In My Meditation Today: Being allowed to be unabashedly, unapologetically you is the biggest gift you receive. Not requiring a person to change, to conform, to contort themselves into people they are not – is giving a person the permission to exist. Could you think of a greater gift???
This is the third blog post in a series of posts in which I have paid tribute to three powerful women who had featured roles in my life. This one is a tribute to my mother-in-law.
Although inevitably, she had a smaller role in my life than my mother or grandmother, the lesson she taught me was still phenomenal.
“ Ewww – this Sambhar has cumin in it!!!” The words escaped my mouth before I could pull them back. I was barely twenty-one years old and had been a married woman for about 72 hours.
I was in a strange house with a man who was my husband but who I had only known for the aforementioned 72 hours.
My dad, grandma, brothers & sister-in-law, and aunts had all left earlier in the day.
Although this was a very traditional arranged marriage and hence was the union between two families that were supposed to be similar, everything was different from what I knew and loved.
I was in a very rural part of the state of Kerala. I grew up in Mumbai. The Malayalam dialect spoken in my in-law’s place might as well have been a different language. And the food was different!
There was less salt, more pepper, and cumin and garlic in everything. Even in the most “ sacred” of South Indian dishes – Sambhar – a lentil and vegetable curry that is an indispensable part of a special meal, and thoran – a stir-fried vegetable dish flavored with coconut and mustard seeds and whole red chilies and curry leaves, did not escape the garlic and cumin! Having been taught the niceties of our cuisine by my Mom before she died, this food felt sacrilegious.
It broke all the rules of traditional Malayalee cooking I learned from my Mom.
I was already in a state of shock & bewilderment.
I was a city girl & everyone was terrified that I would create chaos in the family. To whit, a wizened old lady who had helped with the work on the family farm forever had taken me aside a few minutes after I was welcomed into the house, put her hands around my neck, and told me she would kill me if I broke the family up. The next morning, as I walked into the kitchen after a shower, my mother-in-law poured a handful of coconut oil into my nicely shampooed hair because she thought it looked too dry. Despite all of this, I had managed not to complain about this shock to my being, not to mention my tastebuds, for 36 hours. The evening that those fateful words came out of my mouth was the first evening we were spending in the home where I was expecting to spend the early part of my married life. It was a rental house close to my husband’s practice. My mother-in-law and my husband’s aunt had accompanied us to help me settle into the house. The meal was prepared by a young man who was the cook/ all-around helper in my physician husband’s household. Perhaps the fact that the cook was not an in-law helped me to finally express my outrage at the assault on my taste buds. To appreciate my mother-in-law’s reaction, you must understand that my mother-in-law had almost no formal education. She was a woman who had found her calling when she was forced into taking greater responsibility for the family farm when glaucoma took my father-in-law’s sight. She took to this expanded role like a duck to water. There were plenty of critics, but it seemed as if she did not let any of the criticisms or demands hit her where it hurt or make her question her actions. Somehow, life had created circumstances for her in which she learned just to be who she was. My mother-in-law truly was a person who lived unapologetically, unabashedly, doing what she thought she needed to do regardless of what anyone else thought. However, she had had no exposure to life and culture outside her tiny rural village in Kerala.
Given the traditional expectations in Indian culture, it would have been perfectly reasonable for her to have said, “ Well, we cook Sambhar with cumin and garlic, so you just have to learn to live with it. That is what my son likes, and that is what you should learn to cook.” Instead, she called the cook into the dining room and said, “ Sreelatha does not like cumin in Sambhar, so make sure you stop cooking it with cumin.” 44 years into my marriage, & her reaction still astounds me! With that command, my mother-in-law simultaneously established that I had power in the house and showed me how to exert it. Whether she realized it or not, that night, in those couple of minutes, my mother-in-law gave me permission to be unapologetically, unabashedly me. For that, I will be forever grateful.
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