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May you be the mother of a hundred sons – Elisabeth Bumiller

February 12, 2007

motherofhundredsons.jpgI’m new to reading non-fiction. Perhaps, this is why it took me longer than usual to read this book.

The book is about Indian Women – by Elisabeth Bumiller, published in 1990. Being an Indian and a Woman, the book is of interest to me. Moreover, reading the state of Indian Women as perceived by a third party – an American Woman, is interesting.

A glance at the book’s cover, and I thought, this would be another book by a Foreign Woman writer where she would portray a blown up picture of how bad the condition of Indian women is, how they are tortured and ill-treated, how mindless the traditions are, how poor the poor women are, etc. But then, I was pleasantly surprised. Elisabeth Bumiller did try, not to be judgmental and succeeded thru most of the book. The picture she portrays about Indian Women is close to accurate. No doubt, the information provided is somewhat dated but, the problems she speaks about pretty much exist even today – only different in extent. Some things are better now and some things are worse.

Elisabeth speaks of sati and progressive women in India in the same breath. She does not just say – female feoticide (Sex selective abortion) happens in such and such village in Tamilnadu and goes on to crib how cruel it is, etc. She goes and finds out the root cause of this and gets pretty much convinced of the reasons. It is this element in the author, that makes the book flow from one problem to the other – dowry deaths, sati, female feoticide, problems of working women, women artists, urban women, etc. In the end, you see how they are all inter-related.

Despite its paradoxes, the lives of Indian Women are constantly troubled by one common problem – that looks not so important initially. The problem is, An average Indian man is far from beginning to respect an average Indian Woman. Centuries and centuries of such culture have given birth to, many other problems and nourished them.

Having been brought up mostly in urban India, I did not know quite a few things mentioned in this book. Still, when reading the book, I could relate to it most times.

It all starts at birth – those who know a girl is to be born kill it in the womb. Those that do not have access to such technology – kill the girl after it is born. They would not let a girl be born. This is because, a girl child brings along a bundle of problems both to her parents and to herself.

Though illegal, Dowry (wealth given to the groom’s family) is a very prevalent phenomenon. The groom’s side of the family consider it their right and bride’s side spend all their lives saving for the dowry. Some brides that do not bring enough dowry to satisfy the whims of their in-laws are burnt to death.

The classification is made at the time of birth of a Child. A Girl is a liability. A Boy is an asset. Since, a girl is to be given away in a wedding along with a lot of dowry, it is considered unnecessary to spend too much on her education/ food and she is never treated as apart of the family into which she is born. While boys her age, go to school and are preparing to face the life ahead, she is at home preparing for marriage. Thus handicapped from being able to do anything other than being married.

Thankfully, the inhuman practice of sati (the practice burning the widow of a man on his funeral pyre) is almost dead. But the condition of Widows in certain parts of India is still, pathetic.

Elisabeth’s interviews with working women – actresses, artists and others bring out a very interesting fact. Almost none of them think they never ever faced a problem because of being women. Could it be that, our expectations are low in the first place?

Aparna Sen, a renowned film director’s answer to one of Elisabeth’s question was very amusing and deep at the same time

Interviewers from other Indian magazines were always asking her how she managed to cope as a wife, mother and a filmmaker, and her answer was that she did not cope very well. “If you asked what is the most important thing about me, the answer is guilt,” she told me. “Every time I am knitting I feel I should be writing a script, and when I’m writing a script I feel guilty because I have not finished the cardigan for my father. When I am at work I feel, ‘Oh, my poor daughters, they are always deprived,’ and when I am looking after my daughters I think, ‘All these other people are working on their careers and what am I doing?'”

Elisabeth explores the life of a Woman police officer, Kiran Bedi who later would win the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1994. She compares it with the life of a particular average Delhi housewife. While Kiran Bedi is living away from her husband, doing exceptionally well at her profession and the housewife, living with her husband and children, occupied with the daily duties – both are content in their own ways.

This was a decent read.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 13, 2007 4:16 pm

    I could make out from the review that the book perhaps describes the progressive changes in the lives of Indian women which have been taking place over the years either due to their educational achievements, financial independence, various women friendly Laws enacted by Govt. of India and State Governments, Gender Budgeting and various other schemes/policies of Government of India and State Governments which have led to women enlightenment .
    Here, I would also like to draw attention of readers towards one of the news items I came across in a National Daily, describing biased attitude of a mother towards her daughter. The news item stated that of the twins who are now of 1.5 years, the daughter weighs only 3.5 kg whereas son was healthy with his weight around 6.5 kg. The mother, agreed to feed the girl properly only when she was threatened by the District Collector of the area.

  2. DS permalink*
    February 13, 2007 6:15 pm

    Here is the link to the article you are talking about:,prtpage-1.cms

  3. February 14, 2007 5:12 pm

    came across this blog and loved it..
    nice blog 🙂

  4. February 14, 2007 7:15 pm

    Thank you Daman

  5. July 10, 2007 1:30 pm

    I liked what Aparna Sen said in that interview. I think that guilt is prevalent amongst women only because the way they are brought up. Its inbred since birth that a woman has a defined set of mandatory responsibilities (“mandatory” not “only”). Once you feel like personal choice has taken over mandatory choice, guilt enters.
    Most of the things that women face in India are issues with rest of the world too (save Dowry).
    Its an irony that an American woman has come up with a book about Indian women. With their given 200+ years of independence, we are yet to see a woman president…where as we Indians… 🙂
    PS:- I have read this book. I am not per se a fan of feminist writers, but I do appreciate their literature. The book is mostly explores social evolution of women in India chronologically. Its a good read. Am looking forward for your future reviews of Sophie Kinsella.

  6. July 11, 2007 12:01 am

    @Spookie, you are so very right about – personal choice and mandatory choice. The expectations are unreasonable and women even try to match up to them. However, regarding, women-presidents, I have a lot to say 🙂 on the lines of – Having a good president takes a higher priority over having a woman president…. may be in some other post.

    Thanks for wanting to look forward to Sophie Kinsella’s reviews. As you might already know, it is light years from feminism – it is chick lit.

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