10. The Clever Daughter-in-law
A mother-in-law was a terrible tyrant. She gave her daughter-in-law no freedom. She saw to it that the young woman did all the housework, cleaned the cow shed, and carried water from the well. By this time it would already be evening. Mother and son would then eat by themselves, and give the daughter-in-law leftovers and stale rice. If the young woman so much as breathed a complaint, the mother-in-law would pick up the broomstick and rain blows on her head. If she wept, the old woman would let loose a barrage of abuse: “You slut, you hussy, you want to wash away our house in your tears and bring bad luck, you daughter of a whore,” and so on. The son was meek and kept his mouth shut.
In their backyard, a snake gourd plant grew and thrived; long gourds swung from it. Everyone's mouth watered when they saw the gourds. In season, the mother-in-law would make a big potful of delicious snake gourd talada. She and her son would eat most of it and give the daughter-in-law some leavings. Once, after several days of this semistarvation, the young woman was seized with a craving to eat a full meal of the delicious snake gourd talada.
One day, the daughter-in-law came home with her garbage basket and called her mother-in-law in a hurry.
“Why are you howling like a vixen? What's the matter with you?” shrieked the mother-in-law.
“I ran into Big Auntie's husband. He says Auntie isn't well and wants to see you. She is seriously ill and holding on to her life only to see you, he said. He wanted me to tell you that.”
“ Ayyo, my sister is dying. O Sister, what happened to you?” cried the mother-in-law, beating her breast. “Come in now, I'm sautéeing the talada. You take care of it. I'll go and see my sister,” she said, and left the house.
The daughter-in-law was quite excited. She made some more talada. She cooked all sorts of other dishes and served her husband a big meal. Then she poured all the talada into a big vessel, carried it on her waist, and went out as if she were going to get water for the house. She went straight to Goddess Kali's temple, entered it, and closed the door behind her. There was no one there. She sat there and ate an entire potful of talada. The Goddess, who was looking at all this, was astonished by the speed of her eating and the quantity she consumed. In her amazement, she put her right hand on her mouth. The daughter-in-law didn't notice any of this but continued to eat to her heart's content. When she was done, she belched a big belch of utter satisfaction, picked up the empty vessel, and went to the pond to wash it.
When she came home with a pot of water, the main door of her house was closed. Her mother-in-law had returned. She tapped on the door, which was soon opened by her angry mother-in-law. Sparks were flying from her eyes. She had a stick in her hand, and blows fell on the young woman's back and waist till she fell to the ground crying pitifully. “You daughter of a whore, how long have you waited to cheat me like this? You've gobbled up a pot full of talada like a buffalo, you dirty slut!” screamed the woman and rained some more blows. When the husband came home, he too joined in the punishment.
Meanwhile, the whole town was buzzing with the news that the Kali image in the temple now had its hand on its mouth. People from other towns also came to see this miracle, and everyone had their own interpretation. Everyone was scared that this was a bad sign. Something terrible was going to happen to the village, they thought, and shuddered. Worship and rituals were performed all over the village.
“Someone has polluted the Goddess. That's why she has shut her mouth with her hand. She is angry. There won't be any rain. No children will be born in this village anymore,” they said and were terror-stricken. They arranged festivals and sacrificed goats. But nothing seemed to please the Goddess. So the village elders sent the town crier through the area to announce a big reward to anyone who would make the Goddess remove her hand from her mouth. No one came forward.
The daughter-in-law watched all this and came to her mother-in-law one day and said, “Mother-in-law, tell the elders we'll get the Goddess to remove her hand from her mouth. I know how to do it.”
The mother-in-law was furious at first. “Look at your mug! She wants me to lose face in the village. She wants to act big as if she is a holy woman. What no one could do, she says she'll do. Fat chance!” she sneered. But the daughter-in-law persisted and finally convinced her that she knew something no one else knew.
On the appointed day, she took with her the broomstick and the garbage basket full of rubbish and went to the temple. She shut everyone out and closed the door behind her. She put down the basket in front of the Black Goddess and, brandishing her broomstick, challenged Kali: “You jealous female! What's it to you if I ate my snake gourd talada? Why do your eyes burn? If you'd only asked me, I'd have given you some. May your face burn, may your cheeks swell and explode, may your eyes sink and go blind! Will you take your hand off your mouth now or shall I beat you with my tamarind broomstick! Now!”
There was no answer. The daughter-in-law was now furious and looked like Kali the Black Goddess herself. She went up to the image and gave Kali's face several whacks with her broomstick. Kali whimpered and cried, “ Ayyo! ” She removed her hand from her mouth and the image now looked as it had always looked. “That's better!” muttered the daughter-in-law, picked up her basket and broom, and came home with the news that she had managed to get Kali to remove her hand from her mouth.
The whole village was agog with the news. Everyone ran to the temple to see for themselves and they couldn't believe their own eyes. They praised the daughter-in-law as the greatest of chaste wives (pativrata) whose virtue had given her miraculous powers. They gave her a big reward and many gifts.
Now the mother-in-law was terrified by this incident. She felt that her daughter-in-law had strange powers and would take revenge against her for all the terrible things she had done all these years. The young woman knew some kind of magic, and who knows what she will do?
On a dark New Moon day, in the dead of night, mother and son whispered to each other. She said to him, “Son, this one frightened even Kali the Mother Goddess and made her take her hand off her mouth. She won't let us go unharmed. We have beaten her, starved her, given her every kind of trouble. She'll take revenge. She'll finish us off. What shall we do?”
“I can't think of anything. You tell me,” said the cowardly son.
She said, “She's now asleep. We'll gather her up in her mat, take her to the fields, and burn her in the pit there. I'll get you a beautiful new bride.”
“All right, let's do it right now,” said he, and they both gagged her quickly and rolled her in her bedclothes and mat. She knew that they were going to do something awful to her but she mustered courage and lay still. They carried her to the pit in the field outside the village and hid her behind the bush while they went looking for twigs and firewood. As soon as they left, she rolled around and loosened the mat around her. She slid out of it, pulled at the string around her hands and tore it, took the gag from her mouth, and found a log nearby, which she wrapped in her bedclothes and mat. Then she walked a little distance, climbed a banyan tree, and hid herself in its branches.
Mother and son came hurrying back, spread twigs and branches all around the bundle in the mat, put logs over it, and lighted it. They covered it with dry straw. It burned with leaping flames as they watched it burn and burn. When the knots in the fuel crackled and burst, they said, “The bones, the bones are splitting.” When the log inside caught fire, its knot cracked in the flames and went off like a gunshot. They were satisfied that the skull had now exploded as it does in a cremation. It was dawn and they went home.
The daughter-in-law crouched in the branches. That night, four robbers came there to sit under the tree, to divide up the loot among themselves. They had just broken into a rich man's mansion and plundered jewelry, gold, and cash. As they sat down, they saw a fire burning at some distance. So one of them climbed the tree to see if anyone was near the fire. He came right up to the branch where the daughter-in-law was perched. When he saw someone sitting there, he said softly, “Who's there?” She boldly put out her hand, gently shut his mouth, and whispered, “Ssh, not so loud. I'm a celestial. I'm looking for a good handsome man. I'll marry you and make you rich beyond your dreams. Just be quiet!”
The robber couldn't believe what was happening to him. He thought he had reached heaven and seen the Great White Elephant descend from the sky. He held her hand and said, “Are you for real?” She said, “Hmm.” Then she slowly pulled out her little satchel of betel leaf and betel nut, gave him some, and put some into her own mouth. He came closer to kiss her. She turned away, saying, “Look, we're not married yet. But you can put your betel leaf into my mouth with your tongue. When I've eaten from your mouth, I'll be as good as your wedded wife. All right?”
He was beside himself with joy. He put out his tongue with the chewed betel leaf on it and brought it close to her mouth. She at once closed her teeth on his tongue powerfully and bit it off. Screaming with unbearable pain, he lost his grip and fell down. The robbers below ran helter-skelter in panic. The man who had fallen had lost his tongue and could only babble and blabber and spit blood, making noises like “ Da da dadadada…” as he too ran after his companions. His noises scared them even more and they fled faster, with him squealing behind them.
When dawn came, the daughter-in-law cautiously climbed down the tree and saw to her amazement lots of gold, jewelry, and money! She quickly bundled them all up and went straight home. When she tapped on the door, calling out, “Mother-in-law, Mother-in-law, please open the door!” the mother-in-law opened the door hesitantly, her face blanched with fear. There, in front of her, was her smiling daughter-in-law. The mother-in-law fainted at the sight. The daughter-in-law carried her into the hall, sprinkled cool water on her face, and revived her. Her son just stood there, not knowing what to think.
When she came to and opened her eyes, the mother-in-law asked her, “How did you…? How is it you are …?”
The daughter-in-law briskly replied, “After you cremated me, messengers from Yama, the god of death, took me to Him. His eyes were shooting flames like our Kali, our village goddess. As soon as He saw me, He said, ‘Send this one back. Her mother-in-law is a sinner. Bring her here and put the Iron Crow to work on her, to tear her to pieces with its beak. Dip her in cauldrons of boiling oil.’ He ranted on like that about you. I fell at His feet and begged Him, ‘Don't do this to my mother-in-law. She is really a very fine woman. Give me whatever punishment you wish. Please spare my mother-in-law.’ He was pleased, even smiled and said, ‘You can go now. We'll do as you say. But if your mother-in-law ever gives you any trouble, we'll drag her here. My messengers will always be watching.' Then He gave me all this gold and jewelry and money and sent me home. People say bad things about the god of death. But He was so good to me.”
The mother-in-law embraced her daughter-in-law with fear and trembling in her heart.
“ Ayyo, you're really the angel of this house. You've saved me from the jaws of death's messengers. From now on, I'll do as you say. Just forgive everything I've done to you. Will you, my darling daughter-in-law?” she said, touching the daughter-in-law's chin tenderly.
The daughter-in-law was now the boss in the house. Her mother-in-law and her husband followed her wishes and everyone was happy.
Types and Motifs
Type AT 1535 Ind., Mothers-in-law and Daughtersin-law. Many of the incidents of Type 1535, The Rich and The Poor Peasant, are transposed to mother-in-law and daughter-in-law stories in south India. The clever daughter-in-law is persecuted; often the mother-in-law even tries to murder her (S 51.1), but the young woman survives all and finally triumphs. In some tales, the daughter-in-law tricks the mother-in-law into taking her place in the sack that will be thrown into the river (Motif K 842) or, as in this tale, comes back from the forest with the robbers' loot (AT 1653) and terrifies the mother-in-law into submission.
In the present tale, two other independent tales are woven in: AT 956B, The Clever Maiden at Home Alone Kills the Robber(s), where she bites off his tongue, and a tale about a clever woman who subdues the god(dess). In the latter comic tale, told all over south India, the persecuted daughter-in-law takes a favorite dish to the Monkey God's (or Goddess's) temple, which is usually outside the village and often deserted, eats it all with relish while the god(dess) looks on longingly and puts his hand on his mouth or nose as a gesture of astonishment. The change in posture of the god's stone image causes a commotion, and the daughter-in-law undertakes (for a reward) to set it right. She either threatens to beat the god (or goddess) with a broomstick or, worse still, threatens to fart in his face. As she proceeds to make good her threat, the god sets himself right.
Such mother-in-law/daughter-in-law tales seem to be endemic to India, though they use motifs and episodes from well-known types with a new twist. These tales come in two forms depicting different power relations: 1) where the mother-in-law is powerful and cruel, and 2) where the daughter-in-law is cruel (Motif S 54) and tortures the older woman, as in “Ninga on My Palm” [No. 44 in this volume].
To my knowledge, in no mother-in-law tale do we find a father-in-law alive or a strong son. (See what happens in the rare instance when a strong son is present, as in “Ninga on My Palm”). The tales presuppose a rivalry between the women for the favor of a single male figure on whom they are dependent. Traditionally, all women were supposed to be dependent on one male or another. Manu, the ancient lawgiver, decrees in a notorious sentence: “A woman is not qualified for independence. In childhood, she should be dependent on a father, in marriage on a husband, in old age on a son.” Where only one male (the son) is present in the household, the scene is set for rivalry between mother and wife.
Atte, the Kannada word for mother-in-law, also means “father's sister, aunt,” indicating that the two are often the same in Dravidian kinship systems: a woman can marry her atte's, father's sister's, son. Such a situation makes for greater continuity and intimacy between the mother's house of one's childhood and the mother-in-law's. In north Indian households (with Indo-Aryan kinship systems), where such marriage alliances are not preferred, the discontinuity is great and daughters-in-law are initally aliens. Yet, in both the north and the south, family politics, women's dependency, and the gathering of power in the hands of aging mothers, especially mothers with sons, make the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law situation one of rivalry, bitterness, and violence. The news in contemporary Indian newspapers regarding bride burnings and the persecution of daughters-in-law, as well as the thousands of nostalgic folk songs sung by women about their mother's houses (tavarumane), are witness to this pattern.
Many of the European tales about cruel stepmothers tend to appear in India as mother-in-law tales. There are no stepfather tales in Hindu India, as widows are traditionally forbidden to marry again.
The deficiency of our present tale type indices is clearly seen in the absence of all references to mother-in-law tales, a widespread Indian genre. Many of the tales need to be reclassified in Indian terms.
[Motif S 51.1, Cruel mother-in-law plans death of daughter-in-law (IO) + AT 1653, The Robbers under the Tree. See AKR's notes on this tale in Ramanujan 1991a:328.]