Janani, or mother as the creator of life. Defines this narrative collection. The book brings together autobiographical writings of women from many walks of life-noted authors, artists, academics-to share their experiences of being mothers, daughters, or both. The accounts combine memory and nostalgia in nuanced detail, making each narrative heart-warming and, at times, profoundly challenging.
The contributors abandon their public faces to provide humane, intimate and compelling narratives. The collection includes accounts of adoptive motherhood, stepmothering and single motherhood. On the one hand, the reader encounters the wrenching pain of an abortion, while on the other, the choice of a woman determined not to be a mother. The Janani stories vividly explore the whole gamut of motherhood.
Immensely readable, the volume has a wide appeal-not just for mothers and daughters, but for fathers and sons as well; in fact, for all those who celebrate the rare gift of human relationships.
About the Author
Rinki Bhattacharya is Director of the Bimal Roy Memorial Committee. She is also a well-known journalist and documentary film-maker based in Mumbai.
Janani was a spontaneous response to our anxious mood-particularly mine-more than a decade and a half back. I remember it being a curiously bewildering phase. A period when I was beginning to feel excluded from the mainstream activities of my own family. But, it took me a foolishly long time to realize that I had been practically 'retired' as a mother. My retirement, however, brought none of the benefits one associates with several years of dedicated service. Nor had I transformed overnight into a gray-haired venerable elder. For sometime, I hung around like a solitary note after the orchestra ensemble falls silent.
Used to a bustling home, being at the beck and call of the children, I seemed redundant and sadly, unwanted. This phase has been referred to as the 'empty nest' period-when children, lime birds, have flown away by simply growing up. It was abundantly clear that my children no longer needed a mother. Except on rare occasions. I ws not required on a minute-to-minute basis. Locked as women are, in their traditional mothering images, Indian mothers refuse to believe that children, at all, grow up. Few women accept the fact of ever becoming redundant to their beloved children. Mothers encounter traumatic experiences, as a result. Sometimes this can adversely affect the relationship between mothers and children-often leaving permanent scars.
I admit being completely disoriented and bruised for a considerably long period of timeÂ indeed it took me years to recover from this sense of rejection. I wonder at times, if I have recovered fully. Recently, I was watching the exquisitely crafted film biography of James M. Barrie (the creator of Peter Pan) titled Finding Neverland with the dashing Johnny Depp portraying the writer; Barrie. In one unforgettable scene he wistfully says: 'Children should never be sent to bed, they wake up one day older and before we know they are grown up', expressing sentiments most mothers would endorse.
In addition to being a retired mother, by the early 1990s, I had earned the dubious distinction of being divorced and single. The social isolation produced by this lethal combination was claustrophobic, to say the least. On the positive side, many of my friends were speedily 'retiring' as mothers. Some of our children had migrated abroad. Others had moved on in life. They-the children-had literally performed vanishing acts. But if any one of us was going through unbearable pangs of separation, that pain was stifled, or hidden successfully, from others. We concealed our throbbing pain, the inevitable emptiness, wearing a mask of carefully constructed nonchalance. A few of us had been actively associated with the autonomous women's movement. Our exposure to women's issues brought a certain edge to understanding the harsh reality of women-or mothers-in similar situations. Urmila (Pawar) has repeatedly observed in her narrative, 'The Cross a Woman Carries' about women being perceived as having neither existence nor identity except as a mother. In Mahashweta Devi's collection, In the Name of the Mother (2004) there is one story titled 'Ma from Dawn to Dusk'. Her eloquent title affirms that women are nothing but mothers.
Ancient people once referred to all females as 'mother'. This was prompted by their reverence for the wonderful capacity women possess to create people-'a miracle all women and only women are able to perform, whether or not we do so'. There is little shift in this universal perception about women. In this system, woman can rarely hope to escape motherhood if they were to wish it.
That was, however, entirely untrue about the women who eventually constructed Janani. None of us were merely Mothers. Nor were we those eternally sobbing, sacrificing stereotypes of mothers thrown up routinely on the Bollywood screen! Even at the bleakest time, I had at least one newspaper column to write for. Amongst the other retiring mothers were many stalwarts eminent writers, performing artists, activists and foremost feminist scholars in creative fields as well as critical. Each one had secured a niche. This, I consider one of the most fascinating and important aspects of Janani.
Unredeemed loneliness, I think, has the uncanny knack of ushering in the creative process. The process beings once we acknowledge that things could not get any worse. And this book is a living testimony to the fact that out of a deep chasm of pain emerge works of great significance. One of the ploys I engaged in to silence my own growing loneliness was to discreetly plan 'tea' at home. I would invite some of the retired mothers who were after all, dear friends. Soon these 'tea' sessions at home turned into a lively forum. At the informal forum our grievances-even anger could be voiced or the emotional vacuum filled-even if briefly.
At one of these meetings, I remember casually suggesting that we ought to register our frustrations, anger, confusion and conflicting thoughts about motherhood in general and link it to our personal experiences. In other words, make honest observations about the way women feel once their children move on. Every time out little group met-often without agenda-we bonded closer. Frequent rounds of mint tea and savories, revived our spirits. We talked of issues close to our heart. Attention was drawn to the lonely course motherhood had taken and our concern about women's redundancy as 'mothers' (parents in general) soon overtook others concerns. Many of us even wondered if motherhood was not strictly a duty without rights or rewards?
When Janani tentatively started, none of the writers had the slightest notion about the fate of our essays. But the idea was enthusiastically greeted. As already mentioned, none of the women were merely house-views nor mothers. Each of us had a distinct professional identity-for example, Navjot was a well-known, contemporary painter (she dropped out later), Neela Bhagwat-an accomplished khayal exponent and Urmila was a highly regarded Dalit writer. Dhiruben was the most acclaimed and inspirational figure amongst us. Interestingly, she is the only non-biological mother writing on motherhood. Dhiruben cheerfully argues that, to be a mother, one does not have to actually give birth! She is not the only practitioner of that belief. In the Indian joint family system childless widows often became surrogate mothers, as do unmarried aunts. The practice continues. These women were no less loving than biological mothers.
The meeting that led to the idea of expressing our thoughts on motherhood was a definitive moment. It helped lay down the cornerstone for this fine collection. As the idea of documenting our thoughts came in an instant-so did the essays. Following this, in the second meeting, we decided to request others-distinguished women who had chosen their vocations, their destinyÂ dancers, writers, activists, painters, poets-to join the book project to share their personal experiences of motherhood and daughterhood. I doubt the two can be separated into watertight compartments-both constantly interface. Clash, or compliment and nurture one another-what Virginia Woolf refers to as 'thinking through our mothers'.
Without further delay, I dispatched requests to various friends. Many of the essays arrived in less than a week. The first essay came from Kamala Das. Shashi Despande's persuasive piece, 'Learning to be a Mother' followed. Mallika (Sarabhai) and Rekha (Rodwittiya) responded at once. The collection, now grew in volume. These essays and those by Jyotsna Kamal and Pratibha Ranade belong to the early phase-roughly 1994-95. But like Behind Closed Doors (2004), I had to put Janani into cold storage. Until the release and subsequent recognition of my above book on domestic violence-the Janani manuscript continued to languish.
During the Kolkata book release of Behind Closed Doors in June 2004, I met Bharati Ray. I casually mentioned working on a collection of essays titled Janani to Bharatidi, who seemed greatly interested. She required little convincing and her moving essay arrived in a matter of weeks. By then Sage had expressed positive interest in the project, which ws indeed heartening news. So, I boldly invited several writers of repute-Roshan G. Shahani, Nabaneeta Dev Sen, Nita Ramaiya, C.S. Lakshmi to join the project. Meanwhile, Dr. Jasodhara Bagchi agreed to write the Foreword. Even after her Foreword was dispatched, two of our contributors-the youngest of the lot, a journalist colleague Deepa (Gahlot) and my daughter Anwesha (Arya), wanted to contribute, without hesitation, I welcomed them,. Both delve into deeply disturbing-in fact, the darker side-of motherhood. Deepa's piece de resistance audaciously defends a woman's decision to remain child-free in a society where such a decision invites ridicule, not respect. But Deepa represents the new-age woman. She draws our attention to a common burden mothers carry-that of guilt. Deepa's personal struggle against conformity, her decision to remain childless, is the only voice against motherhood.
And Anwesha's poignant account arrived when the book had left my desk for the publishers. Her essay on the unspeakable-'abortion'-is filled with the desperate unhappiness of a young girl whose journey to motherhood was stonewalled by social censure. By a joyous coincidence she is about to be the mother of her first born. Tutun's (Mukherjee) evocative essay was delayed by the sad demise of her mother and my friend Maithili (Rao) graciously agreed to join last month-her piece completes Janani's charmed circle.
The essays view motherhood from a spectrum of kaleidoscopic perspectives. Many of the authors pay belated homage to their mothers. Is it not a tragic irony that we take our own mothers for granted during their lifetime and value them too late? Fewer write about their children and lesser number of writers turn their inner eye on themselves. It is the two younger authors who air their views about unconventional personal choices and their headlong clash with traditional ideas of motherhood. Experience is considered a major critical tool in women's writing. All these essays, in dwelling on important issues experientially, hold the mirror to our cultural legacy.
However, none of the authors enter into the grave issue of Indian society's condemnation of women who fail to give birth to children. Nor is there any debate on how childless women are routinely ill-treated as inauspicious creatures, especially seen in their exclusion from most fertility rites. Also, the portrait of mothers who burn their young daughters-in-law, is absent from this picture gallery. But patriarchal ideology blames women for all their misfortunes. They are tortured or abandoned if they do not give birth to sons, or on other pretexts. These issues deserve our vigilante attention, some day, in another volume.
Despite the hard and endless struggle involved-or perhaps because of it-I was determined to get this marvelous anthology published. With my terrible track record of losing important documents-passports, cheque books, ration cards-it is nothing short of a miracle that the earlier essays survived. Our collective work, rejected several times by important publishers and after languishing for nearly a dozen years, is unbelievably, coming out of the shadows.
I am grateful to those friends who encouraged me-particularly Asha Damle. And I am immensely fortunate for the support of my contributors and my publishers, Sage Publications India.