Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Secret Society of Indian Family Dynamics

There are a lot of things that happen in our Indian family that I can't tell my Western friends or family. At times, I feel like I have one foot in each world - one in the Western world (my family, friends); and one in the desi world (my Indian family, friends). The desi world is pretty much my home life, and when I step out of the door, it's like I have landed in Canada. The only people that understand the complexities of both worlds are other people who are in fellow masala marriages, preferably with an Asian connection.

There is an unspoken code in desi families - thou shalt not tell Westerners about our family dynamics because they will think we are bat-shit crazy. This is because Westerners who live in a white-washed world always seem to view the world with a Western lens that borders on tunnel vision. (The same can be said about Indians who come abroad, and look at everything through an Indian lens, or an Indian moral code.) So, when they don't understand something - ie. that other cultures operate differently - Westerners will claim that it is morally wrong and could even go so far as to shame you for it. Of course, I am allowed to say this because I certainly catch myself doing this which is why husband-ji always gives me the "Indian Culture Excuse"!

My own Indian family is incredibly dramatic, probably more than most. And extremely passive aggressive. At any given moment, someone will be pissed off with another person for a ridiculous reason which is going to make great material for my bestselling novel. It's like a non-stop Indian serial that just goes on and on and on...until you get a brain aneurysm or a permanent migraine. Many of the ways our family operates seems very foreign to my Western friends/family that it is seen as "backward" when it is really just "different" and definitely more complex. If I tell any of our Indian family gossip to any Westerner, they will look at me like I am a mental patient.

I think I first noticed this when we were dating. Because our relationship was new and exciting, I wanted to tell everything about it to my Western friends. Coming to know that husband-ji was keeping our relationship secret from his family, all of my friends were appalled and encouraged me to dump him. The only person who understood that was my Punjabi best friend, who was also keeping her Uttarpradeshi boyfriend a secret from her parents for over three years.

During our wedding (wedding 2/3, just to clarify), our wedding officiant announced in her speech that we planned to live with both of our parents in the future, and nearly everyone in the audience gasped in horror. Living with parents - and especially in-laws - is seen in most of the Western world as worse than being in a fatal car accident. Especially now, when I tell people that my in-laws will be arriving soon, most people give me a look of despair, or are shocked that I'm actually really excited about it.

Another time, I decided to turn on the TV and watch Dr. Phil. The show was about "Mother-in-Law's from Hell" who overstep their boundaries. They gave a huge list of warning signs and personality traits for mother-in-law's that you need to watch out for. Which was basically a typical Indian mother-in-law!!! My mother-in-law is exactly like that and I love her so much, meanwhile people are desperately going on Dr. Phil for intense therapy over it!

It also comes up even in small conversations in passing, like the fact that we have to attend a Griha Pravesh at 7 in the morning. Western response: oh, the horror. So-and-so's sister-in-law stole gold from her. Oh, the horror. We might have to shave our baby's hair. Oh, the horror. We have to attend a funeral for 13 days. Oh, the horror. So-and-so is getting harassed for a dowry. Oh, the horror. My husband wants me to eat meat outside the home. Oh, the horror. I can't kiss my husband in public in India; or around any Indian people, for that matter. Oh, the horror. We have to consult an astrologer before we set a date for so-and-so. Oh, the horror. My kitchen is covered in mustard seeds. Oh, the horror. I slept in the same room as my mother-in-law for 3 months. Oh, the horror.

It is especially hard with friends who start dating Indians, because they will come to me with all these so-called horror stories, and my reaction is: actually, that's totally normal. It's like their Western friends have been so outraged by their stories that they have got them all riled up about it and encouraged them to give ultimatums to their partner. Western ultimatums, that is...

Most of the time, when I tell Westerners about anything to do with India or Indian family dynamics, it's like they give me this look of Alice in Wonderland looking down the rabbit hole.


I don't like keeping everything secret, of course, and I still do tell people about what's going on around the house lately. Because, I think, it's partly my responsibility. If Westerners do not understand Indian family dynamics it's because they haven't been exposed to it - and sometimes I'm their only connection to such a world. People should be able to have honest conversations about culture. But sometimes, especially when I'm emotionally drained or tired, I do keep my mouth shut and keep it on the down-low.

My dad, for one, is always perplexed with the Indian family drama. He can't even wrap his head around it. He definitely thinks everyone is crazy. Whenever husband-ji is on the phone with his relatives, my dad whispers to me, wide-eyed, "Maddy was yelling at his father again. I think they got into a serious argument." I have to tell him that when husband-ji speaks in Tamil, he just talks extremely loud and that he is not, in fact, yelling or angry! He can be talking about the weather and it will sound like he is bitching someone out on a loudspeaker. Luckily, my mum has become my one Western confidante who understands the complexities of Indian family dynamics partly because she used to live in India and Nepal, and we still do business in India. That, and she has a desi son-in-law!


What about you guys?
Do you confide in your Western friends/family about Indian family dynamics?
Please share your experiences...


  1. This post was pretty funny. I can relate to most of them. If most of the things mentioned don't bother you, you have BIG heart! Your husband is lucky to land up with a wife like you.

  2. Oh the never ending Desi family drama.
    I bet my Kashmiri clan is just as "dramatic" as your Tamil tribe.
    Kashmiri sounds like Tamil too, it's hard to tell if they're talking about the weather or if they're going to kill each other.
    One of my sister-in-laws & her daughter won't even eat in the same room with another sister-in-law because supposedly "she puts on airs."
    I have to say I was horrified as an American when I was first married to learn of the actual dynamics of Desi family drama- just absolutely saying the meanest, nastiest, cruelest things about each other which are mostly wild exaggerations or outright lies. NOTHING was off limits, NO BOUNDARIES WHATSOEVER. Then being the wife of the youngest son I was initially subjected to the "choti bahu" (literally little wife meaning wife with no status) for a full 2 years. Nothing was spared- even my deceased parents were routinely insulted by certain in laws, my body openly criticized, my religious beliefs deemed dubious, some in laws even told my husband he should leave me- it just went way past ridiculous. I eventually chose to just ignore it & those who persisted in these behaviors were eventually banned from our lives.
    I'm convinced most of these tantrums, constant fighting, bickering, backbiting, and accusations in Desi families is simply "time pass" for amusement in their dull & dreary lives. I do not participate in their Desi BS & have told them I don't appreciate this asinine aspect of their culture. After about 3 yrs they finally learned that I won't react or respond in kind & they will be shown the door if I hear anymore of their childish crap. It helps that they live in a different country, I'm not sure if I could stand living in the same city with them. (I have to say my mother-in-law & father-in-law do NOT participate in this crap & try in vain to discourage it.)

    I only talk about these Desi family dynamics online with other Westerners in intercultural relationships because none of my Western friends & family would understand the utter dumbassery that goes on.

    1. I'm convinced most of these tantrums, constant fighting, bickering, backbiting, and accusations in Desi families is simply "time pass" for amusement in their dull & dreary lives.
      You couldn't have been more right. At first I thought it was the class difference. You know there's actually a difference between upper middle class, middle class and lower middle class families and hence the uneducated/unemployed lot only involved in these family dramas was my first observation. How wrong I was! It doesn't matter if they were a doctor or engineer or a homemaker, family drama only makes their lives complete. Just like you many of my poor cousins are being subjected to the above mentioned nasty family dynamics which has made their lives hell. I once asked my cousin why she puts up with all that, and she says her circumstances are different and I won't understand. She's right, I won't and don't even want to understand all this bull shit.I don't even bother attending any family events, even if I do I stay very very far away from such poisonous people.

    2. Anon,
      You are sooo right!
      My Desi in laws are doctors, engineers, university professors, & gov't officials. Supposedly "educated" people who should know better. But they still do Desi drama. It's like the national sport.

  3. Ha ha ha. I don't go into explanations unless I have time. On the other hand, I am hardly involved in the extended family drama and know very little of this stuff and I never was interested.

    As for loud talking, southern Europeans also talk loudly, sometimes more loudly than many Indians I know, so that is not a culture shock to my husband :P

  4. Hi, I started reading your blog about a week back and I absolutely love it! I myself married a man from Kerala last september, the funny part is that my husband's brother, who is my dear friend, fixed us up so I guess you can say I got into an arranged marriage :D Anyway, lovely to read and see that I'm not the only one dealing with the ups and downs in an interracial marriage, especially since you've got a man from south part of India, like myself. Looking forward to read more of your posts! :)

  5. Even within indian families the dynamics can be super confusing. For one, my family is super nuclear and we have barely 4 close families and few here and there extended family while my husbands is a super huge army and everybody is married to someone who is somehow a distant relative making matters even more confusing. Since our maternal languages are different (iam tamil and he speaks telugu) i can understand telugu but not if someone speaks real fast which most older folks do i am clueless after a point and just nod along. :P My MIL teases me that i look like a scared cat amidst the crowd ;) we speak hindi with each other while husband and i speak english and to my SIL its english. My MIL sometimes tells me some story about somebody and i have to later check with my husband if the person in my head is the same as this one.And 1 out of 20 times iam right may be or i would like to think iam (as husband himself is sometimes clueless). the friends and family together are a battalion of sorts and there are some who havent seen you since you were 5 yrs old and in your 30s expect that you spot who they are . if you dont then they take offense and go tell everybody around how ungrateful you are...

  6. Super funny! I can't imagine the culture shock :P We already have a movie about culture difference just between North and South (2 states), and you are talking about worlds apart! Definitely a movie in the making! Ping Karan Johar quick :D

  7. Hi,

    Congratulations! Your blog post was featured in the Spicy Saturday Picks edition on May 14, 2016 at BlogAdda.

    Please find it here:

  8. Before my MIL came We got advice from one of my SIL who isn't married but is very understanding of how this will be a huge change for us and for me in particular. I can't really vent or explain my frustrations to her as I'm talking about her mother. When I have shared things like frustrations I have or when I vent I have been going to my sisters and mother for support but they just don't get it and then I feel worse because they start to only hear the negative things instead of the positive. I'm learning what to share. In a strange way at first I started feeling like I am so unbelievably alone and after reading this blog, I know exactly where I can share things and have people understand me.


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