I took Catherine Parkinson – mother-in-law of our daughter Nidhi – for cataract surgery. The receptionist, filling out various documents queried, “Who is with you?”
Catherine replied, “My daughter-in-law’s Dad.”
Realising that the receptionist did not get it, she said, “My son’s father-in-law.”
Catherines statement confused the receptionist more and she said, “I will write as family.”
What is my relationship with Catherine?
In Thamizh this relationship is well defined as சம்பந்தி (Sambanthi.) It is the same in Hindi, Bengali and Marathi – सम्बन्धी.
The term Sambanthi is derived from two words – samam or sama meaning equal and bandanam or bandan meaning relation.
Thus, the literal meaning can be assumed as relationship of equal status.
Sambanthi could also be considered a derivation from the Sanskrit word sambanda or sambandham meaning an alliance as a marriage is more of an alliance between the families of the bride and the groom.
The closest I could define our relationship in English was Co-in-Law, akin to a co-brother – a reciprocal relationship not related by blood between two persons.
Co-brother (plural co-brothers or co-brethren) could mean one’s colleague in some profession or trade. The word does not find a place in many English Dictionaries. In India, co-brother is used to describe the relationship between two men married to two blood sisters- one’s wife’s sister’s husband.
Sambandham in Malayalam, the word closest to sambanthi, has a different connotation.
In Kerala in certain communities, women had a special status as they followed a matriarchal system of inheritance of wealth and property. Some families follow this tradition even today though many have moved on to some form of patriarchal system. A lady from these communities could enter into cohabitation (live-in relationship) with men and this co-habitation was called as Sambandam. The male gave a white mundu (dhothi) to the lady. The acceptance of mundu was considered as consummation of the alliance and permission to enter the lady’s bedroom. Colloquially, today, Sambandaham denotes an alliance or a marriage.
Sambandham is now not practiced, but sambanthi continues, though without an English equivalent.