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Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg after a town hall at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California. Photo: Stephen Lam/Reuters
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg after a town hall at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California. Photo: Stephen Lam/Reuters

India’s mothership

The PM or Hindi cinema, our obsession with mothers forgets the other extreme of maternal mortality ratestill the highest in the world

It is difficult to say if Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg watches Indian films, but he certainly understands the cellular structure of our filial fabric well.

It was he who asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi about his mother when the latter visited the Facebook headquarters in Silicon Valley last week.

Zuckerberg could have just omitted the reference—after all, when was the last time German Chancellor Angela Merkel, or British Prime Minister David Cameron were asked to speak about their mothers? But Zuckerberg knows better. It takes at least two characters to make good theatre—to prompt and provoke the other into an expression that makes for perfect timing. So, Zuckerberg and Modi: perfect question, perfect timing.

Most Indian men become mushy when asked about their mothers; the PM is no exception.

Choked with tears when he spoke about his now 90-year-old mother’s toil in other people’s homes so that she could raise her children, Modi also threw in a line about the sacrifices “Indian mothers" make.

The now enervating, now empowering vocabulary that define Modi’s speeches outside India usually gallop over a vast lineup of subjects, most delivered with a suitably sentimental anecdote. So, if he allowed himself momentary vulnerability, I can’t see what’s wrong with it.

Modi also brought up the word Bharat Mata (mother India) in a couple of other references during his address to the Indian diaspora at San Jose. But this one incident apart, it is our national obsession with mothers that needs to be periodically put on the couch and “analysed".

The Indian mother, especially when she is not a caricature, is a tear-jerking, sacrificing, sari-clad, unbelievably sweet and reverential woman whose “mamta" (motherly instinct) has no cultural comparisons anywhere in the world. Why so?

We are a part of the same sea of humanity but our mothers are fixated with goodness and martyrdom as their spiritual code and we are fixated with them. Men certainly are.

I am not speaking of Modi as I have no comprehension or information of the kind of relationship he shares with his mother, but the Indian mother-son relationship is psychologically Oedipal and obsessive in very strange ways.

Film after Hindi film—a list would be endless—but let’s say from Mother India of 1957 to Haider of 2014, glorifies the mother’s supreme status in a man’s life. At the same time, the son flexes his conscience as he brings to her feet retribution and revenge for all the wrongs the world has done to her. She is a wronged woman essentially, this Indian mother in the film script.

She is also the biggest trophy for the son—why do you think the immortal, gut-wrenching line “mere paas maa hai" (I have mother) from the 1975 film Deewar hangs as a Damocles’ sword in our minds all the time?

Search for songs related to motherhood from Hindi films on the Internet and you find a tear-jerker list. There is a film called Maa (mother), of course, and another called Beta (son)—both revolve around the compelling Indian mother-son dynamics. Operative word: Indian.

I remember sobbing as a child when my mother read out a story from the Panchtantra in which a mother’s bleeding heart that a son has knifed out for his beloved speaks up anxiously when he stumbles in the forest.

Multiple references from popular culture, mythology and folklore that fuse motherland, the goddess as all-pervading mother and the extraordinariness of the biological mother make motherhood a very complicated and intimidating idea for us. It is not easy to live this relationship from either side of the fence.

My son, a lawyer now studying for his masters in the US, looks rather tearful when he hears motherhood stories. He hugs me tight when he listens to the song Maa from the film Taare Zameen Par, the lyrics of which express loss and loneliness in the absence of a mother. I react only as an “Indian" mother would. My son becomes my deewar (wall) and my swades (homeland). That’s why the other extreme of this sentimental whirlpool remains shocking.

According to a UN report of last year, India has the highest maternal mortality rate (MMR) in the world. It has noticeably progressed in bringing the incidence down but it still lags behind the UN-mandated Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of bringing a 75% decline in the MMR till 2015. Motherhood’s physical realities still need a lot of attention. Safe pregnancies and deliveries, curb on child marriages and thus teenage motherhood, pre- and post-partum health, vaccination, breastfeeding, nutrition and reversal of infant mortality are some of them. They need to be addressed so that the most emotionally potent dream of India doesn’t turn into a nightmare for those who live on the margins of our society.

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