Soon after his swearing-in ceremony, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took to Twitter.
“Earlier in the evening in my conversation with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif he shared some very emotional things.”
“Nawaz Sharif ji told me that he stays in Islamabad but goes to meet his Mother once a week.”
“This time when he was sitting with his Mother he saw visuals on TV of my Mother offering me sweets”.
“The visuals touched both Nawaz Sharif ji and his Mother. He told me that after seeing the visuals his Mother got very emotional.”
A day later, it was revealed that Modi had gifted a pashmina shawl to Sharif’s mother. And on June 5, Modi updated his followers on the next scene in this heartwarming saga, “Nawaz Sharif ji has sent a wonderful white sari for my Mother. I am really grateful to him and will send it to my Mother soon.”
I hate to be the one to throw cold water on this warm, fuzzy, good neighbourly exchange, but I am afraid the question has to be raised. What is with South Asian men and their mothers? Not only does Modi use the word ‘emotional’ twice (imagine the mockery if Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel had gone on and on like this) but each time he writes mother, it is Mother. The desi worship of mothers is so intense that it can be nothing else but Mother. Cow is our Mother. Ganges is our Mother.
This overt glorification of mothers is at the root of the problem this country has with its women. We save so much of our adoration and adulation for mothers that it is fairly impossible to even respect other women — those who aren’t mothers. And it is convenient too, this acute focus on only one kind of woman. The more we can sing the virtues of motherhood, the easier it is to limit women to that one ambition. And what are the venerated virtues of Indian mothers? They are the ‘ultimate sacrificers’, the providers of ‘unconditional love’. The Indian mother — so generous in her love and so selfless in her living — is an emotion so intense that we can only find in ourselves enough elucidation to call her Mother India.
Of course, as popular culture goes, there is no better representation of Mother India than Mother India. Released in 1957 and still revered 57 years later, Nargis Dutt’s Radha is the mother for whom no sacrifice is too small when it comes to raising her two sons. She demonstrates the highest of moral values and is the epitome of pure, unadulterated love. Yet, the book from which the title of the movie came saw no such virtue.
Katherine Mayo’s Mother India, published 30 years before the movie, was a polemic attacking society, caste and gender norms in India. A historian and researcher, Mayo came to India, “to see what a volunteer unsubsidised, uncommitted, and unattached, could observe of common things in daily human life.” What she observed were the injustices of caste, gender and illiteracy. In the chapter titled ‘Mother India’, Mayo does not see the sacrifice and purity of an Indian mother’s love. Instead, what she sees are the unsanitary and inhumane conditions in which Indian mothers — some only 13 years old — give birth to their children.
“The expectant mother makes no preparations for the baby’s coming — such as the getting ready of little garments. This would be taking dangerously for granted the favour of the gods. But she may and does toss into a shed or into a small dark chamber whatever soiled and disreputable rags, incapable of further use, fall from the hands of the household during the year.
"And it is into this evil-smelling rubbish-hole that the young wife creeps when her hour is come upon her. ‘Unclean’ she is, in her pain — unclean whatever she touches, and fit thereafter only to be destroyed. In the name of thrift, therefore, give her about her only the unclean and the worthless, whether human or inanimate. If there be a broken-legged, ragged string-cot, let her have that to lie upon; it can be saved in that same black chamber for the next to need it. Otherwise, make her a little support of cow-dung or of stones, on the bare earthen floor. And let no one waste effort in sweeping or dusting or washing the place till this occasion be over,” Mayo wrote.
While Mayo earned India’s wrath with Gandhi calling her book “the report of a drain inspector sent out with the one purpose of opening and examining the drains of the country to be reported upon,” it is fair to say that the makeover of Mother India began as a reaction to her work. And so successful has this makeover been, that for a woman to matter in India, she has to be a mother. Other women are far too easily dispensable from public consciousness. So much so, that the genesis of India’s gender crisis is this oedipal obsession its men have with their mothers.
For how else would you explain the absence of any words about the two other women who were in the news this fortnight? The cousins from Badaun who were raped, murdered and hung from a mango tree; their heads bowed, their bodies limp. They don’t invoke in us the warm fuzziness of a pashmina wrapped grandmother or a beaming octogenarian in widow’s whites. They don’t seek our admiration, command our respect or invoke any empathy. They aren’t our Mothers.
Let’s rationalise Mother to mother. It’s time.
(Veena Venugopal is editor BLink and author of The Mother-in-Law . Follow her on Twitter >@veenavenugopal )