Little by little the mother-in-law became an ass—vara vara mâmi kaludai pôl ânâl̤, is a proverb among the Tamil̤s, applied to those who day by day go downwards in their progress in study, position, or life, and based on the following story:—
In a certain village their lived a Brâhmaṇ with his wife, mother, and mother-in-law. He was a very good man, and equally kind to all of them. His mother complained of nothing at his hands, but his wife was a very bad-tempered woman, and always troubled her mother-in-law by keeping her engaged in this work or that throughout the day, and giving her very little food in the evening. Owing to this the poor Brâhmaṇ’s mother was almost dying of misery. On the other hand, her own mother received very kind treatment, of course, at her daughter’s hands, but the husband was so completely ruled by his wife, that he had no strength of mind to oppose her ill-treatment of his mother.
One evening, just before sunset, the wife abused her mother-in-law with such fury, that the latter had to fly away to escape a thrashing. Full of misery she ran out of the village, but the sun had begun to set, and the darkness of night was fast overtaking her. So finding a ruined temple she entered it to pass the night there. It happened to be the abode of the village Kâlî (goddess), who used to come out every night at midnight to inspect her village. That night she perceived a woman—the mother of the poor Brâhmaṇ—lurking within her prâkâras (boundaries), and being a most benevolent Kâlî, called out to her, and asked her what made her so miserable that she should leave her home on such a dark night. The Brâhmaṇî told her story in a few words, and while she was speaking the cunning goddess was using her supernatural powers to see whether all she said was true or not, and finding it to be the truth, she thus replied in very soothing tones:—
“I pity your misery, mother, because your daughter-in-law troubles and vexes you thus when you have become old, and have no strength in your body. Now take this mango,” and taking a ripe one from out her waist-band, she gave it to the old Brâhmaṇî with a smiling face—“eat it, and you will soon become a young woman like your own daughter-in-law, and then she shall no longer trouble you.” Thus consoling the afflicted old woman, the kind-hearted Kâlî went away. The Brâhmaṇî lingered for the remainder of the night in the temple, and being a fond mother she did not like to eat the whole of the mango without giving a portion of it to her son.
Meanwhile, when her son returned home in the evening he found his mother absent, but his wife explained the matter to him, so as to throw the blame on the old woman, as she always did. As it was dark he had no chance of going out to search for her, so he waited for the daylight, and as soon as he saw the dawn, started to look for his mother. He had not walked far when to his joy he found her in the temple of Kâlî.
“How did you pass the cold night, my dearest mother?” said he. “What did you have for dinner? Wretch that I am to have got myself married to a cur. Forget all her faults, and return home.”
His mother shed tears of joy and sorrow, and related her previous night’s adventure, upon which he said:—
“Delay not even one nimisha (minute), but eat this fruit at once. I do not want any of it. Only if you become young and strong enough to stand that nasty cur’s troubles, well and good.”
So the mother ate up the divine fruit, and the son took her upon his shoulders and brought her home, on reaching which he placed her on the ground, when to his joy she was no longer an old woman, but a young girl of sixteen, and stronger than his own wife. The troublesome wife was now totally put down, and was powerless against so strong a mother-in-law.
She did not at all like the change, and having to give up her habits of bullying, and so she argued to herself thus:—
“This jade of a mother-in-law became young through the fruit of the Kâlî, why should not my mother also do the same, if I instruct her and send her to the same temple.”
So she instructed her mother as to the story she ought to give to the goddess and sent her there. Her old mother, agreeably to her daughter’s injunctions, went to the temple, and on meeting with the goddess at midnight, gave a false story that she was being greatly ill-treated by her daughter-in-law, though, in truth, she had nothing of the kind to complain of. The goddess perceived the lie through her divine powers, but pretending to pity her, gave her also a fruit. Her daughter had instructed her not to eat it till next morning, and till she saw her son-in-law.
As soon as morning approached, the poor hen-pecked Brâhmaṇ was ordered by his wife to go to the temple and fetch his mother-in-law, as he had some time back fetched away his mother. He accordingly went, and invited her to come home. She wanted him to eat part of the fruit, as she had been instructed, but he refused, and so she swallowed it all, fully expecting to become young again on reaching home. Meanwhile her son-in-law took her on his shoulders and returned home, expecting, as his former experience had taught him, to see his mother-in-law also turn into a young woman. Anxiety to see how the change came on over-came him, and half way he turned his head, and found such part of the burden on his shoulders as he could see, to be like parts of an ass, but he took this to be a mere preliminary stage towards youthful womanhood! Again he turned, and again he saw the same thing several times, and the more he looked the more his burden became like an ass, till at last when he reached home, his burden jumped down braying like an ass and ran away.
Thus the Kâlî, perceiving the evil intentions of the wife, disappointed her by turning her mother into an ass, but no one knew of it till she actually jumped down from the shoulders of her son-in-law.
This story is always cited as the explanation of the proverb quoted above—vara vara mâmi kaludai pôl ânâl—little by little the mother-in-law became an ass, to which is also commonly added ûr varumbôdu ûlaiyida talaippattal—and as she approached the village, she began to bray.
The Mother-in-Law became an Ass – Folklore of Southern India