“May you be the mother of a hundred sons” is written by Elisabeth Bumiller, a reporter of Washington Post. She came to India along with her journalist husband, Steve in 1984. In this book she writes about the women she encountered during her stay and her observations on the conditions of the women in India.
I have lived in India all my life and I always thought there is nothing much a foreigner could tell me about this country. Brought up by educated parents and working in an MNC, I live among empowered women. I assumed women in India were by and large free from all the inequities of the past. This book was an eye opener. I realized that freedom was infact a luxury and my life in India was a privilege which is not available to the vast majority of the women in this country. If you are wondering about the title of the book, it is a Sanskrit blessing given to a woman during the time of her marriage. It has its origin in Mahabharat. Bheeshma blesses Gandhari with these words when she decides to permanently keep her eyes blind folded as a mark of respect for her blind husband.
The stories in this book are not confined to the poor. The author’s first article is about arranged marriages among the educated class. She recounts Arun Bharat Ram’s arranged marriage who hails from one of the most affluent business families of India and ends with the story of Meena, an educated working women who settled for an arranged marriage which ended up in a divorce because her husband turned out to be impotent.
She touches upon many subjects like bride burning, life of uneducated village women, professional women in the cities, high class women like actresses and politicians. She even writes about Kiran Bedi. But the subject which moved me most was that of female infanticide.
She describes her interview with couples who killed their new born girl child. One mother told her “ I don’t feel sorry I have done this. Why should a child suffer like me”. Another women told her “Abortion is costly. We cannot afford it.” While she was appalled by their stories she was also stuck by the poverty and helplessness of these families. She contrasts this with the situation in Mumbai where many women do the sex determination test and abort the unborn female fetus. She met several educated, informed, affluent women who gave many reasons for doing this. “ You do feel looked down upon if you have two or three girls”, “when this test is here and everybody is doing this, why shouldn’t we have what we want”. Her research uncovered that this practice of selective female feticide was also prevalent among Indian’s settled abroad (Europe, US etc).
She says “although the Bombay women had all the benefits of modernity, their values remained as backward as those of the villagers. It was especially depressing to me that educated women apparently valued themselves so little that they were willing to prevent a female from coming into this world”.
If you are assuming it is a feminist book meant only for women, you are wrong. It a window to the invisible India most of us never know, although we have lived here all our life. I leave you with the Author’s last words from her introduction.
“ Although I am still learning exactly what my experience in India meant for me, I do know it transformed much of my thinking. It was in India I had some of the most moving experiences of my life – Seeing the birth of a baby in a village or the quite dignity of two young boys who waited outside the Calcutta crematorium with the body of their dead grandmother.
At the very least, my journey forced me to question assumptions about mortality, religion, duty, fate, the way a society governs itself and the roles of men and women. In the beginning, there were times when I felt that what I was exploring was of little consequence for the lives in the world from which I had come. But slowly, I realized that the way Indian women live is the way majority of women in the world spend their lives; it is Americans who are peculiar. Ultimately, I realized my journey to India was a privilege. Rather than going to the periphery, I had come to the center”