Locking Up the Bahu, Praying for a “Fair” Heir: The Royal Family Sounds Like It Stepped Out of a Saas-Bahu Show

Social Commentary

Locking Up the Bahu, Praying for a “Fair” Heir: The Royal Family Sounds Like It Stepped Out of a Saas-Bahu Show

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

Today is International Women’s Day, and our news feeds are saturated with cheesy music videos, sentimental ad films, and posts about inspirational women in history. But despite the best efforts of advertising and marketing professionals around the world, only one woman has managed to break the internet: Estranged royal Meghan Markle, who gave a tell-all interview to Oprah Winfrey.

Markle, formerly the star of popular TV show Suits, came to global attention when she started dating Prince Harry, who is currently sixth in line to the throne. After years of playboy hijinks and high-society English girlfriends, Harry finally chose a partner – a bi-racial American with an independent career who was previously married — or in other words, an unsuitable candidate to join the infamously stodgy Royal family. (After all, the last time someone married an American divorcee, he was forced to abdicate and pass the throne to his brother, leading to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.)

Fans of The Crown will know how the Firm, as the network of royal officials are called, can be unrelenting when it comes to the family’s image. But even if you have never seen the historical drama series, the strictures on every member’s personal life, all because “log kya kahenge”, will be familiar to any Indian who has grown up in a joint family or watched a saas-bahu serial. Arranged marriages, brother turning on brother, sister betraying sister, cheating husbands, alcoholic maasis — the drama is never-ending and at times, beggars belief.

Based on the Oprah interview, the story of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex could easily be remade for our Indian soaps. UK tabloids hounded the couple mercilessly, with many of them painting Markle as a devious outsider who manipulated the prince into marriage in her quest for fame. She faced racist backlash, was attacked for her choice of clothes, and even scrutinised for the way she crossed her legs. When the couple decided to step back from their roles as senior members of the royal family, the press which dubbed it “Megxit”, blamed the duchess for the divide. There was no respite even when the couple were expecting their first child Archie and they hit out at Markle for cradling her baby bump. With no support from the Royal Family, the couple decided to first move to Canada, which is a part of the Commonwealth and where the couple met. But after their security was suddenly stripped, they eventually moved to the US, purportedly to escape the glare of the media spotlight.

UK tabloids hounded the couple mercilessly, with many of them painting Markle as a devious outsider who manipulated the prince into marriage in her quest for fame.

If the British press is to be believed, Harry and Meghan who “blindsided” the Queen are the villains in the Royal saga. However, they have responded to the allegations and rumours with their side of the story in the much-anticipated Oprah interview. Meghan, who is friends with the media mogul, came on the show first to share her experience of entering the toxic world of the Royals. She describes how the racist and vitriolic media coverage was nonstop, and the institution refused to stand up for her. One explosive headline had said that Markle was such a bridezilla that she reduced sister-in-law Catharine, Duchess of Cambridge, to tears. Markle reveals to Oprah that it was actually Kate who made her cry and later apologised for it, but that she realised when she read the twisted account in the papers that she would not be “protected by the family”.

So negative was the press coverage, Markle claims, that palace officials tried to keep her out of the public eye to avoid damaging the monarchy’s reputation. She was stuck at home and battling depression, to the point where she became suicidal. But although senior royals William and Kate have taken up mental health as a cause, their sister-in-law’s pleas for help went ignored by the royal human resources. “There’s nothing we can do to protect you, because you’re not a paid employee of the institution,” is what Markle claims she was told. She explained to Oprah that her passport and driver’s licence were taken from her when she had joined the family, so she was essentially “trapped” and unable to seek out care for herself.

Harry’s side of the story is also distressing, with the family cutting him off financially and a heartless father refusing to pick up his calls. “I feel really let down,” Harry said, adding that he was expecting more support from his father, who has had a painful past with the media.

The only difference between Markle and the many beleaguered bahus of Indian TV is that her husband actually came to her defence.

The squabble between badi bahu and choti bahu, the locking up of the new bahu inside the house, the rumour mills portraying Markle as a calculating vamp, the estrangement of Prince Harry from his father, and Harry falling on his late mother’s inheritance… you might wonder if we are talking about the British monarchy or a K-serial scripted by Ekta Kapoor. But perhaps the most regressive saas-bahu moment came in one bombshell revelation: a member of the family had fretted about what colour Archie’s skin would be while Markle was still pregnant. Although neither Markle nor Harry would reveal who made the remark, the person in question would slay the role of the padoswali aunty who prays that raja beta will be fair and handsome.

Markle’s story, then, is not as much a fairytale about a girl finding her Prince Charming, as it is a pretty disturbing season of Pavitra Rishta. Perhaps the only difference between Markle and the many beleaguered bahus of Indian TV is that her husband actually came to her defence, flying in the face of royal protocol and diktat to support his wife. In the US, the couple has found their “happy ending” — at least until Prince William shows up to spoil everything, after having plastic surgery to disguise himself. Watch this space for updates.

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