Review of May You be the Mother of a hundred Sons – A Journey Among the Women of India; Elisabeth Bumilller; Random House 1990; pg 306
– Shana Susan Ninan
India got her freedom more than 60 years ago, but Indian women are still shackled by poverty, illiteracy, casteism, abuse, and much more. Elisabeth Bumiller’s May You Be The Mother of a hundred Sons looks at the Indian woman of the 80’s and early 90’s. And after reading it, I realized that even after two decades of publishing this book much hasn’t changed for women living in India. Inequality and disparity flows irrespective of education, status and wealth in women – from those who walk miles to collect water and fodder to those who hold blue collar jobs in metros, the problems faced are not very different. They only vary in degree.
Bumiller has taken pains to travel in India and stay with families, identified as those that represent the sample she’d like to portray. The author takes us through actual events of bride-burnings, instances of Sati, business marriages, abortion, female infanticide and arranged marriages. But on the positive side, she talks about the “liberated” women of India, those that have managed to leave the four walls of their kitchens, and gotten jobs of their own. She interviews many actresses, poets, revolutionaries and similar women.
The fact that the author stays with high caste families in villages she visits tells us how one-sided their stories can be. Not just that, it also keeps away many anecdotes that could’ve been added to the book. And the constant deriding could get on the nerves of many an Indian reader of the book.
It’s sad that even though Bumiller tries to give a wholesome view in her work, she seems to generalise Indian women as Hindu women, probably because her sampling comes from that group alone. Bumiller tries to keep away from the mistakes that American scholar Katherine Mayo made in representing Indian women: generalisations and characterisation in poor light. But it’s sad to notice that Bumiller, too, at times, sticks to clichés, and often only looks at the negative side of the coin. It’s like this – if you go looking for a snake in a burrow, that’s what you’ll find; but if you keep your scopes wide, you might just run into a ferret or a rabbit. Similarly, Bumiller finds, and displays in her work, India’s poverty, casteism, over population, illiteracy and all other problems we face, because that’s what she goes looking for. I guess it would take westerners quite some time, to see beyond the veil.