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Remembering My Mataji: Watching ‘Never Have I Ever’ Rekindled Memories of My Loving Mother-in-Law

Remembering My Mataji: Watching ‘Never Have I Ever’ Rekindled Memories of My Loving Mother-in-Law

  • Now, as a mother-in-law and a grandmother myself, I draw inspiration from the way she lived her life — for her steadfast faith, genuine love for people, and detachment from things not under her control.

The celebration of relationships has become part of life in contemporary society. In the secular world, different days of the year are celebrated for lovers, fathers, mothers, daughters, and friends, among others. As I learned from social media that we just celebrated Friendship Day on 30th July. Missing among all these, I thought, was a day of celebration of mothers-in-law. Then I learned from Google that October 23 is designated Mother-in-law’s Day, although it is not well known. 

The mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationship is complex and layered, tied to the cultural power structure in a patriarchal society. While traditional Bollywood and television narratives have portrayed the saas-bahu (mother-in-law and daughter-in-law) relationship as competitive and frictive, I came across a more contemporary depiction of these roles in a Netflix series. “Never Have I Ever,” the Indian American comedy-drama premiered on Netflix in 2020 with the third season just out, presents a very progressive image of the mother-in-law in support of her widowed daughter-in-law. 

Both the characters of the mother-in-law (played by Ranjita Chakravarty) and daughter-in-law (played by Poorna Jagannathan) are supportive of each other as they navigate life as a lonely older woman living in India and as a recent widow bringing up a teenager in the U.S. respectively. The series may be the reflection and refraction of Indian American society in the 21st century. One thing is for sure, the supportive saas-bahu storyline in “Never Have I Ever” makes me reflect on my relationship with my mother-in-law. It is essential to put stories out there where women are not pitted against each other; instead, they hold each other up and celebrate each other. 

In 1987, I was unsure how my mother-in-law would be when I met her in her village Srinagar, UP. I was nervous and anxious. My first meeting with Mataji — as I addressed her — who was by then in her 70s, immediately put me at ease, and I developed an excellent rapport and a quiet appreciation for her throughout. 

I have had the good fortune of spending precious time with my mother-in-law on numerous visits to the village after my marriage in 1987, till she passed away in 2000. We did not speak the same language, coming from two different cultural regions hundreds of miles apart. Mataji spoke Bhojpuri and barely used any Hindi in her conversation. She would not understand my mother tongue Odia. But we were perfectly at ease in communicating with each other. 

In 1987, my husband Loki and I met at a seminar on tribal development held at the Sambalpur University, Odisha. Born and raised in Odisha, I was teaching at a premier Ravenshaw college, now a university in Cuttack. He was a visiting professor at the North Eastern Hill University, Shillong, having taken a year off from his job at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His father was once a well-known priest in the royal courts of Varanasi, but he passed away around age 64, and his mother lived in Srinagar, a remote village in Ballia district in eastern UP.

I vividly remembered my first trip to the village. We flew from Guwahati to Patna. From there, we took a taxi to Chhapra. Those days there was no bridge on the Ganges. So we took a meter gauge train from Chhapra in Bihar to the border Dal Chhapra (just four stops) in eastern UP. It took more than three hours to cover 16 kilometers to arrive at his village station. I still have not forgotten the hundreds of people who came to the local station to see me and affectionately addressed me as chhotki panditain ( younger priestess). That love and affection remain unforgettable.

Even after 34 years, I vividly remember Mataji’s visit to Cuttack. She had brought a beautiful black stone for my mother. While passing on the gift, she explained to my mother, “Samdhin (co-sister) here is a divine gift for you. This one is living Vishnu. Please worship him, and he grows.”

My mother-in-law greeted me in Bhojpuri, her mother tongue, with a beautiful smile. She was full of love. Finally, she has her oldest daughter-in-law.

Mataji was fair-complexioned, tall, and very thin. Even in her 70s, she had a radiant face with bright eyes. She was very soft-spoken, mild-mannered, and pious. When I met her in 1987, she had already retired from the daily household chores. She lived with her younger son, his wife, their son, and the extended family. She was living the vanaprastha stage — where there is some form of detachment from family attachments. 

She would wake up in the wee hours, take a bath at the tubewell in the backyard, and do her puja for hours. Her little temple in the courtyard was full of beautifully adorned gods and goddesses. She would spend most of the day there. After her puja in the morning, she will have a little food. Throughout the day, she will be busy talking to streams of women from the village visiting her. Being a Brahmin priest’s widow, she never set foot outside the door to see people. But women from the village and the neighboring towns will visit and update her about the village’s affairs. She did free counseling. I have seen the women who came worried but left with a smile. 

Mataji’s Story

Mataji, Shyam Sundari, was born during the early years of the 20th century in Dube Chhap, ten kilometers away from Srinagar in Bihar. She had a younger brother who she lost as a teenager. Her father could not take the loss of his son and disappeared, deserting the family. Mataji’s mother raised her single-handedly. She must have been a powerful, courageous, and strong-willed person. She also supervised her lands, producing multiple crops such as sugar cane, rice, and millet. Loki, my husband, has fond memories of spending his summer months in Mataji’s village climbing mango trees and running around with village children. 

As a young girl growing up in the village, Mataji had no kin support. When it was time for her to get married, her mother sought a suitable match. She heard that Loki’s father, a young, 30-year-old widower, was working in Varanasi, 140 kilometers away. She took a train to meet him and decide whether he was a suitable candidate for her daughter. Only after interviewing him did she approve of her daughter’s marriage. She must be a remarkable woman for her time. Mataji was barely 16 years old. After marriage, Mataji moved to Srinagar and raised all her five kids (two sons and two daughters surviving) in the village. Her husband mostly lived in Varanasi and later in Ballia as a priest. Mataji remained firmly planted in her village. She lost her husband at age 57 and was a widow for 32 years. People in the village affectionately called her panditain (learned one). She never desired to come to the U.S. She would jokingly say, “Where will I get Ganges water? What will happen to my people in the village if I go away?” 

Loki left home at 14 for his schooling and then higher education. He had no childhood memory of Mataji doing any cooking for him. When Loki was one year old, his cousin Balaram Pandey got married, and his newlywed wife, Loki’s bhabhi (sister-in-law), took up cooking, supervised by Mataji and her older sister-in-law. In a joint family, the household chores are always shared. Once Loki jokingly told Mataji, “I do not remember you giving me even a glass of water. Mataji became serious, “there were others to do that. I have given you birth, fed you my milk, and prayed for you. What more do you expect of me?” Mataji understood her duty towards her children and fulfilled them without publicly demonstrating her love. 

After our marriage, I applied for my green card and continued to teach at Ravenshaw college. Loki returned to Santa Cruz, California, to resume his teaching after the sabbatical. Our son Alok was born in May 1988. Mataji, my sister-in-law, her husband, and their daughter visited us in Cuttack. For Mataji, it was an epic journey. She had never traveled this far, about 1200 km, changing three trains from the village to Ballia, Varanasi to Cuttack. She was a pure vegetarian and did not even eat onion and garlic. I can imagine what courage and determination she must have had to see her firstborn grandchild. Now that I have become a grandmother, I realize her feelings and sentiments. 

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Even after 34 years, I vividly remember Mataji’s visit to Cuttack. She had brought a beautiful black stone for my mother. While passing on the gift, she explained to my mother, “Samdhin (co-sister) here is a divine gift for you. This one is living Vishnu. Please worship him, and he grows.” I realized the essence of her faith. For her, it was not a mere stone. It is the living god and must be worshiped with utmost care. My mother was very touched and added the living Vishnu to her altar. 

Mataji must have difficulty adjusting to our household in Cuttack. We had two big dogs and she was not used to them staying at home. To her dismay, they ate meat. I had never heard Mataji complaining about anything. For her, it was her first adventure and, unfortunately, the last one.

In 1988, when my son Alok was five months old, I went to Cambridge, the UK, for my postdoctoral studies in social anthropology. After a year, before moving to the United States, I went to see my parents in 1989. My second son Akash was born in Cambridge and was only one and a half months old. With both the children, at 16 months and two months respectively, I ventured to visit Mataji in Srinagar. After arriving in Varanasi, I met with my brother-in-law and other relatives who came to receive me. We rented a jeep to go to the village. A few days with Mataji were well worth all the trouble of extended travel. She was beaming in joy to see her grandsons. 

Since 1989, after I moved to the U.S., I went to India with the boys yearly. Each time we made sure to visit Mataji in the village. Alok jokingly tells his father that he has been to his papa’s village and spent more time with Aaji (grandma) than his father. 

Mataji was very astute and thoughtful. One summer, while I visited her, she had invited women who sing at weddings. The bride’s family generally commissions them to sing galis (dirty) songs teasing the bridegroom and his family for taking the bride away. This is very common in eastern UP and Bihar, especially in the Bhojpuri region. I learned that women use their power and agency through their songs. Mataji knew my interest in these songs as an anthropologist and made sure I participated in the singing. These women came with their dholki (a musical instrument), and we sang for hours. It was a memorable occasion for me. 

Mataji died at the age of 89 in 2000. Now my children are grown and are happily living with their partners and family. Sometimes I miss not having our children around me. Then I remember Mataji — who learned to live without her husband and her oldest son far away in a foreign land — creating a niche for herself in the village. There is so much one can learn from Mataji — her steadfast faith, genuine love for people, and detachment from things that are not under her control.

I miss her.

Annapurna Devi Pandey teaches Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and was a postdoctoral fellow in social anthropology at Cambridge University, the U.K. Her current research interests include diaspora studies, South Asian religions, and immigrant women’s identity making in the diaspora in California. In 2017-18 she received a Fulbright scholarship for fieldwork in India. Dr. Pandey is also an accomplished documentary filmmaker. Her 2018 award-winning documentary “Road to Zuni,” dealt with the importance of oral traditions among Native Americans.

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