BHOPAL, India – None of India’s immensely popular soap operas are complete without a good and angry family feud. Television serials like Kutumb focus on traditional Indian family relationships within the sometimes conflicting, usually contentious, context a modern, global India. With class issues, jealousies, money problems and career woes, these dramas present today’s nuclear family as on the verge of explosion. Almost always at the center, is that time-old troublemaker – the mother-in-law.
Observers say the soaps and other aspects of popular culture reflect a society in intense transition, and a widening generation gap that’s disrupting the traditional family nexus. The Indian constitution grants equal rights, but strong patriarchal traditions
persist, and women’s lives are shaped by customs that are centuries old. There is fear in the minds of many young couples that the arrival of a new bride will create rifts among family members, specifically with the mother-in-law, as the newcomer may have insufficient knowledge and respect for Indian culture and family traditions.
Enter the world’s only institute for ideal wives. The Manju Sanskar Kendra (MSK), on the outskirts of Bophal in the Central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, has for 20 years undertaken the task of removing such worries and instructing young girls in the customs believed to be essential for a successful married life. The MSK provides a training course, complete with textbooks and three months of daily instruction, for women to become happy, efficient wives and ideal daughters-in-law. Bhau Aildas Hemnani, the 68-year-old director of the center, told that he believes it is the only school of its kind on earth.
"Men build society and women build homes," Hemnani, a retired local government officer who founded the MSK to thwart the "constant bickering" he heard around him, once declared to a journalist. He claims that more than 4,500 young women have graduated from the MSK, most from southern India, but many from distant areas and some from overseas. The school is supported by community donations totaling some 35,000 rupees (US$$888) per month and doesn’t bother to advertise. According to Hemnani, the school’s popularity is generated by reputation and word of mouth. In 1994, the MSK upgraded to a permanent building, and expanded its faculty to two, when Mumbai-based stockbroker Sukhram Das Mehtani donated one million rupees on the condition the school be named for his daughter who died before she was 18. Grants from wealthy businessmen are not uncommon, Hemnani says.
Young women of marriageable age arrive early in the morning six days a week. After listening to sermons and a session of singing bhajans (religious songs), the girls begin instruction in cooking, sewing and praying. Students spend the first month learning Sikh and Hindu scriptures, the second month has lessons in naturopathy and the third is entirely dedicated to domestic life
A typical class averages around 20 girls who pursue a curriculum of "wifely manners" that includes, among other things, how to brush one’s teeth in the in-law’s house, how to eat, and how to control one’s sex drive in a family home with limited private space. As the Times of India reported in 2005, at the MSK the seven vows of saath pheras are passed on as lifelong commandments, that an ideal wife must have five "ornaments" – coyness in her eyes, a smile on her face, sweetness in her speech, love in her heart and a hand that can work very hard.
Hemnani has authored three textbooks and distributes them free to his students. In his book (Practical Married Life), Hemnani writes "Science has proved that when menstruating women touch leaves and plants they wilt and decay faster."
Another passage reads, "Too much sex is the cause of diabetes and tuberculosis among men." Hemnani goes on to stress abstinence as the most proper contraceptive tactic and advises women to engage in sex only for procreation. During pregnancy it is not advised to for women to look at blind, disabled, deaf or "unattractive" people.
The books are dotted with such nonsense. Similar remarks have been laughed-off by women’s rights groups and social activists, many who call the MSK "ridiculous", anti-women and regressive. "We don’t have any objection if the center starts teaching men to be an ideal husband, father or son. It would be a step towards building a balanced society. Why only train girls to be submissive?" wondered Sandhya Shelly, state president of the All India Democratic Women’s Association in a 2003 press statement.
An entire textbook chapter is dedicated to dealing with the mother-in-law. The book reads, "If she is short-tempered, greedy and haughty, you can still win her over with your docile and polite behavior. Along with your patience and soft behavior, you should pray to God for a change in her behavior. Whenever possible take your mother-in-law out for religious deliberations and sing holy bhajans to purify her heart."
Hemnan is a believer. He told , "These girls will be ideal brides when they reach the house of their in-laws. A good bride can bring happiness and prosperity in the family of their husbands by fulfilling her duties and respecting the Indian traditions. We try to check the break-ups in the Indian families and develop qualities of forbearance and graciousness in girls."
Just ask Asha Wadhwani, a school teacher, who joined the MSK on the advice of her friend. She’s very pleased with the course and believes it’s given her a better understanding of cultural differences.
"All that is required in a girl’s personality is taught here," Wadhwani said. "I teach English and see that the children are very much impressed by the Western culture. Such a situation leads to discords. The children only begin to learn and respect Indian traditions and cultures if they are told about [them]."
Sushma, another MSK alumnus, agrees. "Now I’m confident that I’ll not commit any mistake after marriage. If there is Western atmosphere in the home of in-laws then I’ll first try to understand their viewpoint. I’ll accept whatever I’ll feel is right. I shall also try to explain to them politely whatever education I’ve received here," she said.
Classmate Anamika Phoolwani said that only after coming to the center did she realized the grave mistakes she was making before her elders.
"It was my viewpoint before coming to this center that I must not do domestic work since I [have] a job. But after receiving the training here I feel that my thinking was wrong," she said.
And MSK graduate Anupama witnessed big personal changes. "I live in my [in-laws] family. I’ve witnessed a big change in myself after visiting this center," she said. "I find that the qualities of mercy, compassion and forgiveness have added to the charm in my personality."
Phoolwani says that by learning to give love and respect to her mother-in-law domestic chores are now handled easily between them. "Egoism leads to quarrels between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. But there are some responsibilities, which must be fulfilled after the marriage. Now my mother-in-law is very happy with me."
Despite the endorsements, many believe the teachings of the MSK to be anachronistic, baseless and utterly out of touch with modern realities. Social activist Sadhna Karnik told that the school misses miserably on its approach to lowering domestic violence and the infamous "dowry deaths" that have been publicized in India recently. "Such a school should be shut down," she said.
Others, such as local activist Vijya Pathak, say the MSK has no value and hinders social integration for many rural and uneducated young women. "It is my view that school, and schools like it, are of no use for girls. It’s up to them to decide how they want to lead their life," she said.