Until fairly recently, it seemed as though all books about becoming a mother fell neatly into two categories: those that tell you ‘how to’, and those tell you why you shouldn’t in the first place. Spearheaded by theorists such as Simone de Beauvoir, first-wave feminism characterised motherhood as an ‘inferior animal activity’, ‘the biological curse of femininity’. In the battle of the sexes, mothers were the turncoats.
Nowadays, the titles (and especially subtitles) on Amazon tell a different story: The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World is Still the Least Valued, The Mask of Motherhood: How Becoming a Mother Changes Our Lives and Why We Never Talk About It, The 7 Stages of Motherhood: Loving Your Life Without Losing Your Mind, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety – you get the picture.
If there’s one thing that motherhood teaches you it is the impossibility of absolutes. More than any other human experience, motherhood is about duality: it’s virtually the definition of the divided self. In her seminal work, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, novelist Rachel Cusk writes that “birth is not merely that which divides women from men: it also divides women from themselves, so that a woman’s understanding of what it is to exist is profoundly changed…”
Rinki Bhattacharya’s new collection divided into three sections: ‘Our Mothers’, ‘Ourselves’ and ‘Our Children’. This simple, and very effective structure, has a curious over all effect of seeing the biological clock run backwards. We start with death beds and end up with cradles.
Five of the eight authors in the first section talk about their mothers’ death, and the poignant reversal of roles – when the mother becomes a child to the daughter – that precedes it. The sacrifices made by mothers for their children is a double-edged sword whose legacy is not only emancipation but also guilt. Where Bharati Ray rails against it (“She lived like a shadow of my father”), Maitreyi Chatterji celebrates it: “This is not only one daughter’s emotional tribute to her mother but a tribute to all the mothers who give up their todays to create better tomorrows for us.”
The second section includes essays by those, like Dhiruben Patel, who have not given birth, but have nevertheless been mothers. She writes, movingly, that “love for a child heightens one’s perceptions and understanding to such a level that one acquires a sixth sense and a third eye.” Others paint a bleaker picture. In her outstanding essay, Shashi Deshpande rails against the impossible idealization of Indian Motherhood in which “all attributes are squeezed out of her, so that she is shorn of… even humanhood, leaving behind nothing but motherhood.”
Deepa Gahlot’s is the only essay which against motherhood, and I found myself rueing the missed opportunity for a more serious, hard-edged voice to articulate this position. Her characterisation of mothers as ‘caged birds’ who “lack the courage to be free,” I found both simplistic and (though she strongly refutes the charge), juvenile.
For a book about motherhood, it is ironic that the strongest piece in the book is about its opposite. Anwesha Arya’s takes her cue from the opening line of Anne Sexton’s poem ‘The Abortion’: “Somebody who should’ve been born is gone.” It is rare enough that silence shrouding ‘the Act’ (as it is euphemistically called) is broken; rarer still that the scars it leaves are delineated with such unflinching honesty, and in such finely-crafted prose.
Bhattacharya points out the lacunae in the book: “none of the authors enter into the grave issue of Indian society’s condemnation of women who fail to give birth to children…. Also, the portrait of mothers who burn their young daughters-in-law, is absent from this picture gallery.” But notwithstanding the gaps, Janani is an important first step towards a more politically astute and personally heartfelt portrait of motherhood in all its complexity.