It's been exactly a decade since English Vinglish, directed by Gauri Shinde released. In a recent interview, when Janhvi Kapoor was asked about her mother's films, she mentioned English Vinglish and said that her blood would boil seeing how the young daughter in the movie treated her mother (Sridevi’s character). It was hard for Janhvi to watch the film because the character played by Sridevi was mocked and humiliated by the English-medium-educated daughter and an arrogant-ignorant husband.
The film wasn't an easy watch for me either; I never dared to watch it with my mother. What if my mother sees herself in Sridevi's character? Did I fail her too? I never mocked her, but I also hardly defended or stood by her when someone else made a joke at her cost. I am guilty of being a bystander who smiled at these jokes. After all, it does not take a lot to laugh at the woman who works in the background, rarely interrupts, and allows and enables everyone else to shine.
Recently, a long phone call with a female friend about her troubled relationship with her mother made me realise how patriarchy ruins a daughter's relationship with the closest ally she could have had. In Divya's description, the mother seemed harsh, strict, conservative, and almost always worried. The father, however, was carefree, liberal, and fun and the one who shielded Divya.
To dwell deeper on this, I reached out to my female friends and acquaintances and asked them about their preferred parents. Nine of the twelve women I spoke to were closer to their fathers as a child but now prefer their mothers. Neha (name changed), 29, who lives alone in Delhi now, said, "Father wasn't irritated all the time like mother was, and he was the one who fulfilled my materialistic demands."
When I asked her why the preference changed over time, she said, "As an adult, I could relate more with my mother's struggles. Moreover, seeing her as an individual woman who had to care for her children and husband made me empathize and love her more."
Growing up in a small town, I was told that girls who look like their fathers are luckier. So, it felt good when neighbours and relatives told me that I look like my father. It was a running joke between my brothers and me that my father loves me more and my mother prefers the boys over me. I am trying to remember how I arrived at that conclusion, though. Was it my parents who said that or did I learn it from the stories? Celebrated Hindi films like Ye Jawani Hai Diwani and Gunjan Saxena or children's stories like Cinderella and Snow White that I grew up reading, depicted the mother as an inherently mean or evil character who never understands the daughter's aspirations.
I was closer to my father as a young girl; but as I grew up, I learned to put my mother down from the pedestal of being a mother and saw her as a woman who got married at 19 and had two kids to take care of by the time she was 22. I saw her as a woman who came from an affluent family into a lower-middle-class household and managed to be happy and make a home. I saw her as a woman whose brothers got a chance with higher education, while she was married off in the first year of college. She had to move cities, and leave her parents, siblings, and friends at 19. What would her life be like, if she had even half of the opportunities that I did?
Today, as a recently married 27-year-old, I am able to look at my mother as an individual. I appreciate her relationship with my father and grandmother. In times of conflict, I empathise with her and see her for who she is. I have stopped judging her. I understand how mothers are made the gatekeepers of patriarchy in a household and have to carry the burden of being a bad cop.
Anything good that a daughter does is because of the father, but god forbid if she brings 'shame' to the family, then all the fingers point to the mother with a weighty "tumne apni beti ko sanskaar nahi diye (you didn't teach your child values)". The sole responsibility of giving sanskaar is apparently on the mother, while the father plays a good cop and is allowed to 'spoil' the kids.
Recently, a quote from the book Radical Feminist Theory by Bonnie Burstow was all over Twitter:
"Often father and daughter look down on mother (woman) together. They exchange meaningful glances when she misses a point. They agree that she is not bright as they are, cannot reason as they do. This collusion does not save the daughter from the mother's fate."
The popularity of this tweet and how it resonated with women across the world was alarming to me. It seemed like the foundation of a mother-daughter relationship is rooted in patriarchy everywhere. Here are some of the comments on Burstow’s quote:
My friends Shruti and Shreya are in their early thirties, and both liked their fathers more while growing up. Some adjectives they used to describe their respective fathers were easy-going, intellectual, less strict, and more fun. When I asked them how and when their preferred parent changed, they believed that it happened gradually, and remembered no specific moment or milestone. "Realizing that the father got away with way fewer responsibilities and sacrifices, while the bearer of consequences was my mother, changed my mind", said Shruti. “I understood my mother better as I got more insights into how my parents' marriage worked and how unfair the institution was towards women,” Shreya said. "I also understood why it is easy for one gender to portray a certain personality trait."
For the longest time, I blamed my mother for trying to teach me household chores and not my brothers, for censoring what I wore and for never taking my period pain seriously. Neha, Shreya, Shruti and most of the other women I spoke to echoed my feelings; however, as Adrienne Rich, an American poet, essayist and feminist, says, “Easier by far to hate and reject a mother outright than to see beyond her to the forces acting upon her.”
As an adult woman today, I often reflect on how differently I speak to my mother and father. Do I find it easier to blame my mother? Do I exempt my father and often misdirect my anger towards my mother? I don't know. However, the fact that I can see her as a woman today and not just my mother is a start, and I hope to continue on this path; who knows, maybe down the road, I will find a friend in the woman who gave birth to me.
Prakriti is an independent writer. She writes on gender, cinema, and relationships and tweets as @kritipraa.