This book was sent to me by Francesca Orsini, professor of Hindi and South Asian Literature at SOAS, University of London. I met her recently to discuss Multilingual Locals & Significant Geographies (Mulosige), a fantastic five-year project she is leading to explore new approaches to world literature, focusing on north India, the Horn of Africa and the Maghreb.
During the course of our discussion, a number of fascinating books came up. A few days later, I was delighted to find several of them dropping onto my doormat. They included Intizar Husain’s short-story collection A Chronicle of the Peacocks, translated from the Urdu by Alok Bhalla and Vishwamitter Adil; Qurratulain Hyder’s Fireflies in the Mist, transcreated from the Urdu original by the author; and the Bollywood-optioned hit novel The Zoya Factor by Anuja Chauhan.
One in particular caught my eye, however, and within a few pages, I knew it would be my book of the month.
Geetanjali Shree’s 1993 novel Mai, translated from the Hindi by Nita Kumar and published as Mai: Silently Mother in 2017, is a compelling exploration of gender politics. Set around a house in a north Indian town, where three generations of one family play out and struggle against the social dynamics that have been handed down to them, the book examines the problematic, multifaceted role of motherhood.
At first glance, the structure of the novel is deceptively simple. Narrator Sunaina recalls her upbringing and the longing she and her brother felt to free their mother, Mai, from the traditional patterns that seemed to smother her. Through her eyes, we follow the household across the decades that led Sunaina to maturity and brought about her parents and grandparents’ decline and demise.
At every stage, however, Shree unfolds multiple layers of action, revealing the rough edges where personal inclination grates against conditioning and societal expectations, forcing the characters to make choices that leave them uneasy. Although Sunaina and Subodh dream of freeing their mother from oppression, they persist in projecting their own desires onto her and dictating to her in much the same way as they perceive their father to do; however much they fantasise about escaping the stifling atmosphere of home, they find themselves drawn back repeatedly to its embrace.
A similar technique is at work on the linguistic level. Although never bald, the language that unfolds the story is disarmingly simple and, for that very reason, profound. Translator Nita Kumar, who has added an illuminating afterword, deserves credit for the way she has been able to convey beauty, humour, hypocrisy and contradiction in words that are as precise as they are spare. Sunaina’s description of one of her earliest conscious encounters with her grandfather’s misogyny provides a great example:
‘[Dada] disliked women. He did not want any females to be seen in the front part of the house. I remember there were berry bushes along the gravel path from the gate to the house. We were always picking on those purple, sometimes raw green, seeds. There would be the sound of the gate opening. Without bothering to check who had come, dada would say, “Go inside Sunaina, ask them to send some refreshments.” At that moment I could see the woman in myself.’
In this way, Shree and Kumar convey the doubleness that is at work throughout Mai, complicating and problematising every claim the narrator tries to make.
It is a storytelling that is deeply aware of its own limitations. As Sunaina informs us in the opening chapter, memory is ‘not so much untrue as incomplete’. ‘Mai is somewhere right now, whole, but when we catch her and bind her up in our words, she may be made half’.
Far from undermining the telling, however, this awareness of the ‘trap formed by words’ becomes one of the novel’s greatest strengths. Through its constant process of correction, qualifying and reformulating, the narrative points the way to the profound love and respect that must ultimately arise from an appreciation of the complexity and unknowability of others.
Good writers create urgent dramas that draw readers in. Great writers involve readers in the drama and urgency that underlies everyday experience. That is what Geetanjali Shree and Nita Kumar do with Mai. As Professor Francesca Orsini writes in the quote I discovered from her on the back cover when I finished the novel:
‘Mai pokes at, loops, circles and curls around characters and memories until they open up and yield new sides and insights and nothing is left the same as it was. Certainly not the reader. A deeply enriching reading experience.’
Mai: Silently Mother by Geetanjali Shree, translated from the Hindi by Nita Kumar (Niyogi Books, 2017)
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