[(essay date 2002) In the essay below, Chanda discusses Voices in the City as one of the few examples of Indo-English literature to set the reality of contemporary Indian maternity against the classical Indian myth of motherhood, which views the mother figure as both creator and destroyer.]
At first glance one is tempted to assert that there are no mothers in Indo-English novels by women. Vernacular or bhasha literature has numerous examples of complex mother figures. An unforgettable figure like Jashoda in Mahasweta Devi's Bengali short story, "Stanadayini" (Breast Giver), for example, has no parallel in Indo-English writing. Even the kind of mother-daughter relationships that are central in the novels of Amy Tan (1991, 1989), Isabelle Allende (1999, 1985, 1995), Alice Walker (1983), and Toni Morrison (1997, 1970) remain largely peripheral in Indo-English novels by women. The main role of the few mothers in this literature seems to be that of transmitters of cultural values.1
Yet, the mother figure has been central to Indian arts and ritual practices from as far back as 20,000 BC.2 The mother goddess was and is worshipped for her awesome powers of creation and protection as well as for her fearsome powers of destruction. The nationalists' deliberately evoked the nation as mother as a rallying symbol for anti-colonial resistance.3 Bollywood (Indian popular cinema) too, effectively used the symbol of the mother to embody the idea of the nation in classics such as "Mother India" and in more contemporary films. Indian cinema has contributed enormously to the projection of the image of the mother as a highly romanticised, nurturing and self-sacrificing figure. The mother-son bond particularly is highly valued. These over-drawn celluloid stereotypes dominate the popular imagination and mediate our perceptions of real mothers and of the ideology of motherhood. Additionally these invocations bear testimony to the continuing symbolic power of the mother figure.
The dichotomy inherent in the Mother figure of Indian mythology and culture is replayed with a certain difference in contemporary Indian society. It can be seen in the chasm between the adulation of the iconic mother (in both her creative and destructive aspects) and, the neglect and disrespect accorded to actual women--mothers, non-mothers and widows in particular. The sacralisation of motherhood prevalent in the Indian imagination is inherently problematic because on the one hand it is indicative of female creative power, which as Kamala Ganesh notes, "conveys not so much the ideas of physical motherhood but a world-view in which the creative power of femininity is central" (1990: 58). On the other hand, though, it is possible to read the deification of motherhood as Sukumari Bhattacharji does as "compensatory, seeking to recompense society's indifference to the mother" (1990: 50). The good-mother/bad-mother binary in Indo-English fiction can be traced back to Parvati, the nurturing mother goddess, and, her other side Kali--the goddess of destruction.
In popular imagination these twin facets of the same goddess complement and contrast each other as archetypal images. Kali's independence (of any male god),...