My parents are the Indian Ralph and Alice Kramden of suburban Calgary: they fight like it’s a hobby. It’s never spiteful or loaded, just affectionate bickering that’s loud enough to make the windowpanes shake. The worst fight they ever had ended with my mother skipping dinner—she was too furious to eat with my dad—and sleeping in the guest room. Her blood sugar dropped overnight, she skipped breakfast out of spite, and she fainted. I blamed my dad; being right, I told him, wasn’t worth sending my mother to the hospital. He just laughed.
Later that evening, my parents watched Law & Order together in the family room, my mother draped over the couch and my father perched on his armchair. As usual, he explained every detail of the show while she graciously pretended to be an idiot who didn’t understand basic English.
“Why don’t you say anything?” I asked her, as I often did. “It’s so condescending. You know what’s happening!”
She smiled and shrugged. “Let him do it.”
My parents met 33 years ago, when my father lived in Jammu and my mother lived in Srinagar in northern India. She was a friend of my dad’s cousin; my dad saw her at his aunt’s house one afternoon and knew instantly that she was the woman he wanted to marry. “She had that face, those eyes,” he says, “that aura of regal exclusivity.” Although he didn’t speak to her, he left a proposal with his aunt, who brought it to my mother’s father. My mother was too young to marry at the time (just 19) but three years later, she accepted. “I thought he was okay,” she recalls. “My dad must’ve seen something in him.” After fewer than a dozen chaperoned meetings, my parents married, had a baby, and moved to the other side of the world.
My mother never doubted that her marriage would be arranged. It was just how life worked for young South Asian women in the ‘70s. (My grandfather at least gave her the option to refuse my father’s proposal—his wife, my grandmother, hadn’t been given such “liberties” back in 1948.)
I always thought my mother had spent her life letting men lead her by the hand. Up until a few months ago, I didn’t even know she had a university degree. I thought of her when I read Nell Freudenberger’s new book, The Newlyweds, whose protagonist seems similarly beholden to the man in her life. The book details a modern arranged marriage—a Bangladeshi bride, Amina, meets an American suitor online, then leaves her family and country to live his life in the U.S. That’s how it looks to me. But for Amina, and surely for my mother, the marriage is not one of resignation; it’s an opportunity for a better life.
By the time I was born, my dad was in his early 40s, with a son entering his teens. He had no idea how to handle a westernized girl, and he made arbitrary rules that my mother enforced without question: bedtimes well after I had reached and exited puberty, a refusal to let me to go to concerts or certain movies, panic when I was out of the house past 8 p.m. Papa was the loudest member of our family: he dealt—deals—with conflict by screaming and threatening, letting his face fill with blood and literally shaking with rage, like a toddler pitching a fit. My mother would often bring him a cup of tea and tell him to watch some television to calm down, like a mother giving her child a juice box and switching on the cartoons. My father is strong, but my mother is sly.
This was Ma’s soft power: subtle enough that I didn’t notice in my teens, but more effective than my dad’s firm “No, no, absolutely not.” In junior high, she rushed me out of the house with a $20 bill to see a movie that my father had vetoed. In high school, she let me wear mascara and concealer, but no foundation or blush (I assume she wasn’t stupid enough to think I wouldn’t pack more makeup for the bathroom at school). When I was 17, she helped convince my dad to let me move to Toronto for university. Last year, she told my father that I was busy with my studies and would have trouble finding time to call, when she knew I was actually spending eight days on a beach in Cuba. Thanks to my mom, I was rarely restricted from any of the experiences I wanted to have when I was younger, but at the time I never knew to credit her. In fact, the only thing she really restricted,was a dating life, and I’ve always held resentment over that one, solid rule.
My instinct, when I read Freudenberger’s book, was to pity Amina, a weak person in an unfair world. But like my mother, Amina is wise; she works cannily with the options available to her. You’re only the victim when you play it. Even so, I get frustrated. I want to know why neither woman asks for more. Why doesn’t Amina refuse to put up with her husband’s condescension? Why did my mother go to the other side of the world when she wanted to stay near her father?
On my last visit home, my mother pulled me aside in my bedroom. “You’re an adult now, and you’re going to meet people,” she whispered, even though my father was on another floor, half-asleep. “But when you meet someone, you can tell me. You don’t have to tell Papa, but you can tell me.” I’m still not sure what I was supposed to take from this conversation. Maybe she’s trying to offer me a life she didn’t have, one with more options. But I’m inclined to believe she’s just bracing herself for the inevitable: her daughter will never be as traditional as she was, so she might as well be aware. My mother has always been the one I go to with my problems; I don’t think she wants that to stop just because my problems have to do with love and sex.
Now that my parents are empty nesters, I’m realizing just how dependent my father is on my mother. He can’t do laundry, he can’t cook, he doesn’t know how the television works. He gets lonely when she goes grocery shopping. When I call him and he’s by himself, his answer to “What are you up to?” is often, “I’m just here, staring into the abyss.” And surely he is. My mother made my lunch until I was 16. My father is 62, and she’s still making his.
So when my father turns to her from his recliner and narrates an episode of CSI (“See? It looked like the husband did it but he was framed!”), my mother is letting him believe he’s in charge—letting him wear the crown while she makes sure everyone eats, gets to school on time, makes it home before it’s too dark. Were it not for my mother, his “empire” would have crumbled long ago: we would resent him even more than we already do (for now it’s just the benign disdain that most children in their twenties hold for their parents), and he wouldn’t have eaten nearly as well. My father has always been the narrator, but my mother, whether we recognized it or not, was writing the story.