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Geetanjali Shree’s Mai

Rakhi Dalal reviews Geetanjali Shree’s Mai, Silently Mother, a Sahitya Akademi winning translation of the Hindi novel by Nita Kumar

Title: Mai, Silently Mother

Author: Geetanjali Shree, Translator: Nita Kumar

Publisher: Niyogi Books

To live in a South Asian country means to grow up with an absolute idea of a mother. A mother is always giving, nurturing, sacrificing and working. Her day begins and ends with looking after the household. In context with India, this notion also seems to be defined by the structures of caste and class. Although an opinion of her position, based upon the ideas imbedded in conscience, takes on different interpretations when seen broadly from the lenses of patriarchy or feminism. With the former, it is more of a responsibility or duty that is taken for granted and in many cases not even given a second thought. In the case of latter, it might be considered as oppression in some situations, where the mothers are deliberately subjugated into drudgery of family grind by the patriarchal structure.

Mai by Geentajali Shree presents to us the complexities brought about by the conflict between both of these ideas in a domestic realm. However more than that it compels us to think when we talk of a mother, exactly whose opinions are being discussed and whether we also explore it from the point of view of the mother herself.

It is the debut Hindi novel of the author and is centred on the world of a mother as observed by her daughter. The English translation of Mai by Nita Kumar had won Sahitya Academy Award in 2002 and was shortlisted for the Crossword Book Award in 2001. Ret Samadhi by Geetanjali Shree, whose English translation Tomb of Sand by Daisy Rockwell won International Booker this year, also has at its centre a mother.

Shree writes stories and novels in Hindi. Her much acclaimed novels Tirohit and Khali Jagah have also been translated into English. She has written a biography of Premchand in English and is also associated with theatre. Nita Kumar, the translator of Mai, is a Brown Family Professor of South Asian History at Claremont McKenna College, Claremont, California. She has also authored several books and is engaged in innovative education in Varanasi since 1990.

The household in Mai is a typical middle class in a small North-Indian town where the patriarch set the diktats rolling for a joint family. Governed by the binaries of outside and inside, the roles of each member are clearly defined. ‘Outside’ is a world to be conquered by the men whereas the confines within the house are to be looked after and cared for by the women. Three generations of a family living under the same roof offer resonance with confirmations and contradictions inherent to the structure they are bound by.

With this backdrop, the author successfully pulls strings to present an image closer to the familiar realities of such a household. Silently mother, the subtitle of Mai, is the identifier which Sunaina, the third generation daughter, associates with her mother. From her early childhood, she has watched her mother attending to the call of her family silently. Always bent, always working, from behind her purda, the mother seemed weak. Slowly however, and with much subtlety, Shree offers the reader certain glimpses into the character of silent Mai. Instances which, as Kumar suggests, mean that her silence does not equate with being speechless. At the most crucial points, we witness the mother speaking up for her children, even if it is only a single word or sentence is being uttered. She never questions their choices or decisions, thereby giving them freedom to get on with their own lives, something which makes them closer to her than to their father or grandparents.

The reader also finds that mother does have her own moments of joy when she retires at night to the bedroom she shares with her children, lets go off her veil and laughs at their jokes, when she appears in the forbidden courtyard humming a song or when she takes on the responsibility of entire house after her husband meets a tragic accident.  

For Sunaina and her brother Subodh however, her silence equates with oppression. They are obsessed with the idea of rescuing her from the fetters which they believe are afflicted upon her. So much so that it becomes the sole purpose of their lives. With passage of time, their mission nevertheless remains unaccomplished as they realise in frustration that their mother doesn’t need to be saved. It is only towards the end that they realise her strength and contribution in building their lives.

In the afterword, Kumar says, “We do not know ‘what’ mothers are, we do not know if a given mother is ‘fulfilled’ in what she does, or what else she ‘wants’. But we could progressively know whether to ask certain questions, how to ask some others, what any of them might imply, how to refrain from asking and retrack, how to pause and begin to comprehend little glimpses better. We could start evaluating silence differently from what we do in our dichotomous, rationalist world, like Subodh and Sunaina’s tells us to. We could question agency, strength and weakness anew.” 

With an impressive 50 page critique of Mai, the afterword is an added treat to the reader. Kumar writes on the matter of mother and looks at it from the point of history and anthropology. She discusses the challenges associated with the task of translation and her discourse engages the reader, bringing focus on her work which is done exceptionally well. 

This splendid novel by Geetanjali Shree, with its nuanced portrayal of sensibilities across class, gender and age, invites the reader to look closely into the preconceived as well as acquired notions around ‘mother’. It stresses profoundly that the mothers are not only made invisible by the veil which patriarchy forces upon them but also by the partial and opinionated understanding of their desires. Maybe if we try to catch the little glimpses better, we may start seeing her coming out of shadows.

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Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ .

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