Monday, December 14, 2015

May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons

This book grew out of Elizabeth Bumiller's personal experiences during three and a half years in India. Her father had spent three months there in 1956, while making a film about traveling by jeep around the world. Images from the film, such as Hindu worshippers beside the Ganges at Benares, were the basis of her commonplace and banal preconceptions about India.

Although she had read recommended books, "talked to numerous old India hands," and watched such popular films as "The Jewel in the Crown" and "Gandhi," upon arrival she felt "like an innocent unworthy of what was before me," she acknowledges. "It was the first of many times I would feel as if I were free falling in space, with nothing to hang on to and no point of reference."

Intimidated by the subject of women in India, she tells us, she did not want to "write the predictable `woman's book.’” Her feminism, by her own admission, was of an "unformed, conventional" sort.

Initially, therefore, Bumiller did not focus exclusively on women, but wrote features on Calcutta writers, painters and filmmakers. What touched her most, however, were the stories she wrote about women. The horrors faced by some of them persuaded Bumillar to undertake the initially daunting project.

Her apologetic preambles, presumably calculated to disarm the reader, also suggest that she is alive to her "outsider's limitations in a foreign country." There are, Bumillar remarks, two opposite and equally unfortunate attitudes many foreign journalists adopt: romanticizing India or representing it as the West's inferior and complementary opposite, which enables the Western observer to feel comfortably superior.

An example of the latter extreme is American freelance journalist Katherine Mayo, author of the best-selling Mother India (1927). Mayo's "egregious" views put her into the camp of the "superior" observers. She argued, for instance, that Indians were not ready to rule their own country because, among other things, they overindulged in sex. Nevertheless, says Bumiller, Mayo fascinated her because she had done "after all, what I was trying to do."

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