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My review in “Tehelka” of Zubaan’s “Of Mothers and Others” ( 11 April 2013)

My review in “Tehelka” of Zubaan’s “Of Mothers and Others” ( 11 April 2013)

My review of a new Zubaan title, published in Tehelka earlier today. The url is given below.

http://tehelka.com/mommie-dearest/ ( published online 11 April 2013)

This is a collection of essays, fiction and poetry published in support of Save the Children. The contributors are all women except for one — Jai Arjun Singh on the mother in cinema. Various aspects of motherhood are discussed — pregnancy, crankiness about mothering, time taken away from professional space and intellectual sustenance, adopting children, bereavement, becoming mothers to special children and on being motherless out of choice. Or being grandmothers, loving your grandchildren, smothering them with affection as the delightful Bulbul Sharma does to her brood of five. But when her grandchildren complain, “Why must you travel so much? All nanis should stay at home,” Bulbul argues that “the new generation of grandmothers work, travel and play golf. They attend board meetings and fight cases… but they are still grandmothers at heart.”

Being a mother never quite ends, even when children become adults. When they are babies, children consider their mothers as extensions of themselves. As Shashi Deshpande writes, “What really overwhelmed me was the way my entire life had been taken away from me by the baby and his needs. There was no space left for anything else.” Children can take over every minute of your life, but as Maya Angelou pointed out in a conversation with the BBC about her memoir, Mom & Me & Mom, mothering means learning to be patient with one’s offspring. Mothers are their children’s safety nets; they teach, nurture and love. This is not necessarily an inherent or ‘natural’ trait that women are born with. It is not inevitable that a maternal instinct is kindled the moment a mother sees her children, biological or adopted. The essay ‘Contests and Critiques in Surrogacy’ raises the pros and cons of the commercialisation of surrogacy, with its most immediate impact being on the family of the surrogate mother. She may opt to rent her womb as an economic necessity, but its emotional and social repercussions are still uncharted territory.

The most powerful essay has to be Manju Kapur’s, grieving for the loss of her 21- year-old daughter in a car accident 20 years ago. She had been helped by many to walk the “long, long road ah ead” till she experienced the “light again, a different light from the one they thought they would live in earlier, but light nonetheless”. Juxtapose this with Tishani Doshi’s poem, ‘The Day After the Death of My Imaginary Child’ and the pain experienced by Kapur is even more searing.

As always, Urvashi Butalia, when she writes, is very readable. Her essay on being childless (which has been widely shared on the Internet) dwells upon not having had a biological daughter. She comments upon the relationships other mother-daughter duos have, including that of her friend, Mona Ahmed, a hijra, and her adopted daughter, Ayesha. Once Ayesha and Urvashi talked “about her life, a young girl, brought up in a hijra household, the father (Mona) actually her mother, the grandmother (Chaman) referred to as ‘he’ by everyone but Dadi, grandmother, to Ayesha. ‘Can you imagine what it was like?’ she asks me. They gave me so much love, but a young girl growing up, she needs some things, she has questions to ask about herself, her body, who was I to ask? There was no other female, only these men/ women, these people of indeterminate sexuality. I was so alone. Perhaps motherhood can’t be learnt after all.”

This book has been making its presence felt, given its release at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January by Shabana Azmi. At the Delhi launch, actress Nandita Das released it while holding her son on her hip. After closing this book (which I read in one sitting), I thought that the contributors raised some very valid questions on the “naturalness” of motherhood and other popular social canards. What concerned me was that, except for Anita Roy, no one commented on the importance of nutrition and, by extension, the importance of the mother’s self-preservation. I say this advisedly, since late last year Zubaan co-published a book with Cequin, a Delhi-based NGO that, among its other efforts to aid the marginalised, runs nutrition camps to teach urban poor women to balance their diets within budget. Maybe a short comment could have been included from Cequin on the kinds of mothering that exist in the space they inhabit? Having said that, Of Mothers and Others is a fine, worthy read.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing consultant and columnist

Of Mothers and Others:Stories, Essays and Poems, Ed by Jaishree Misra Zubaan. 285 pp; Rs 495

“Of mothers and others” edited by Jaishree Misra

“Of mothers and others” edited by Jaishree Misra

of mothers and others: stories, essays and poems

This is a collection of essays, some fiction and some poetry published in support of Save the Children. All by women except for one, which is by Jai Arjun Singh on the mother in cinema. Even the editors of Zubaan, Urvashi and Anita have contributed essays. The other contributors include Kishwar Desai, Shashi Deshpande, Tishani Doshi, Namita Gokhale, Sarita Madanna, Smriti Lamech, Shinie Antony etc. All the women discuss their experiences of motherhood — expecting, crankiness about mothering, time taken away from professional space and intellectual sustenance, adopting children, bereavement, becoming mothers to differently-abled children and on being motherless out of choice. Or being grandmothers, loving your grandchildren, smothering them with affection without having to be responsible for their upbringing and all that comes with the every second to second engagement of rearing a kid as the delightful Bulbul Sharma is to her brood of five grandchildren. But when her descendants complain, “why must you travel so much? All nanis should stay at home.” Bulbul Sharma agrees that at one time the nanis and dadis did stay at home. But now “the new generation of grandmothers work, travel and play golf. They attend board meetings and fight cases. …but they are still grandmothers at heart.”

The other day I met an old college friend after years. She lives abroad and visits India infrequently. She has a daughter who is 13 months older to Sarah. Naturally we were watching our daughters wander through the park, chase butterflies and watch the gorgeous flowers blooming and chatting, you know the conversation which skirts or suddenly revs into top gear with both women talking rapidly at the same time, exchanging information and surprisingly assimilating it too, all the time multi-tasking too. Suddenly my friend says, you know it is incredible what a sense of freedom you get when the kid learns how to clean herself. It is a moment of sheer independence –maybe more for the mother than the kid. As Shashi Deshpande says “what really overwhelmed me was the way my entire life had been taken away from me by the baby and his needs. There was no space left for anything else.” It’s so true!!! Some things never change.

This collection of essays and poems is worth reading. The most powerful essay has to be Manju Kapur grieving for the loss of her 21-year-old daughter in a tragic car accident, twenty years ago. Some of the others are Sarita Madanna’s short story, “the gardener’s daughter” and Shalini Sinha’s essay about the relationship between her mother/nani with her son/grandson who had been born with Down’s syndrome. As always Urvashi Butalia when she writes is very readable. Her essay on being childless dwells upon not having had a biological daughter (and comments upon the relationships other mother-daughter duos have) but she does not mention how as a professional she has/is been a mentor to many, nurtured fledglings much like a mother would do with her offspring.

This book has been making its presence felt given the high profile launch at Jaipur Literature Festival 2013 when well known film actress Shabana Azmi released it. At the Delhi launch of the book, Bollywood actress Nandita Das while holding her son on her hip, released it in Delhi. In today’s day and age having celebrities being associated with a book does wonders for it. But after closing this book (which may I add I read in one sitting) I thought that the contributors raised some very valid questions on the “naturalness” of motherhood and other popular social canards, what left me very concerned was that except for Anita Roy, no one commented upon the importance of nutrition and by extension, the importance of self-preservation of the mom. I say this advisedly since late last year Zubaan co-published a book of essays with a Delhi-based NGO, Cequin. (Cequin amongst many of its activities runs nutrition camps for the urban poor women. A very good initiative since it teaches them how to create a balanced diet within their budgets.) What I found most alarming was that the women were being taught how to stretch a small portion of milk (given its spiraling price )to give maximum nutrition to their families. Maybe a short comment could have been included from the Cequin team too?

Of Mothers and Others: Stories, Essays and Poems (ed. Jaishree Misra). Foreword by Shabana Azmi. (Zubaan, New Delhi, 2013). Hb. pp.286. Rs. 495.