Saas and bahu: the eternal struggle

December 15, 2010

Some old readers of the blog would remember the following post where I wrote about how I played a part in getting my father’s Ph D thesis published. Here is the link:

The good news is that nearly all copies have been sold. The bad news is that there are only some 6-8 copies left. And I am loathe to give them away, whether for love or for money. I wonder whether I should get some more copies published. That should a record of sorts, an old Ph D thesis- on Bhojpuri Kahavatein that too- going into a reprint!

Sometimes, I wonder if an English translation could be a good idea.

In the meanwhile, I have attempted a translation of a section of the book. Take a look. This is my first attempt at translation so pardon any clumsy grammar. Just in case you understand Bhojpuri, I have given the original kahavat too. If there are any spelling errors , blame it on my lack of command over “Google transliteration” facility.

Do let me what you thought of the piece. Remember this was originally written some 50 years ago. So see it in that context.

And let me know if you want to read more of such translations.


The relationship between two women in a family is between a mother and her daughter, sister and sister, sisters-in law (nanad-bhabhi), daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law (saas-bahu). But the relationship between the mother-in-law (saas) and the daughter-in-law (bahu) attains importance for the power-struggle in encapsulates, the power for the upper hand in the affairs of the family. Not surprisingly we find more kahavatein on this relationship. The role of the saas is paramount in the household affairs till the bride (bahu) arrives. Before the marriage, the mother-in-law is the housewife- and the boss. And she genuinely believes that she has the rights to meddle into all the affairs within the family.

The saas feels threatened by the entry of the bahu so she wants to dominate her (the bahu) and underscore her powers.

A smart bahu slowly works her way to a status so that her voice is heard within the family. She exerts her personality and challenges the unbridled powers of the saas.

In the olden days of child-marriage a saas could easily establish her influence on the family; since the age of the bahu has begun getting higher this too has gone. The bahu would no longer meekly subject herself to torture and let her saas control her life. The bahu is ready to raise her voice against her tyrannical saas.

There are many Bhojpuri kahavatein dealing with this changing equation.


Any mother is keen to see her son married. (A bahu is critical to the extension of the family tree). Her anxiety grows when her son becomes older. Many-a-time, the matrimonial proposal may even break down when the enemies of the groom’s family create obstructions. The older the son, the more suspicious is the prospective bride’s family. So, when the son does get married, it is natural for his mother to rejoice as in the following kahavat:

बेटा भईले भाग से,

पतोहि बड़ी भाग से.

Having a son is lucky,

Having a daughter-in-law is fortuitous!

And, when the bahu enters the household, the saas does not relinquish her powers to the new bahu. To the contrary, she gets even more attached to them.


सभ सासू सतजुगी,
सभ पतोहि कलजुगी

All saas’ are pious,

All bahus are sinners.

The saas believes there really is no point in giving any rights to such useless bahus, even in the tiniest affairs of the household:


बहुरिया  के बड़ आदर,
बाकिर हांड़ी-डाली छुवहीं के ना.

Respect your bahu, yes,

But why let her touch the domestic vessels?


The saas shows her miserly attitude to the bahu as mentioned in the kahavat:


सास छोहैली त कहली जे,
लिटिया  में गडाहा कर, तनी माठा दे दीहीं.

In an outpouring of affection says the saas,

Dig a little cavity into your litti, I will fill it up with mattha (butter-milk)

In the days of yore it was rather common in households to serve the best portions of the meal to the men of the family and the dregs to the bahu. No wonder the bahu would feel liberated when her husband and saas were away:


सैयां गईले बाहारा, काहां-काहां जाओं
सासू गैली नइहर, का-का खाओं

He is away, and I am free to go wherever I wish,

And she is off to her mother’s place; and I can eat whatever I want.

But the saas returns and does what she is traditionally expected to do, trouble and torture her bahu:


खुस भैली सासू,
त लुआठी दगली गाल.

My saas feels a surge of affection for me,

And she singes my cheeks with glowing embers.

Saas regularly criticizes even the tiniest of mistakes of the bahu and makes frequent sarcastic remarks. The bahu does not find these funny at all and she starts retaliating.


उस्कावल बाती
खुद्कावल  पतोहि, अधसे नाहीं

A manipulated lamp-wick,

Or a criticized bahu,

Both are counter-productive.


The bahu starts feeding her husband with real and imagined tales her saas’ tortures. And, over a period of time, with such stories she is able to influence her husband enough for him to develop hatred towards his mother. The mother senses this and laments:


आपाना लागि हम बेटा पोसलों,
आइली पतोहि मोर नतवो छोडवाली

I nourished my son, he was my own,

The bahu arrives and cuts me off from my own.

The animosity intensifies and the saas is devastated. Once when her son was unmarried she longed for a bahu and now she can not stand her.


पतोहि आवसु, पतोहि जावसु,
पतोहि देखि के देहि का फट्वास लागेला.

Let a bahu come, let a bahu go; do I care?

My body burns when I see the bahu.

The bahu keeps consolidating her position with her husband who has now clearly turned anti-mother. She now feels emboldened to start treating her saas badly as said in this picturesque kahavat:


जब ले ऐली  कुलवंती नारी
एक चेरुई , दुह मुंह बनाई
एक में दिहली खाटा महेरी,
एक में दिहली अमृत लाई
बुधिया दिहली खाटा महेरी,
आपाना पुरुख के अमृत लाई

My cultured bahu, since she has come,

Serves food from a two-spouted vessel.

From one spout she pours buttermilk

And amrit from the other,

The old lady gets the sour buttermilk

While she serves amrit to her man.


The bahu tries to dominate her saas by all means fair and foul. She even threatens:


गाल देबो बजाई
सासू जइहें पराई

I will scream my lungs off,

Enough for saas to vanish.


Sure enough, the bahu starts dominating the household. She rules the roost even as she takes off on her saas ever so often:


सासु के ओढ़ना
पतोहि के गोड़-पोछना

The bed-clothes of saas

Serves as the foot-wiper of the bahu

The break between the bahu and saas is poignantly captured in the following kahavat.


आज मुअली सासु
काल्हु गिरलि आंसू

Saas dies today,

Cries tomorrow, the bahu.

The bahu was never happy with the treatment meted by her saas, right from the beginning. Though there were some moments (especially when the saas helped out with the chores when the bahu was in the family way) when the bahu felt some emotional attachment to her saas. Hence the bahu weeps a bit, albeit a day late.


The relationship between the two women deteriorates perhaps due to the lack of understanding between the two female protagonists. Perhaps the saas should reconcile to the fact that one day, over time, the bahu will be ruling the roost in the family. Why not reconcile to this situation early on?


बेटा के खाइल, आ पतोहि के चोरावल
कतहूँ ना जाला

Neither a well-fed son, nor a thieving bahu,

Carry the family gains away.

Thesis Cover Final


The Curious Case of Bihari People: Part 1

December 8, 2010

The seniors crowded around me in the cramped hostel room. And one of them popped the question: “Guess where I am from?”

“No, sir, I can’t.”

Ee kaa? What do you mean, no? You have qualified through the JEE and you can’t answer this simple question. Where am I from?”

JEE is the popular abbreviation for Indian Institute of Technology Joint Entrance Exam (IIT-JEE), one of the tougher exams in India then, and even now. I could not see the relationship between a JEE qualifier and one being able to answer questions on ethnicity. But this was a game, this ragging, I had to play along.

I was a fresher in the engineering college, a ready recipient of absurd questions and humiliations. Of course I knew pretty much where this particular senior was from. The “ee kaa?” was a dead giveaway. It was there for all to see his diction, and more importantly it was there in the question itself. Bihar. Loud and clear. I could even guess which part of Bihar he was from, perhaps from the Mithila region where they speak in their typically sweet, sing-song way.

I played along some more:

“Delhi, Sir?”

Naaaaheen…, take another guess”.

And this “Naaaheen” was another give away”. He was a Bihari, in bold, underline and italics.

“Punjab, sir?” He said no, rather reluctantly. I was now enjoying this game.

“Sir, Bengali?” “No way, you idiot, what makes you think I am a bangaali?”

And so on it went:





“Surely Gujarati!!”

Like a good travel guide, I was taking him around on an enjoyable all India trip. And I was the one enjoying it!

“C’mon, yaar!”

“Now this is really confusing. Let me now try some really unlikely places.



“UP, I think.”

Naaheen. You are close!”

“Sir, kahin Bihar toh nahin?”, I feigned this rather saddened and defeated tone when I uttered the “B” word. I had known this game very well for days now.

Ee kaa, saaley, smart ban rahe ho?” This senior was really smarting under the realization that I had called him a Bihari. And then his friends started tittering, and one of them told him, “Abey saaley Bihari, ab chhodo do na, bolo do na ki tum Bihari ho!”

He gathered his wits: “Yes I am from Bihar, and I was born and brought in Bhagalpur, I studied in St Michael’s, Patna. (As if the mention of the popular and respected Jesuit school spared him of the “stigma” of being a Bihari!). “And no one has ever guessed that I am a Bihari!”, he added triumphantly.


You may be laughing at this rather frivolous-sounding narration. But variations of this conversation have happened in umpteen number of situations. Be it a chance meeting with a stranger at the airport, or at the market place. At the office when I am interviewing someone for a job, or a friend of a friend I meet at a random party; at any random place. You know what I mean…..

Variations of such chats are:

“My parents are from Bihar, but I studied in Pune (or Delhi, or Ahmedabad, or Raipur – any place but Bihar!).” (Means: I am not a Bihari, my parents, poor folks, are, varieties)

“Yes, I do visit Bihar, once in a while, my grandparents (“grandparents” always said in English even in a Hindi conversation) live there.” (Bihar-is-limited-to-my- grandparents types; not my parents and I)

“Bihar is a nice place, Biharis are nice people.” (the-oh-so-condescending ones)

“I am a member of the US chapter of “Bihari International”.” (I-have-roots-in-Bihar-but-I-live-abroad: the globe-trotters) I could go on-and-on.


As I have mentioned a number of times on this blog, I was born in Bihar, to Bihari parents and Bhojpuri is my mother tongue. When asked by someone, I state this, matter-of-fact. And I am even married to a Bihari, we have children who are, lo-and-behold, also Biharis! Not that we go around talking about this- or hiding this. That is that, just a statement of facts. It never fails to astonish me as to why some Biharis go the length to hide this demographic fact.

Being a Bihari is neither a crime nor a matter of shame. Just like being a Konkani, a Kannadiga or a Kashmiri is not. It is just a statement of a demographical element of one’s origins.

You would have realized if you have been reading my posts that I am not a jingoist. I am not here to say either “Jai Bihar” nor tell you about the multitude of lubminaries Bihar has produced.


To those who titter and use the term Bihari in a derisive manner, I have a small question: “Why?”

And to those Biharis, who hide their origins, Why do you? Why??

Chandrika “Loolha” Prasad

December 2, 2010

There was a palpable sense of jealousy as Chandrika Prasad completed his narration. And the elders in the audience exhaled, “achhaa?” The “achha”, while being affirmative, was also part incredulous and part jealousy; the latter being more dominant. The elders were my mamas and the others were kids, with yours truly as an active listener.

Chandrika Prasad’s story was indeed stupefying. He, a village bumpkin, enlisted into the Indian army. He was posted in the North East but longed to get home to his ancestral village in Choubeychak. Which he did, after taking a premature retirement. He chose to travel home via a flight to Calcutta, and not the boringly-long train journey. He claimed that he had developed a headache on the flight which was relieved only with a prompt and altogether relaxing forehead massage by a friendly air-hostess. And that is what raised the hackles of my mamas who were all his compatriots. Chandrika Prasad, how did he get so lucky? Not only he flew, he was the first one in the village (and the neighbouring ones) to take a flight- this was in the early 70’s. And then he received the ministrations of an air-hostess!


Chandrika’s father, Jangi Thakur was my Nana’s age. Jangi was of Nana’s age, and he was a bosom buddy of nana’s younger brother, Manori Choubey. Jangi would address Manori by his name though he dare not utter my nana’s name. After all, Kapildeo Choubey, my nana, was the famed Sanskrit scholar in the area. Jangi called him Baba. Like all other men of “lower” castes. Jangi belonged to the barber community.  Jangi was a nau, of the barber caste. Also called derisively by the upper caste folks, a nauwwa.

Jangi’s sons were of a similar age as my nana’s offspring, and his kids- Chandrika Prasad included- were as old as my mamas.


Brahmins and the barber caste folks in the villages shared a symbiotic relationship. Brahmins would preside over rituals of a Hindu family, birth, mundan, shaadi, death ceremony etc. No ritual was complete without either the brahmin or the barber. The barber was enlisted to travel far-and-wide for match-making and the Brahmin was required to solemnize them. Even during the wedding ceremony the roles of the two were defined, and critical.

Each barber was “attached” to a Brahmin, and vice versa. One would flourish only if the other did. The extent of inter-dependence extended to the female in the nau family, to the naoon. She was required for rituals right from a woman’s marriage to her husband’s death. This has been mentioned in the following kahawat.

Jawan nainiyaa chauk poorelay,

Uhey maango dhoweley.”

(Excerpted from Dr Satyadeo Ojha’s Ph.D. thesis on Bhojpuri Kahavatein.)

“She not only helps in solemnizing her marriage, but she also washes the sindoor off her forehead when she is widowed.”

Such is the role of the barber community in the Brahmin society.

Brahmins were relatively more prosperous in the community and certainly more respected; so a Brahmin family had a barber family “attached” to its household.

Like Pandit Kapildeo Choubey, my nana, had Jangi Thakur’s family as neighbours. Jangi, his wife and their four sons; Chandrika Prasad was the youngest.


While Chandrika was his real name, the world knew him as “Loolha”, one with a maimed forearm. He was not physically challenged, else he could not have gone into the Indian army. Apparently, when he was being delivered from his mother’s womb, Chandrika decided to do something unconventional. Instead of popping out head-first, he emerged hands-first. And it is the prominence of his hands, ironically, which got him the nick loolha. Rather inappropriate for one who “raised his hands first”, would you not agree with me!

Loolha was my mamas’ playmate, schoolmate and partner in sundry family activities. He would address them by their first names, just as they would call him Loolha. The whole village called him Loolha. Chandrika was his name in school and Loolha was his pet name.

Loolha was born to be rebellious. For starters, he refused to take on his family vocation of a barber; he enlisted into the army! When he did so, my nana’s family was aghast. More so Loolha’s childhood friends, my mamas; all of whom had now become school teachers or government servants. They would say, “So a barber is now taking on the role of a Rajput? God save our nation!” And when the news came that Loolha had quit the army, my mamas were gloating. Looks of “I-told-you-so” writ large on their faces. And how these faces fell when they heard of his travel from the North-East by flight. They could have written this off as yet another tall tale by Loolha, except that the story was much in detail and none of my mama’s had ever travelled on a flight- in fact none on the family had in those days of early 70’s- to even begin picking holes in Loolha’s story.


If there was anyone in nana’s family Loolha was close to it was mai, my mother. The eldest of the offspring in nana’s family and hence elder to all the mamas. Loolha would address her just as my mamas did with the informal but respectful didiya or bahiniya. To her he told the story about why he left the army, he wanted a white-collared job just like any of my mamas. And to this end, he camped in Jamshedpur where my mother and most of my mamas were located.

It was difficult for an undergraduate to get any job, least of all a white-collared on. And more so for someone with an army background. Loolha tried his best, but jobs were just not forthcoming.

Loolha would come home every evening to pour out his woes to his didiya. He would either sit respectfully on the floor or would pull out a broken chair which was kept aside in the house for people of his ilk, those of “lower” castes. He would narrate his travails of the day, sip on the cup of tea offered to him and go way after an hour or so. Sometimes his visit to his didiya would coincide with one of my mamas trips. Mamas would take pity on him and suggest pundits he could get attached with and earn a living playing the role of a traditional barber. Loolha, of course, would have none of it! He wanted a white-collared job.

Never to give up hope, he applied for a job as a security guard at the State Bank of India and he was selected, thanks to his fauji credentials. As luck would have it, he was posted in an SBI branch close to our house!


Over time he wrote a test for internal promotions and was selected as an assistant cashier. His joy knew no bounds and I remember that from his first salary he bought mai a saree. “I have now become a sahab, didiya! Did I not tell you I will become “something” in life!” My mamas were not too happy but they did not forget to congratulate him.

Loolha would come every other day and regale us with tales of his new-found sahab status.

Oo sahib hamra key salaam thokley ha! Unko loan chahiye tha na apney naye business ke liye.” (That officer saluted me, he wanted a loan for his new business)

“Oo sochey ki ham par dhauns jamaa lein. Boojhtey nahin hain oo, ham ta ab afsar ho gayein hain. Unka kapaar seedha kar diye ham, ham din bhar bato nahin kiye unsey.”

(He thought he could bully me. He does not know that I had become an officer. I straightened him out, I did not speak to him at all the whole day!”

And so-on-and-so-forth he continued. He obviously was enjoying his new found status.

And then he would spring a strange one on us, the kids. “Aap Loolha kion boltein hain huko, Chandrika mama boliye na!” (Why do you call me Loolha, call me Chandrika mama, please!)

There was some unwritten code in the family which prevented us from calling him mama.

The kids would refuse to oblige. Then he would revert to familiar lines. “Aap log bahut tej dimaag waaley hain. Aap badey hongey to sahab baneingey. Ham logon ko yaad kariiyega ki nahin?

You are all so intelligent. When you grow up you will become officers. Will you then remember us then?

He always addressed to us, the kids, as aap (raua, in Bhojpuri)


Over time, I left Jamshedpur to pursue higher studies. Loolha was largely forgotten but for those post-script kind of information bits in the letters from home. Like Loolha’s eldest son is getting married. Loolha has now become a grandfather etc. When I would visit home for the vacations, Loolha would show up and ask my advice on what his sons ought to be doing to further their career prospects.

And then one of those post-scripts in the letters from home informed me that Loolha had resigned from his job as a cashier in the bank he worked with. I did not give it a thought even for a moment. There were other things to contend with in the campus.

I discovered later that ambition of a good life got the better of Loolha’s senses. He wanted to have a better house in his village so he sent money “home” to his under-employed brothers for that. To be sure much of it was appropriated by them. The brothers’ kids needed to be married, who better to fund the weddings than Loolha who was now an officer in a great bank! Loolha volunteered cash again. Loolha had to educate his own children in schools and colleges across the country (after all a sahab’s sons needed the best of education, never mind their intellectual caliber or the financial resources at disposal. They had to match up to didiya’s sons). And the he had to marry them off.

As a consequence of all this Loolha progressively took on a huge loan. When the interest burden spun into an outward spiral, the only recourse left to him was to resign his job and use the provident fund money to repay his debts. He was pretty sure that with his accounts background he would get a good job in any of the private companies in the city. Maybe a job which paid him more than what he earned at the bank.

No luck for Loolha on that front. He continued to be jobless and continued to pile up loans, often from his favourite Didiya.


I rarely attend marriages in my extended family, but I made an exception for one of my favourite cousins acouple of years ago. That is where I met Loolha after many years. He had travelled with the other baraatis not as a nau, mind you, but as a proper baraati. All my mamas had gathered there as well. The baraatis were lazing around in the janwaaasa enjoying the hospitality of the bride’s family, catching up on news, eating and drinking and generally having a good time. Loolha was also hanging around watching the proceedings. Till one of my mamas decide to have some fun at the expense of Loolha.

Ai Loolha, will you do something?”

“Tell me”

“Just for this wedding, will you take charge of the maoor. Maoor is the Bhojpuri word for the unwieldy crown worn by the groom. It is the job of the nau to ensure that the maoor is held firmly on the groom’s head and when the maoor is not worn, then to keep it in his possession.

Loolha was being asked to the role of a nau, something which he stayed away from all his life. He did not quite know how to react. And then another mama joined in.

“I will give you Rs 500 for this.”

Before Loolha could utter anything, someone shouted. “This bada sahab has come all the way from Bangalore to Patna to attend this wedding. He is even carrying his fancy camera. He wants to shoot your pics.” It took me a moment to realize that the bada sahab being referred to was me.

And without any further ado, and before I could say anything, Loolha got on the job with the maoor.

That was the last time I met Loolha.


Loolha died last year of a heart attack even before he could turn sixty. Pride coupled with poverty did him in.

My Fav Childhood Mags: Parag and Nandan

December 1, 2010

We would get magazines in our house aplenty. Some my father would buy, some he would borrow from his college library. But when I was a kid, there were two magazines I looked forward to. Parag and Nandan. Lotpot happened when I was a little older, Chandamama (of “Vaitaaal and Vikram” fame) was too kiddish and Bal Bharati from the government publication house was too propaganda-ish.

There were some interesting “adult” publications as well. There was this “Dharmyug” which I would read only for its comic strip “Cartoon Kona Dhabbooji” by Abid Surti. Or for its occasional Cricket special, aka “Kriket Vishank”. In those times in the publishing world there was no formula more magical than having a cricket special. Ask Khushwant Singh, the then editor of the venerable “The Illustrated Weekly of India” from the same stable as Paraag and Dharmyug, and Dharmyug, the Bennet Coleman Group. Add to this another magazine from its stable, Dinman, off which I learnt the Urdu language. I have written about this earlier on my blog.

Nandan was more oriented towards “raja-and rani stories”, while Parag was a “modern-day” one. Nandan had stories about Raja Krishnadeva Raya’s courtier, Tenali Raman, while Parag had stories rooted in the then current times. Like the stories about Dadaji and Nanaji by Avatar Singh and the very poignant stories by Vidwan K. Narayanan. Avtar Singh was a sardar as his occasional pics in the mag confirmed while Vidwan K. Narayanan was a Tamilian as was evident from the address appended at the end of the story….“Gandhari Amma Koil Road..” A dead giveaway! It is a pity that both these writers died when they were young.

Parag had this cartoon strip called called “Chhotu-Lambu”, which was more often than not very hilarious!

There was a time in my pre-teens when Parag declared itself a magazine for the teens. And they began publishing articles which probed the lives of the teenagers. For example, a monthly story on the teenagers of the small town India. The series was called “Nagar mein ghoomta aainaa.” Or even stupid teenagerish stories. It was a task then to wrest the magazine away from the hands of my elder brother or sister who were both teenagers and hence had the power to shoo me off saying, “This mag. is not for kids, you go and read Nandan, Chandamama etc.”

I remember the mags would cost no more than sixty paise. Till the Indo-Pak war happened and a two paise “refugee relief” cess happened on all consumer products, including those consumed by kids, We now needed to pay sixty-two paise for our mags.

Over time- and I do not quite remember when- I grew out of my favourite magazines and dived straight into “adult” stuff like Mayapuri, Satyakatha, Manohar Kahaniyan. I thought I had had grown into an adult.

And now, when I think back, I wish I had the Parags and Nanadans close to me my bedside reading supply!