchildren have also grown up here, running around the same rooms and climbing the same trees.

During holiday get-togethers, various generations of the two families intermingle. The youngest play together, the ones in their middle years recall the hits and misses of their childhood adventures, and the oldest make sure that everything is well-organized. One set of people speaks Urdu, the other speaks Bhojpuri, and it boggles my mind that neither of them have a common accent and language even though they have lived in the same home for three generations.

As a relative newcomer, even as I enjoy the spoils of my position as the only daughter-in-law of the family patriarch, I resist being swept into accepting the skewed power dynamics between those who own the land and those who work on it. The layered relationships in this network of homes are far more nuanced than what can be grasped quickly by a visitor.

When Taslimun and I are alone together, I feel unmistakably grateful and connected to her. I want to hear her stories, I want to tell her mine, and yet we are separated by the chasm between our worlds, our lived experience of life.

Over the years, Taslimun and I have both claimed enough personal agency within our crowded, chaotic, intertwined families to find a space where we can sometimes truly speak to each other from our hearts. I have explained to her why she mustn’t pick up after my children when she visits us. Why she must absolutely not jump to attention when my husband (her bhaiya) enters the home. Why she must nap instead of looking for things to do in the afternoon.

“I know you do it out of love," I say to her, “but we don’t want to raise entitled children who learn that doing their own work is demeaning for them, do we?"

“I understand perfectly," she says, showing me what true dignity looks like. “I only needed to hear this from you once."

Taslimun has often expressed anxiety about her own old age to me. Estranged from her philandering husband, she has returned to the home she grew up in. As a woman, she struggles to accept our assurance that this will always be her home. That she has a right to live in the space that she has nurtured in her own best years.

“You will live with me, Taslimun, when the older generation is gone," I often say to her. “We will grow old together." Sometimes she laughs as if she endorses the idea, and sometimes I can’t tell what is on her mind. She seems to long for something else, and I worry that it may not include me.

I imagine Taslimun as a philosophical old woman. Someone who will know people without knowing anything about them. Hopefully she will accept my offer of friendship finally.

Natasha Badhwar is the author of the books, My Daughters’ Mum and Immortal For A Moment.

She tweets at @natashabadhwar

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