By Sangeetha Bhaskaran Jan. 28, 2020
If there’s one thing I’ve noticed about the women in my house, it’s that we’re yellers. Separately, we’re capable of following the basic rules of communication — we talk, listen, and understand. But together, we’re an orchestra of chaos, full of passive aggression, sarcasm, and emotional blackmail.
After my parents learnt that there was a boy I wanted to marry, my mother insisted I invite him home for dinner. He arrived on that dreaded day, wearing a crisp ironed shirt and sat stiffly at the edge of the sofa. My father gave him a polite but strained smile. To escape the awkwardness of their forced conversation, I went into the kitchen where my mother was vigorously rolling puris and my sister was stirring a vat of mutton korma.
When my mother abandoned the belan to look for another vessel, I took over, doling out continent-shaped puris while gossiping with my sister. Unfortunately, the combination of our giggles and my abysmal contribution to the meal aggravated the Vesuvius in my mother. She exploded:
— “YOU CALL THIS A PURI? I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU’RE GETTING MARRIED WHEN YOU AREN’T SERIOUS ABOUT ANYTHING!”
— ”JUST BECAUSE I CAN’T ROLL PURIS DOESN’T MEAN I’M USELESS MA!”
The argument continued as the oil spluttered in the background, my sister chiming in with bellows of her own. The poor fellow at the cusp of entering this clanking clan sat outside. We’d managed to keep a lot of this insanity under wraps until he’d been properly ensnared. But by the time my mother finally stepped out of the kitchen with an eager smile for her soon-to-be son-in-law, he couldn’t hide his alarm, unsure of whether his love for mutton was worth getting swept into the drama.
Sadly, it was only the beginning for him. Over the years he would learn how to tune us out and accept the hidden banshee in me who could easily be lured out with belittlements from my mother, sister, aunts and cousins. Like the patient man he is, he would take it all in his stride, on the one condition that he would never be stuck with all of us in a car together.
Here’s the thing about the women in my house — we’re yellers. Separately, we’re capable of following the basic rules of communication — we talk, listen, understand, and respond. But together, we’re an orchestra of chaos, playing our own instruments — passive aggression, sarcasm, emotional blackmail, and repressed anger. The only thing that unites us is our commitment to chewing each other’s brains and pooping out blame.
My husband’s family is the quieter yang to our boisterous yin.
The teeniest bit of irritation inevitably escalates into a mini-war zone where we fight to break new sound barriers. It’s like our lungs are prowling for a chance to leap into action, waiting for the brain to signal that it’s pissed off or excited. And then KABOOM. What we cannot achieve with words, we manage with volume. My father usually tries to inject zen-ness into our dynamics by saying, “Wait, wait…” or “Just listen”. But even he usually gives up and stares into space, or in some extreme cases, joins in.
My husband’s family is the quieter yang to our boisterous yin. They are so abnormally serene it disorients me. If someone takes far too long to get ready for dinner, they all just wait. Can you imagine? When my mother-in-law talks, I must strain my ears to hear her. Even their most terrible fights are handled with a certain quietude, it’s bizarre.
Despite possessing their own share of unresolved rubbish, they exercise a degree of civility in their daily interactions. My attempts to goad them into a state of fury have resulted in nothing more than firm, well-intentioned lectures. (Of course, there are a few delightful days when I manage to crack them enough to evoke a facial expression that says, “What does my son see in this woman?”)
While most studies attribute yelling to a sense of control or a desire to be heard when one feels ignored, I fear that for us it’s become as basic as breathing. We can yell about anything, not just stuff that makes us mad.
It doesn’t help that my parents now live in a two-storey house. On a Sunday morning while the rest of us try to savour a lazy morning by sleeping in late, the dhobiwala will arrive with a load of my father’s shirts, ignorant of the ruckus he’s about to unleash.
Mom: YOUR IRONED CLOTHES HAVE COME!
Dad: PAY FOR IT!
Dad: JUST PAY HIM!
Mom: I CAN’T HEAR YOU!
Dad: WAIT, I’M COMING DOWN!
Mom: WHY DON’T YOU COME DOWN?
It would be funnier if this wasn’t a weekly ritual.
It’s easier to cloak our vulnerability with irrational shouting than admit we feel let down, taken for granted, or disappointed.
I like to take comfort in knowing that we’re not the flag-bearers of this dreadful addiction. When I watch the Costanzas on Seinfeld, the Wolowitzes on The Big Bang Theory and my favourite Portokalos family from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, I laugh at their crazed shenanigans because it hits so close to home. Loud families are entertaining to watch, offering us a raw khichdi of frustration, joy, and misunderstanding.
If I were to don the therapist’s hat, I’d say that at the heart of our condition is the inability to express what we really feel. It’s easier to cloak our vulnerability with irrational shouting than admit we feel let down, taken for granted, or disappointed. Our impassioned battles help us save face and maintain this element of dysfunction. On the plus side, however, I can safely say that beneath all the possible brain damage that has resulted from yelling for decades is the relief of being able to be the most unreasonable versions of ourselves and still be forgiven.
Just last week my mother and sister got into an argument over a broken washing machine. As the simple issue of one person forgetting to dry the clothes escalated into accusations of laziness and inconsideration, my six-year-old daughter munching on some freshly cut pineapple asked, “‘Why are you guys shouting when you are so close to each other?”
Her innocuous question did the job of halting the scream-a-thon. I felt strangely proud of her wisdom, and myself for making her watch Daniel Tiger’s Neighbourhood, one of the most sensible shows for preschool children on managing emotions.
Now if only I could get myself and the rest of my family to watch it too.
An accountant turned writer who hoards handmade soaps and notebooks. Author of No time to moisturize, a parenting page & Half Boiled Indian, a collection of stories from the returning NRI perspective. Dogs complete me.