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Myth of the mother

Central to the concept of the mother in India is the idea of sacrifice. In the light of Mother Teresa's work and what she stood for, TISHANI DOSHI examines the...

SHAJU JOHN

MOTHER TERESA was voted India's greatest citizen in a recent poll conducted by Outlook magazine. The Mother, of course, did not have to compete with the Father of the Nation, as he is above such general voting procedures, but she easily slid past Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and Sachin Tendulkar, to bag the top spot. India, historically, has always revered her mothers and there have been many ammas in the political, spiritual, and religious pantheon, but a female has always embodied her highest office when she fulfils the simple, traditional role of "mother." This is because the female is the origin of all creation; she is the primeval force, prakriti, shakti; all that is divine and abundant.

Tracing her development from the Indus Valley terracottas which fashioned women of full-breasts and eager, wide hips, to the depiction of goddesses who transcended mythology and graced the carvings of temple walls, many-armed goddesses who were mothers of a hundred sons, right up to present day portrayals, we see that this role of "abundance" has not abated. Blame it on art, blame it on literature, blame it on the movies. But the mother has been venerated precisely because of her capability of giving life, her war-like fertility.

And yet India, for all her Oedipal fascination, has never had a mother of the nation. The nation itself has always been mother. The entire topography of the country is dominated by the feminine; every tree, river, mountain, stream, language, claims a feminine descent. We have an ongoing love affair with the word mother. The very word mother, uttered in any Indian language, comes packed with such powerful intonations, that if used in the right circumstances, could make the grizzliest of men sink to his knees and weep. Women too, for they are the greatest propagators of their own myths.

Following this line of thought then, Mother Teresa remains somewhat of an enigma because aside from being distinctly un"Indian," she was also categorically celibate. How could our greatest mother not fulfil her basic reproductive role? Waste her womanhood, as it were? Agnes Bojaxhiu came to India in 1948, following a calling from God. She became the phenomenon that is Mother Teresa, Angel of Kolkata's gutters, thanks largely due to a combination of her angular, uncompromising personality and the West's need to assuage their own sense of guilt towards the "Third World".

Mother Teresa was successful in attracting many self-sacrificers to help her in her cause. But her greatest coup de grace has been her fundamental stance against abortion and the use of contraception. This has added hundreds to our already staggering balance sheet of millions, and, for this green signal towards unrestrained productivity, perhaps she can be given her due as surrogate mother.

In her Nobel Peace prize speech in 1979 (She is the only Indian to have this honour), she deemed abortion as the greatest threat to world peace. Holding a religious, moral, ethical stance against abortion is one thing, but equating that with the use of contraceptives is another thing entirely. Seen in this context then, the very act of sex is deemed necessary only when aimed at procreation. This calls into question some integral issues: our views on sexuality, relationships, love. In a country with the largest growing population in the world, this kind of militant view against contraception is not just alarming; it is heretical. To dismiss hungry mouths as sufferings from God, which we must eagerly embrace and bear, is difficult to stomach. Of course, it is not entirely new. The Father of the Nation also famously asked us to think of a child, not as an extra mouth to feed, but as two extra hands to work. This, in direct opposition to Indira Gandhi's (also a "great" mother) enforced sterilisations in the 1970s, implies that we are clearly looking for a balance, a centre around which to hang our ideas. There are other implications as well: the problems of rape, prostitution, female infanticide, adultery, and the spread of AIDS.

The President of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Family, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, recently went on record stating that the Vatican had scientific proof that condoms had holes in them through which the AIDS virus could pass. This is the message that is being spread by missionaries in churches all across the world. In a recent documentary by Steve Bradshaw of the BBC, he examined these devastating effects in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In a village in Kenya, one in every three persons is dying of AIDS and the church expressly forbids condom distribution; in the Philippines, a mother of seven never contemplates using contraceptives because it is deemed a "sin" by the Catholic church; in Nicaragua, you can be excommunicated from the church for abortion, even if you are the parents of an eight-year-old girl who was the brutal victim of rape. But Mother Teresa has not been without her detractors. British columnist, Christopher Hitchens, has possibly been her most vociferous critic. In his documentary "Hell's Angels", and in his book The Missionary Position, he accuses her of exploiting her fame, accepting funding from questionable sources such as the Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti, and refusing to give any account of the money she received in donations. He deeply criticises the mass media, saying that he has seen a "collective hallucination occur" with regard to Mother Teresa's life.

Aroup Chatterjee explores her life in his book, Mother Teresa: The Final Verdict. His issue is not so much that she did not address suffering, but that there was a "stupendous discrepancy between her image and her work," which he also believes to have been helped along by a "culture of deception." And one year after her first death anniversary, the German magazine Stern, published a searing critique of her work in an article titled, "Mother Teresa, Where Are Your Millions?" An article that took a year's research in three continents and concluded that her organisation did not deserve to be called a charitable foundation.

For all this criticism, Mother Teresa has done one thing. She has irreparably changed the idea of "Mother" in India. She has raised the bar of expectation. Already, we have been trained to think of mothers as ultimate sacrificers.

Mother Teresa offered something far more mysterious and appealing than the Mohenjodaro girl: she offered purity. This further solidifies the expectations that Indian society already places on its young women. On October 18, 2003, India gave up her most famous mother to the world. She was beatified by Pope John Paul II in the Vatican in conjunction with his celebrations of 25 years in the papacy. She is now on the fast track to become the first Indian ever to be canonised as a saint despite the pooh-poohs about the validity of her one miracle, and will from now on be known as "the blessed Mother Teresa."

We have had many god men and women, many saints, many sadhus, but none have been formally recognised or sanctioned by the western world. The whole phenomena has left Indians clamouring, wanting to reach out and claim. Because this is the other thing: we love our sentimental stories. We love them better if they come packed and gift-wrapped by somebody else, because we don't have to think about it, we just accept it whole-heartedly, as a given, as a universal, as an absolute truth.

The high moral ground that the institutional Catholic Church treads is a dangerous, beautiful ground. It appears wonderfully flat, idealistic and undented, barring a few glaring eruptions of scandals involving altar boys and women who have come forward with lusty tales in the last few years. Somewhere, the whole murky territory of sexuality and morality has gotten mixed up, and this is where the ambiguity lies. There is a division in thought and action, what we say we think and what we actually think, and this division has caused tremendous conflict in how we view our women and our mothers, and the relationships we have with them. Women need to be released from the myth of the mother. Only when a woman is empowered with her own reproductive rights, when she is emancipated from the various myths that surround her, when she has the freedom to explore the full range of her abilities and energies, will she realise what is feminine, what is mother, what is beyond simple procreation.

Mother Teresa provided easy formulations. She gave the West an ointment to soothe their guilt; she gave Indians a legacy, which they could claim was of their own making. But the essential thing to note is that the role she played could never have been played by a man. It would not have captured the world's imagination as it did. A man would have lacked the necessary grace and eloquence. Central to the idea of Mother Teresa is this idea of womanhood, of the feminine, of selflessness, calling and sacrifice. Central to the idea of myth, is power. The power to propagate, the power to defend, the power to alienate.

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