Janani, or mother as the creator of life. Defines this narrative collection. The book brings
together autobiographical writings of women from many walks of life-noted authors, artists,
academics-to share their experiences of being mothers, daughters, or both. The accounts
combine memory and nostalgia in nuanced detail, making each narrative heart-warming and, at
times, profoundly challenging.
The contributors abandon their public faces to provide humane, intimate and
compelling narratives. The collection includes accounts of adoptive motherhood,
stepmothering and single motherhood. On the one hand, the reader encounters the wrenching
pain of an abortion, while on the other, the choice of a woman determined not to be a
mother. The Janani stories vividly explore the whole gamut of motherhood.
Immensely readable, the volume has a wide appeal-not just for mothers and daughters,
but for fathers and sons as well; in fact, for all those who celebrate the rare gift of
About the Author
Rinki Bhattacharya is Director of the Bimal Roy Memorial Committee. She is also a
well-known journalist and documentary film-maker based in Mumbai.
Janani was a spontaneous response to our anxious mood-particularly mine-more than a decade
and a half back. I remember it being a curiously bewildering phase. A period when I was
beginning to feel excluded from the mainstream activities of my own family. But, it took me
a foolishly long time to realize that I had been practically 'retired' as a mother. My
retirement, however, brought none of the benefits one associates with several years of
dedicated service. Nor had I transformed overnight into a gray-haired venerable elder. For
sometime, I hung around like a solitary note after the orchestra ensemble falls silent.
Used to a bustling home, being at the beck and call of the children, I seemed
redundant and sadly, unwanted. This phase has been referred to as the 'empty nest'
period-when children, lime birds, have flown away by simply growing up. It was abundantly
clear that my children no longer needed a mother. Except on rare occasions. I ws not
required on a minute-to-minute basis. Locked as women are, in their traditional mothering
images, Indian mothers refuse to believe that children, at all, grow up. Few women accept
the fact of ever becoming redundant to their beloved children. Mothers encounter traumatic
experiences, as a result. Sometimes this can adversely affect the relationship between
mothers and children-often leaving permanent scars.
I admit being completely disoriented and bruised for a considerably long period of
indeed it took me years to recover from this sense of rejection. I wonder at times, if
I have recovered fully. Recently, I was watching the exquisitely crafted film biography of
James M. Barrie (the creator of Peter Pan) titled Finding Neverland with the dashing
Johnny Depp portraying the writer; Barrie. In one unforgettable scene he wistfully says:
'Children should never be sent to bed, they wake up one day older and before we know they
are grown up', expressing sentiments most mothers would endorse.
In addition to being a retired mother, by the early 1990s, I had earned the dubious
distinction of being divorced and single. The social isolation produced by this lethal
combination was claustrophobic, to say the least. On the positive side, many of my friends
were speedily 'retiring' as mothers. Some of our children had migrated abroad. Others had
moved on in life. They-the children-had literally performed vanishing acts. But if any one
of us was going through unbearable pangs of separation, that pain was stifled, or hidden
successfully, from others. We concealed our throbbing pain, the inevitable emptiness,
wearing a mask of carefully constructed nonchalance. A few of us had been actively
associated with the autonomous women's movement. Our exposure to women's issues brought a
certain edge to understanding the harsh reality of women-or mothers-in similar situations.
Urmila (Pawar) has repeatedly observed in her narrative, 'The Cross a Woman Carries' about
women being perceived as having neither existence nor identity except as a mother. In
Mahashweta Devi's collection, In the Name of the Mother (2004) there is one story
titled 'Ma from Dawn to Dusk'. Her eloquent title affirms that women are nothing but
Ancient people once referred to all females as 'mother'. This was prompted by their
reverence for the wonderful capacity women possess to create people-'a miracle all women
and only women are able to perform, whether or not we do so'. There is little shift in
this universal perception about women. In this system, woman can rarely hope to escape
motherhood if they were to wish it.
That was, however, entirely untrue about the women who eventually constructed
Janani. None of us were merely Mothers. Nor were we those eternally sobbing,
sacrificing stereotypes of mothers thrown up routinely on the Bollywood screen! Even at the
bleakest time, I had at least one newspaper column to write for. Amongst the other retiring
mothers were many stalwarts eminent writers, performing artists, activists and foremost
feminist scholars in creative fields as well as critical. Each one had secured a niche.
This, I consider one of the most fascinating and important aspects of Janani.
Unredeemed loneliness, I think, has the uncanny knack of ushering in the creative
process. The process beings once we acknowledge that things could not get any worse. And
this book is a living testimony to the fact that out of a deep chasm of pain emerge works of
great significance. One of the ploys I engaged in to silence my own growing loneliness was
to discreetly plan 'tea' at home. I would invite some of the retired mothers who were after
all, dear friends. Soon these 'tea' sessions at home turned into a lively forum. At the
informal forum our grievances-even anger could be voiced or the emotional vacuum filled-even
At one of these meetings, I remember casually suggesting that we ought to register
our frustrations, anger, confusion and conflicting thoughts about motherhood in general and
link it to our personal experiences. In other words, make honest observations about the way
women feel once their children move on. Every time out little group met-often without
agenda-we bonded closer. Frequent rounds of mint tea and savories, revived our spirits. We
talked of issues close to our heart. Attention was drawn to the lonely course motherhood had
taken and our concern about women's redundancy as 'mothers' (parents in general) soon
overtook others concerns. Many of us even wondered if motherhood was not strictly a duty
without rights or rewards?
When Janani tentatively started, none of the writers had the slightest notion
about the fate of our essays. But the idea was enthusiastically greeted. As already
mentioned, none of the women were merely house-views nor mothers. Each of us had a distinct
professional identity-for example, Navjot was a well-known, contemporary painter (she
dropped out later), Neela Bhagwat-an accomplished khayal exponent and Urmila was a
highly regarded Dalit writer. Dhiruben was the most acclaimed and inspirational figure
amongst us. Interestingly, she is the only non-biological mother writing on motherhood.
Dhiruben cheerfully argues that, to be a mother, one does not have to actually give birth!
She is not the only practitioner of that belief. In the Indian joint family system childless
widows often became surrogate mothers, as do unmarried aunts. The practice continues. These
women were no less loving than biological mothers.
The meeting that led to the idea of expressing our thoughts on motherhood was a
definitive moment. It helped lay down the cornerstone for this fine collection. As the idea
of documenting our thoughts came in an instant-so did the essays. Following this, in the
second meeting, we decided to request others-distinguished women who had chosen their
vocations, their destiny
dancers, writers, activists, painters, poets-to join the book
project to share their personal experiences of motherhood and daughterhood. I doubt the two
can be separated into watertight compartments-both constantly interface. Clash, or
compliment and nurture one another-what Virginia Woolf refers to as 'thinking through our
Without further delay, I dispatched requests to various friends. Many of the essays
arrived in less than a week. The first essay came from Kamala Das. Shashi Despande's
persuasive piece, 'Learning to be a Mother' followed. Mallika (Sarabhai) and Rekha
(Rodwittiya) responded at once. The collection, now grew in volume. These essays and those
by Jyotsna Kamal and Pratibha Ranade belong to the early phase-roughly 1994-95. But like
Behind Closed Doors (2004), I had to put Janani into cold storage. Until the release
and subsequent recognition of my above book on domestic violence-the Janani
manuscript continued to languish.
During the Kolkata book release of Behind Closed Doors in June 2004, I met
Bharati Ray. I casually mentioned working on a collection of essays titled Janani to
Bharatidi, who seemed greatly interested. She required little convincing and her moving
essay arrived in a matter of weeks. By then Sage had expressed positive interest in the
project, which ws indeed heartening news. So, I boldly invited several writers of
repute-Roshan G. Shahani, Nabaneeta Dev Sen, Nita Ramaiya, C.S. Lakshmi to join the project.
Meanwhile, Dr. Jasodhara Bagchi agreed to write the Foreword. Even after her Foreword was
dispatched, two of our contributors-the youngest of the lot, a journalist colleague Deepa
(Gahlot) and my daughter Anwesha (Arya), wanted to contribute, without hesitation, I
welcomed them,. Both delve into deeply disturbing-in fact, the darker side-of motherhood.
Deepa's piece de resistance audaciously defends a woman's decision to remain
child-free in a society where such a decision invites ridicule, not respect. But Deepa
represents the new-age woman. She draws our attention to a common burden mothers carry-that
of guilt. Deepa's personal struggle against conformity, her decision to remain childless, is
the only voice against motherhood.
And Anwesha's poignant account arrived when the book had left my desk for the
publishers. Her essay on the unspeakable-'abortion'-is filled with the desperate unhappiness
of a young girl whose journey to motherhood was stonewalled by social censure. By a joyous
coincidence she is about to be the mother of her first born. Tutun's (Mukherjee) evocative
essay was delayed by the sad demise of her mother and my friend Maithili (Rao) graciously
agreed to join last month-her piece completes Janani's charmed circle.
The essays view motherhood from a spectrum of kaleidoscopic perspectives. Many of
the authors pay belated homage to their mothers. Is it not a tragic irony that we take our
own mothers for granted during their lifetime and value them too late? Fewer write about
their children and lesser number of writers turn their inner eye on themselves. It is the
two younger authors who air their views about unconventional personal choices and their
headlong clash with traditional ideas of motherhood. Experience is considered a major
critical tool in women's writing. All these essays, in dwelling on important issues
experientially, hold the mirror to our cultural legacy.
However, none of the authors enter into the grave issue of Indian society's
condemnation of women who fail to give birth to children. Nor is there any debate on how
childless women are routinely ill-treated as inauspicious creatures, especially seen in
their exclusion from most fertility rites. Also, the portrait of mothers who burn their
young daughters-in-law, is absent from this picture gallery. But patriarchal ideology blames
women for all their misfortunes. They are tortured or abandoned if they do not give birth to
sons, or on other pretexts. These issues deserve our vigilante attention, some day, in
Despite the hard and endless struggle involved-or perhaps because of it-I was
determined to get this marvelous anthology published. With my terrible track record of
losing important documents-passports, cheque books, ration cards-it is nothing short of a
miracle that the earlier essays survived. Our collective work, rejected several times by
important publishers and after languishing for nearly a dozen years, is unbelievably, coming
out of the shadows.
I am grateful to those friends who encouraged me-particularly Asha Damle. And I am
immensely fortunate for the support of my contributors and my publishers, Sage Publications
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