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Hari's mom, a.k.a. Koly's mother-in-law, goes by Sass most of the time. And while sass is technically the Hindi word for mother-in law, it also describes Mama Mehta's personality really well. She earns her name in spades.
Mrs. Mehta is one feisty chick, and she takes absolutely zero rubbish from anybody. Just look at how Koly describes her marriage to Mr. Mehta:
As in everything, Hari's baap allowed his wife to make the decision. (2.53)
Yup, this lady runs the show. This is an even bigger deal than it might initially seem like, though, because mostly we're told about how women are considered less than men. Mrs. Mehta is one big exception—this lady clearly never got that memo. Or if she did, she probably tore it up pronto.
Mrs. Mehta doesn't care that she's in a culture that thinks women belong in the home doing chores. Sure, she can make a curry like nobody's business, but she also makes the decisions, especially when it comes to her son. Mrs. Mehta doesn't listen to the doc when he says the trip to the Ganges will be too much for sick Hari—this lady is convinced she knows best.
Unfortunately, though, the doc is right and Hari dies on the trip. This is the one time we really feel for Mrs. Mehta, and (to her credit) Koly does, too. She tells us:
I turned to Sass, and we held on to each other. We were both crying. If she wished me gone, or I believed her unkind, neither of us thought of such things now. All that was in our minds was our worry over Hari. (3.28)
Koly is devastated because she lost her husband so soon, but his mom is really broken up. Yes, she's crying, and yes, her son just died so duh she's sad. But when she forgets to poke and pick at Koly and instead shares her misery with our main girl, well, that makes it clear just how devastated Mrs. Mehta is. Pretty much every other time she interacts with Koly it's to point out her faults, so that she sets this aside makes it clear she's overcome with grief.
Looks like despite running the show all the time, Mrs. Mehta has some softness in her heart after all. She just hides it really freaking well.
The moment of bonding doesn't last long, though, and as soon as they get home, Mrs. Mehta is back to barking orders at Koly. Even when Koly tries to behave, she gets reprimanded for one thing or another. Mrs. Mehta is many things, but fair in her treatment of Koly is decidedly not one of them. And if anyone is on the fence about Koly's mother-in-law, one trip to Vrindavan changes all that. When they are planning their journey, Mrs. Mehta says:
"I have a treat for you. We will stop at Vrindavan on our way to Delhi. It is a holy city with a great many temples. It would be well for us to make a pilgrimage before beginning our new lives." (7.25)
This is such a big lie that Mrs. Mehta's pants should literally burst into flames as soon as she speaks it. Well, unless you count ditching Koly in the middle of nowhere with no place to stay a surprise… Mrs. Mehta is horrible to Koly, but because of this, she indirectly also teaches her a lot about how to grow up and be herself. Koly simply has to when she's dumped in the city of widows. And while we don't think this is Mrs. Mehta's intent—we're pretty confident she hopes the girl won't do so well by herself—that Koly grows anyway is undeniable. So there, Sass.