Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 1991, Page 74a
May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons: A Journey Among the Women of India
By Elizabeth Bumiller. New York: Random House, 1990. 306 pp. List: $19.95; AET: $15 for one, $19.95 for two.
Reviewed by Samir Dayal
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."
Bumiller, however, tried "to understand before I judged, " and her journey, therefore, "forced" her "to question assumptions about mortality, religion, duty, fate, the way a society governs itself and the roles of men and women. It deepened my feminist convictions and made me realize how individual, yet universal, is each woman's experience."
It also helped her to realize that "the way Indian women live is the way the majority of women in the world spend their lives; it is Americans who are peculiar... Rather than going to the periphery, I had come to the center."
Bumillar is sensitive to the complexity and contradictions of Indian life. While remarking the widening gap between rich and poor, she also reminds the reader of India's victory over famine: "Most Indians are generally better off now than they were at the beginning of independence from the British four decades ago, " she observes. Women are in an especially paradoxical situation. A country that produces millions of illiterate and impoverished village women also produced Indira Gandhi, "one of the most powerful women in the world."
A personal dilemma for Bumillar was the conflict between upholding a woman's freedom to choose abortion while condemning the abuse of amniocentesis by using it to identify, and abort, female fetuses. In south India, she met members of a poor family who said that they had been forced to kill their day old infant daughter because they couldn't afford the cost of her dowry. Although dowry was outlawed by parliament in 1961, little has been done to eradicate the practice, particularly in the rural areas. Infanticide, too, was outlawed by the British in 1870. But many poor villagers recognize little difference, other than expense, between abortion and infanticide.
Bumillar conveys her simultaneous outrage and empathy: "In their part of the country, it was something that people did, although no one liked to talk about it." Among other things, Bumillar intends this book to remedy such silence.
Marriage is a microcosm for Indian society as a whole. An estimated 95 percent of Indian marriages are arranged. Marriage is thus an index of women's status.
Bumillar describes the "typical" Indian woman, representing about 75 percent of the 400 million women and female children in India, as a victim of poverty, repression, illiteracy and other kinds of material and spiritual deprivation. As for the employed woman, "her other full-time job, the care of the house and the children," is not made easier by her "typical" husband's failure to help her, or even to acknowledge that what she does at home is work. "No American woman who struggles with family and career can completely imagine what this means in India," Bumillar argues.
The most remarkable Indian exceptions to the social norms for women, Bumillar finds, are the off screen lives of Bombay's film actresses. As she adds, "Ironically, it was the actresses, in their screen roles, who were the chief promoters of the regressive values by which their personal lives were so harshly judged. "
Some other women appear to have done better in their effort to define their own personal and social identities. Among these "satisfied" women are Gayatri Devi, the former maharani of Jaipur, the Calcutta painter Veena Bhargava, the Bengali poet Nabaneeta Dev Sen, the filmmaker Aparna Sen, the formidable policewoman Kiran Bedi, and the singular Ela Bhatt, the moving spirit behind one of the most powerful women's groups in the country, the self-employed Women's Association (SEWA). At the individual level, a woman like Kiran Bedi is able, in Bumiller's own acerbic expression, to inhabit a "topsyturvy land where women had complete control over the lives of men."
There is also the exception of Kerala, a state in which birth control has been extremely successful, women's place in society has traditionally been good, and where there is a relatively high ratio of women to men. Women have many job opportunities, they marry relatively late, and are relatively literate. Many of these advantages, however, have accrued from the now obsolescent matrilineal system of the region.
Bumiller's comparisons of the condition of Indian women with that of American women offer some surprises for the American reader. In 1988, women accounted for 10 percent of the members of the Indian Parliament, while in the US Congress, only 5 percent of the members of both houses were women. Indian women won the right to abortion "without a fight" in 1971, a year and a half before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in America. Women hold important social positions, and they have complete equality under the Indian Constitution.
Such statements as "Women's status deteriorated only in relatively recent times, in the past two thousand years or so," remind Bumiller's readers that in India and America history is measured on different scales. The 19th century saw efforts on behalf of women by middle-class male reformers such as Rammohan Roy. Another major impetus was the desire of middle-class men to conform to British imperialist notions of proper gender roles. Only in the middle of the 19th century did some of the reforms pass into law: widow remarriage was legalized in 1856, and sati was abolished in 1859 (which, of course, is not to say that it ceased in fact).
Bumillar mentions the preeminent contribution of Mahatma Gandhi towards improving the social status of women. The female helpers in his struggle, however, were assigned supporting, and therefore subordinate, roles. Bumillar also quotes Erik Erikson's argument that Gandhi was capable of "some vindictiveness" towards women. The next crucial development in Indian women's history came in the mid-1970s, with the publication of the report "Towards Equality" on the status of women. The report became the foundation for India's women's movement, which today is vigorous and healthy.
With a few exceptions, men do not fare very well in Bumiller's book. They are indicted for their (sometimes unwitting) oppression and for their insensitivity to women's needs. The author cites the preeminent Indian psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar's views on the alleged "ubiquity" of serious sexual problems among men, ranging from impotence to ignorance about women's sexuality. "Mama's boys and the Oedipus complex are of course not unique to India," she adds, "but the intensity and pervasiveness of the cycle may be."
It would be naive to expect this journalist's extensive report on Indian women to be innocent of ideology. It is therefore no criticism to suggest that Bumiller's newfound, by her own admission, feminist zeal can occasionally appear as a bias. Her tendency to selective generosity is the only element that threatens to undermine her otherwise compelling account.
Samir Dayal is an assistant professor of English at Franklin College, Franklin, IN.