>If you aren’t already watching this television series on child marriage, it’s time you started to. Unlike most other stuff that gets aired on national television in our country, Balika Vadhu is a mature, well-rounded take on the evils of child marriage. Not your typical saas–bahu serial, it shows a conservative Rajasthani family and how it deals with its women – daughters and mothers, D-I-Ls and M-I-Ls. The daughters-in-law in the serial are referred to as bindhdi – a typical Rajasthani word that means bahu or simply D-I-L. And that’s where my story begins.
When I got married to The Guy (and his family, for all practical purposes!), I was referred to as bahuji. Right from my parents-in-law to the servants in the house, everyone chose to call me “bahuji”. I wasn’t D, no, I wasn’t even any other term of endearment, I was respectfully “bahuji”. Interestingly, I wasn’t the only one; it was a practice followed unfailingly by my MIL’s family for every daughter-in-law in the family.
Despite being an apparently open-minded army man, my father-in-law often introduced me to his friends or colleagues as “humari bahuji” (our daughter-in-law), leaving it up to me to say, “Hello, I’m D.” Or when I was in a more assertive mood, simply, “My name is D.”
I turned up my nose in disdain every time I was referred to as bahuji, not only because it negated my identity as an individual but also because it was a constant reminder of my position in the house – never a daughter, always a daughter-in-law. I had chosen to retain my maiden name after my marriage, so this was clearly an assault on my feminist sensibilities, nay, my humanist sensibilities too. I love my name and I could not understand why I couldn’t be called by it.
The Guy, being used to this manner of address, found my resentment unreasonable. Till I asked him one day how he’d feel if he was constantly referred to as “Damadji” by my family. “Yeh humare damadji hain.” “Damadji aapne khana khaya?” “Damadji ko bula do.” Irritating, huh? Point taken, he admitted and tried to explain as politely as he could to his parents.
Of course, they saw no harm in it. To them, it was as normal to call me “bahuji” as it was for me to expect to be called D. Nobody had ever really stopped to think that the epithet could be considered offensive by somebody. So there I was, faced with the challenge of explaining to them why it was so demeaning to no longer be D but just another “bahu,” with the very polite “ji” or without it!
I didn’t want to go into the theories of feminism and the politics of language used to undermine a woman’s identity, so I did what I thought was the next best thing: tit for tat! I jokingly started referring to my in-laws as saasu ji and sasurji ! My message was loud and clear: if you want to be treated as parents, stop referring to me as D-I-L! They got the message – that I didn’t like being “bahuji” for all and sundry. But they still didn’t understand why. For them I was probably rebelling against a family tradition. To me, I was objecting to an unreasonable patriarchal practice.
And I just didn’t want them to stop calling me bahuji; I wanted them to stop calling anybody by that vague term of address. I finally I had to tell my M-I-L how epithets such as “bahuji” did nothing for a woman’s identity.
I explained to her how when someone calls me bahuji, they are not referring to me but the just the woman who married the son of the family. Had it been somebody else in my place, she would still have been bahuji. If I were to die or be separated and The Guy were to re-marry, his second wife would be no different than me – she would still be bahuji. A woman’s identity is derived from her association with a man and not from who she really is. As Simone De Beauvoir realises in her book, The Second Sex, that woman is always perceived of as “other”, “she is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her”.
Each time I was introduced as the bahu of the family, my existence as an individual independent of my relation with the family was undermined. The family plays an important part in shaping the person you are, but it cannot be the defining factor for who you are. It’s not that I want to hide that I am the daughter-in-law in this family; it’s just that it’s not all that I am! It’s not my introduction. In fact, it should not be the introduction to any woman. Why take away from who she really is?
They finally let me be “me”. And I wish the world would let every woman be “her”.