Motherhood Revisited

Every Navratri, Durga thrusting her spear into the heart of darkness reminds us that motherhood has a history, an ideology that is more fundamental than nationalism or any political 'isms'.

Saakhi is a Sunday column from Mrinal Pande, in which she writes about what she sees and also participates in. That has been her burden to bear ever since she embarked on a life as a journalist, writer, editor, author, and chairperson of Prasar Bharti. Her journey of being a witness-participant continues. 

Durga Puja, celebrated in the autumnal month of Ashwin, spans a period of nine days for worshipping the nine avatars of Durga. Originally a goddess of the aboriginal community of Shabars, Durga predates the Vedic goddesses like Aditi, Ushas and Aryani. In many respects she violates the later ideal Hindu goddess: submissive, supportive of and subordinated to a powerful male deity. Her images worshipped during the Navratri or Kali Pooja are hardly maternal in the traditional sense. True, in temples and pandals we see the many-armed Ma with her children Ganesh, Kartikeya, Lakshmi and Saraswati. But they are adoptive, not her genetic children. Maternity is secondary to her. She is a fighter, a yoddha. The male gods are subservient to her in the battle against Mahishasur, and have armed her with their own weapons.

Mrinal Pande

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

The images show Durga as Singhvahini, astride her lion mount, thrusting a trident deep into the heart of demon Mahishasur, who is half male and half water buffalo. In the battle she has the central role of a battle queen and regulator of cosmos. The festival of Dussehra that falls immediately after on the tenth (lunar) day, in many parts of India is both a harvest festival and an occasion to celebrate Durga’s victory by worshipping traditional weapons. Wine, meat and fish are offered to the deity along with fruits and Navdhanya grown in clay pots, and partaken liberally as her prasada, especially in Bengal and the mid Himalayan region and bordering region of Nepal where goats and buffalos are still sacrificed to the goddess and Ma’s love for wine and sacrificial meat offerings is unapologetically accepted.

In an age when vegetarianism is being propagated as an essential part of being a Hindu, social media saw a huge row erupt. Official Hindutva supporters preferred the taming of the militant ten armed (Dashbhuja Ugra) Durga into a Mata Rani, the queen mother, and emphasised her role as a meek daughter visiting her parents with children. The cries raised identified her as the obedient wife of Mahadev Shiva. Like any married daughter, somewhat tired of the austere life of her Himalaya-dweller husband, she longed to visit her parental home to enjoy herself. So there was an overkill of glamour attached to her persona, dressed in bright red and gold as the goddess of harvests and fertility; she hardly appeared in temples at least, as a military general commanding an all female army.

The second noticeable change was a stamping of non-vegetarian food offerings as non-sacred on social media. The tribe of neo-Sanatanis frowns heavily on non-vegetarianism and many housing societies they control not just refuse to have tenants who eat meat but keep a regular check on their kitchens and take out orders brought into the “sanctified” buildings. Both changes underscored the denial of personal choices ordinary women have long suffered, first as women and then as mothers.

Given the overall downgrading of women’s persona as weak, non combative, menstrual blood contaminating, one has often wondered why are we alive at all? The fact is, without women there can be no  human life on our planet. Also young human males too depend upon nurture longer than any other mammal species. So patriarchy after it had replaced goddesses Vac, Ushas and Diti with the male triad of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh, a new division of labour was established. It was mandated that women’s central role will be maternal. They shall not only bear and nurture children but will be totally responsible for them in the most vulnerable first decade of their lives, while men control the outside world and create empires. As physical and psychic rites of passage go under this law, ‘to father a child’ in the male context largely means providing a sperm, and at the most providing a steady income to sustain the child that is born thereafter. Women’s status as child bearers and nurturers demanded their continuous presence for years, feeding, cleaning, cooking, punishing, rewarding, marking special occasions and chaperoning the child (mostly alone) for a timespan that dominated their entire youthful, productive years.

As a daughter I was witness to my gifted mother always putting herself last, writing whenever she could squeeze out a few hours under a pseudonym of Shivani, using the cheapest paper, keeping her head down to stay off the radar of the family and still being taunted for not being good enough as a mother. And as she gained popularity, being pushed aside by male critics as writing on domestic themes and women and children. The term ‘domestic’ was never used pejoratively for male writers churning out reams of writing about families, especially their mothers.

From where we stand now, that template for motherhood was a keystone of a most diverse socio-political system that first segregated and then kept mothers at home, passive and modest and patient, or else they risked being labeled as slutty mums like the mother in Mannoo Bhandari’s classic Aapka Bunty. Amazingly as Durga worshippers, even the believers in the Shakta tradition in the hill regions harboured several unexamined assumptions: one, a mother is a mother is a mother. She shall find her chief gratification through mothering. Durga loomed large before them but as priests and controllers of the state’s coffers and armies, they asked Mother Durga to lend them back their arms: ‘Jai Ma Durge! Give us victory (Jayam Dehi).’ Never mind if it disempowered their own women and overlooked how Durga’s own deemed motherhood never deterred her from going into the battle field and winning. Another myth the neo-Hindutva supporters have clung to is that a mother loves her sons unconditionally no matter how the sons treat her. “Kuputro jayet kwachidapi kumata na bhavati (S son may turn out to be bad but never the mother,” said Adi Shankaracharya.

This Madonisation of the mother puts exceptional demands on harassed, perpetually overworked (and often short of cash) mothers while downgrading their potential as workers and leaders of men. Ask flesh and blood mothers. While the innocence and beauty of a child melts one’s heart, children’s need for constant attention, patience and expectation of an endless jollity from mothers often drives isolated young mothers into a deep despair. After Covid, there is a reported rise in the infamous post-natal blues that now seem to last years, not days. And we continue to believe motherhood is its own reward!

Women in my generation became mothers in the late 60s in an India steadily moving towards nuclear families and consumerism. Still husbands, in-laws and parents awaited the birth of the first grandchild, preferably a male, as soon as the knot was tied. To be a mother was becoming a complete woman. This posed problems for those who did not wish to be ‘complete like other women’ but had complex dreams about a career much like their husbands’ that would make them feel fulfilled and proud of themselves. The problem was the prevalent view of parenthood still presupposed the husband’s career to be more important for the family than the wife’s. Offers of help from men were construed as acts of generosity, not a justified duty. Intellectually, we knew the injustice in homes and workplaces, but the emotion-laden heavy maternal duties which we, the worshippers of Ma Durga, were handed, created within our minds a clutter and perennially short for time, we erred on the side of peace and functioned as a single parent while working full time. Still in the eyes of the family, the fathers “worked”. We the working mothers, struggling to bring our lives in focus after a professional gap of four-five years, were believed to be denying our children’s authentic needs in direct proportion to our visibility as good journalists.

Every Navratri, Durga thrusting her spear into the heart of darkness reminds us that motherhood has a history, an ideology that is more fundamental than nationalism or any political ‘isms’. In this tribal goddess, two ideas merge: the female body as males have defined it is a lie. The goddess will drink, eat meat, play football with demons’ heads, but remain beneficent, pure and is the only source of recreating life and sustaining order.

Mrinal Pande is a writer and veteran journalist.