Archive for May 29th, 2013

May 29, 2013

Jaishree Misra (ed), Of Mothers and Others

An anthology whose proceeds go to Save the Children. Am I cheating if I include this as a South Asian Women Writers book? There is only one man (Jai Arjun Singh) in it.

I quite enjoyed this collection, which I wrote about for this week’s column. The quality of the individual pieces was sometimes uneven, but those I liked, I liked very much. Nisha Susan’s “Missed Call” is excellent, as is Anita Roy’s “Eating Baby”. Urvashi Butalia’s lovely, nuanced piece on not having children can also be read here. Jai Arjun Singh’s piece contains the line “yeh machli meri ma hai” along with other great moments in Bollywood Ma-dom.



I forget Mother’s Day every year until my social media timelines explode first with platitudes about how wonderful people’s mothers (most of whom don’t use the internet very much) are, then with people pointing out that the first set of people should be telling this to their mothers, rather than the world. (My mother, luckily, forgets Mother’s Day until I remind her).

The symbol of the mother is something to which we as a culture ascribe considerable value. Mothers are regularly presented to us in cinema and literature as devoted, self-effacing, angelic. Celebrities claim in interviews that their mothers are their best friends or heroes. Advertising depicts them constantly worried about whether they’re raising their children—are they buying the best toothpaste/detergent/malt-based drink to help their children get ahead in life? Our veneration of motherhood makes “ma” (or “yo’ mama”) an intrinsic part of our rich vocabulary of swear-words and curses, across a variety of languages. Motherhood means so many things that there’s often very little room left for the actual human beings who fill that position.

In Of Mothers and Others, a collection of short stories, essays and poems edited by Jaishree Misra, over and over we see women who defy, struggle with, or otherwise find limiting this image of motherhood. Prabha Walker’s “The Slap Flies Off My Hand” features a mother whose unhappy married life resolves itself in physical abuse of her child. Nisha Susan’s short story “Missed Call” has a mother whose difficult relationship with her daughter is rooted in genuine dislike. In “Determination” Smriti Lamech describes the reaction of a woman hoping for a daughter to the revelation that her child might not be all that she imagines. Sometimes motherhood drives women to do awful things, as is the case in Sarita Mandanna’s “The Gardener’s Daughter” and Kishwar Desai’s “The Devi Makers”. The “business” of motherhood is explored in “’Shake her, She Is Like The Tree That Grows Money!’” by Sarojini N. and Vrinda Marwah, an essay exploring surrogacy in India. Shalini Sinha writes movingly of her relationships both with her child and her own mother.

The “others” of the title are represented as well. Shalini Sinha’s “Amma And Her Beta” and Bulbul Sharma’s slightly saccharine “A Grandmother at Large” both explore the relationship between grandparent and grandchild. Urvashi Butalia discusses her own choice not to have children in an essay that affirms the many forms that motherhood (and childlessness) can take.

Of Mothers and Others often tries to unravel some of our glibly shallow portrayals of motherhood by displaying the darker sides it can have. Children who have died or disappeared, as in Manju Kapur’s  “Name: Amba Dalmia” and Humra Quraishi’s “The State Can’t Snatch Away Our Children”; children suffering through poverty or illness (Shabana Azmi’s introduction to the book discusses the shocking state of healthcare for mothers and children, a death toll she describes as the equivalent of 400 plane crashes per year). Children adopted or born to surrogate mothers. There is a whole range of families here, and none of them are as blandly immune to unhappiness as the two-parent, two-child unit who appear in televised ads.

But there are also moments of joy. Such as the very funny “Eating Baby”, in which Anita Roy describes the process by which feeding her young son began to take over her life.  Jai Arjun Singh’s “Milky Ways” discusses the figure of the mother in such classic Hindi films as Ajooba (in which Amitabh Bachchan is nurtured by a dolphin) and Disco Dancer.

“There are all kinds of mothers”, says Shashi Deshpande in her essay here; “loving mothers as well as unfeeling ones, kind mothers as well as cruel ones, protective mothers as well as possessive ones. The final truth is that we bring ourselves into all our relationships”. Of Mothers and Others’ great achievement is in its constant insistence that we first see its mothers (and its others) as themselves.