Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons: A Journey among the Women of India

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons: A Journey among the Women of India

Article excerpt

By Elizabeth Bumiller. New York: Random House, 1990. 306 pp. List: $19.95; AET: $15 for one, $19.95 for two.

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 Bumiller 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, Bumiller 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."

Bumiller 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 Bumiller 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. …

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