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Of Mothers and Others: Stories, Essays, Poems

Jaishree Misra (Editor)


Pages: 304 Rs. 495

From the cradle to the grave, your very own Pole Stars

Zubaan’s new anthology is an uncompromising, enjoyable read that expands our idea of motherhood, and opens up new modes of association with the same, writes Sumana Roy.

Sumana Roy  1st Jun 2013

Jai Arjun Singh’s essay is called Milky Ways: A Contemplation of the Hindi-movie Man. Singh examines a series of legendary onscreen mothers in Bollywood, like Nirupa Roy (center) in Deewar.

he morning after I finished reading Of Mothers and Others, I found Niall Ferguson in the newspaper. Because J. M. Keynes was childless, argued Ferguson, his was a short-term philosophy. The fact that Ferguson had got his facts about Keynes wrong was immaterial. In making a case against the 'childless' and 'gays', he was choosing the survival of the self (through one's own children) over the Darwinian survival of the gene. If biology, then, is the definition to go by, I am not a mother. In conversations about children, I'm inevitably the other. As the outsider figure, my comments about children are often the stuff of jokes: empiricism, the 'lived experience', is all there is to mothering, such goes the narrative.

Jaishree Misra gets her wonderful cast of writers to cover almost every aspect of 'mothering'. The book is, if one notices, a simulation of the mother's life cycle as it were (though I know that one never stops being a mother) — from Smriti Lamech's honest thoughts about the sex of the foetus in her womb ('Sex-determination' becomes the 'Determination' of the title of her essay in a remarkable shift of metaphor) followed by Jahnavi Barua letting the doctor in her write about the different physiological changes taking place inside her during her pregnancy, all this inflected with the realisation that the womb is not a laboratory.

In keeping with the chronological sequencing of both the child's growth and the mother's learning (dis)orders, next comes Anita Roy's brilliant and hilarious Eating Baby. Here's a sample: "I've never been much of a cook, and the idea that I would have to prepare and feed this child for days and weeks and years filled me with alarm. Maybe, I thought to myself, I can go on breastfeeding him until he's ready to go to restaurants and order for himself". From Roy's "poor mite's ... milky universe", we move on to Jai Arjun Singh's Milky Ways: A Contemplation of the Hindi-movie Man. Few write about films with such easy intimacy as Singh, and here he takes us through the doodh ka karz trajectory, from Maa ka doodh piya hai toh baahar nikal! to Mere paas Maa hai, ending with a plea for the 'other' kind of mother, "a few moms like the hard-drinking salon-owner in Vicky Donor, not-really-mothers like Vidya Bagchi".

Singh is the only male contributor in this collection, and when I discovered his name here, my initial expectation was that he would write a personal essay about being a 'mother' to a dog. Being a regular reader of Singh's blog and his Facebook updates, I was aware of his relationship with Foxie, about whom he writes in his bio: "Despite being saddled with a Y-chromosome, Jai got to mother a very special canine child named Foxie for four years, and it was the most meaningful and enriching experience of his life. She departed, leaving an immeasurably big hole, just a few days after this essay was finished; it's dedicated to her".

Jaishree Misra gets her wonderful cast of writers to cover almost every aspect of ‘mothering’. The book is, if one notices, a simulation of the mother’s life cycle.

Herein lies the charm and necessity of an anthology such as this one. It is neither for, nor about the biological mother alone. Quite often, I encounter the tired discourse about women writers being 'different' and difficult mothers. Enid Blyton's name appears at the top of that list. The Mad Woman in the Attic, with its stiff characterisation of the 19th century woman writer (the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, all not really 'mother material'), has not helped to change the colour of the delivery room. It is such a relief, then, first to find Shashi Deshpande ask the question, "I read recently that Doris Lessing abandoned her children when she left South Africa and went to London. Does this make her a bad mother? I'm not so sure"; and then to discover Tishani Doshi's (who in a recent poem declares, "I do not want to be matriarch or mother") author bio: "Doshi has published two books of poetry and a novel — all of whom she considers her children".

oshi writes the powerful The Day after the Death of my Imaginary Child, an event that is neither imaginary nor imagined in Manju Kapur's heartbreaking and extraordinary essay, Name: Amba Dalmia, Dates: May 19, 1980 — November 19, 2001, that begins, "I was 53 when my daughter died". Such is the nature of her grief that Kapur can only get herself to cite names and dates, only nouns, in the title of her essay. Shalini Sinha's essay, Amma and Her Beta and Bulbul Sharma's A Grandmother at Large, though completely different in tone, bring to us the life of the grandmother, the twice-mother: "It is like rewinding your life and erasing the mistakes with correcting fluid," writes Sharma.

Apart from the essays, there is short fiction, all powerfully told — Nisha Susan's Missed Call, which has the line we find ourselves using quite often in our middle age — "Now, ma, you be our child for a while"; Mridula Koshy's Portrait of the Mother as a Chair, Sarita Mandanna's The Gardener's Daughter, and Kishwar Desai's The Devi Makers, all four leaving one feeling deeply uneasy about mothers and 'mothering'.

And then there is Urvashi Butalia's Childless, Naturally, the essay which has, ever since I first read it, sat on my nose like a pair of glasses, helping me to see things better. She speaks for many when she writes, "Am I fooling myself when I say I feel no active desire to have children — am I saying this because, in truth, I want them, but I do not want to seem lacking in any way so I imagine I don't? It's difficult to say. I'm constantly suspicious of myself though and worry: am I really the contented person I think I am or am I just pretending?" And again, "Why should I have to define it in terms of a lack? Am I a barren woman? I can't square this with what I know of myself".

When Butalia uses 'childless', she also means 'childfree'. As someone who refers to her plants (and sometimes her poems) as her 'babies', I would like to believe that we are all mothers just as we are all children. There is great power in that thought. I hope my mother, perhaps still sad at her daughter not having brought in any human children into the world, would be able to think of my brood of plants as her grandchildren even if they cannot blow the candles on their birthday cakes. I am going to gift her a copy of this book.

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