Mothers and Others: Kamla’s World and Beyond

Being a mother is serious business in India, and much cultural activity focuses on the preparation for motherhood, a role that is granted special status. This article is based around the narrative of one woman as she weaves her story of motherhood in response to interview questions. Kamla’s responses bring out dramatic generalisations, serious presumptions and strong beliefs, all in the process of presenting her views. Kamla was selected for many reasons. She was enthusiastic to participate in this research study, requesting a recording of the session, saying she wants to preserve it for her grandchildren. She saw herself as a custodian of the dying Indian tradition that appeared to be slipping away between her fingers as modernisation takes over. The discussion centred around the main themes emerging from her observations. It was argued that her views are neither contrary to the prevailing cultural beliefs, nor a minority voice.

Women and mothers in everyday life

In the study of children and mothers, it is argued that child development research has presented family activities as if mothers had nothing else in their lives apart from responding to and ‘stimulating’ their children. More often than not, academic writing has followed traditional constructions of women. Feminist literature has attempted to transcend this view by encouraging the shift towards looking beyond the roles and relationships within the family.

Indian womanhood stands firmly rooted to traditional commitments of children and family despite the tugging forces of modernity. Kamla’s views (name changed) reflect the pressures that the modern woman faces from a specific section past. Being female in ancient Indian literature has been explained from various stances, among them the essentialist position of the ‘shakti’ force of the powerful, protecting woman as well as the ‘sati-savitri’ image of a dutiful wife and mother. On the other hand we have contemporary feminist movement that adopts a campaign for redefining womanhood, unencumbered by roles and relationships. Living in between the challenges of modern roles and relationships and traditional beliefs, contemporary Indian women search for their identity about how to be a woman and how to balance the competing identities.

This study was undertaken to investigate the beliefs about lay people (both men and women) regarding their beliefs and attitudes about the feelings of Mamta, and Kamla was a participant. The introductory part of the in depth interview focussed on people’s understanding of the word itself, then moving towards discussions of the phenomenon of Mamta; whether it was exclusive to the mother-child relationship, whether the feelings can change over time, and also approaching specific issues like adoption, gender differences and stages of life (each with specific references to the ‘arousal’ of feelings of Mamta.

Language and reality

In every cultural location, there is an intrinsic relationship between language and reality. There is sufficient evidence to show that vocabulary of any given domain of activity is illustrative of the particular emphases of the cultural group. Cultural knowledge is socially and historically constructed and each culture is an assortment of ways of being that are created and combined in particular ways, responding to features of the natural, historical and social environments. The interdependence between language and culture is as subtle as it is powerful, a connection that is mostly unknown to a native user of any language.

To extend the discussion to the domain of motherhood in India, one could say with confidence, the phenomenon of motherhood is a critical one. The division of kin terminology further demonstrates that the conception of socialisation activity and relationships between adults and children is textured with gender specific roles and relationships. For instance, the activity of parenting can be seen as distinct for mothers and fathers by looking at the local terminology (in Hindi). The absence of an equivalent term for ‘parent’ in common parlance, makes it rather difficult to indicate a generic term for activities of both mother and father. The prevalent style of discussing mother and father together when the need arose was found to be “mummy-papa” rather like the frequent twinning of relationships like “dada-dadi” (paternal grandfather-paternal grandmother) or “bahen-bhai” (sister-brother). This twinning of terms in order to speak about people rather than using a common word like ‘grandparents’ or ‘siblings’ alerts us to the separation of the terms is critical for the ways in which relationships are spoken about. In this gender organisation, the role of a mother stands out as a glorified one and much cultural content is focussed on this issue, whether it is everyday talk, ancient texts or contemporary literature.

Mamta and motherhood

In India, the family is central in an Indian’s life and the parents are valorised, certainly, the mother is in the core position. Some of the expressions about the importance of mothers are typically melodramatic and over-determined by meaning. The ‘mother’ is a highly developed metaphor for the identity of a person and it is common to identify a person as X’s son or daughter. This is also true for the mother, who is often addressed as mother of Y, particularly in rural communities. Over the years, the term ‘mother’ has become much larger and more exaggerated than the relationship itself.

The terminology surrounding parenting tasks is a rich domain that would illustrate the degree of detail and glossing of particular relationships in every language. Hindi has no equivalent word for ‘parent’. Searching within the terminology, one can speculate that the place of mothers and fathers is believed to be different, and using a generic term (parent) for them would be inappropriate. The closest usage for the term parents is ‘maa-baap’ or the combination of ‘mother-father’. It is not possible to reduce the reference beyond that except in the formal usage ‘abhibhavak’ or guardian.

Mamta is a Hindi word that is believed to be closely linked to the experience of being mother. The Hindi dictionary lists several synonyms for Mamta, a noun with a feminine marking. It is also fairly popular as a woman’s given name. In the dictionary, the word is preceded by a linked word mam (mine – masculine or feminine). Mamta has an elaborate list of meanings: starting with ‘Yeh mera hai’ is prakar ka bhav (this is mine, this kind of feeling), mamatva, apnapan (self-feeling), lobh (greed), moh (love), abhimaan (pride), garv (pride), sneh, prem (both meaning love); and lastly we find mata ka apni santan ke prati sneh (a mother’s love for her child). The Sanskrit root word from which mamta derives is mamatva that means ‘love for the self’ and pride. In the study of the ambient meaning of Mamta, however, it was found that the primary meaning articulated by people, men and women, was ‘love of a mother for her child’. All other meanings failed to find any expression.

Choosing Kamla

Kamla was one of the 20 respondents in a study of Mamta[1]. During the course of the study, she was one of the most enthusiastic participants, and impressed the research team with her willingness and excitement about the project. She felt that it provided her an opportunity to discuss an issue that she was passionate about, motherhood. At no point did Kamla express any doubt or hesitation about what she was saying; she was articulate and confident of her views. This paper presents her answers, with a commentary. Before launching into Kamla’s views, a brief discussion of the rationale for choosing her.

One of the most outstanding things about Kamla was her self-assurance. Even more than the views she communicated it was her enthusiasm that captured the interest of the research team. We will argue that Kamla’s responses had each of these qualities, being extreme and exceptional in some ways and interesting and illustrative in others. She was exceptional in her expression of severity in the evaluation of present day childcare. In her dialogues, one finds many notions (like that of ‘inborn’ femininity) stretched almost to breaking point. Kamla speaks with ease of matters that many would hesitate to even think about. She articulates her dogma as if it were her special idea about being human, casually dismissing the struggles of modern women in their pursuit of alternate ways of living within and beyond cultural constraints. One can see evidence of the insidious way in which cultural reality manifests itself in the individual psyche. Kamla also presents the views as her own, with no space for doubt or delay while condemning contemporary Indian society. Regarding her enthusiasm and eagerness, Kamla’s responses were substantial, her manner forthcoming and friendly, thereby making her an interesting case to use for illustrating the ways in which these ideas combine in her ideology.

Kamla’s construction of motherhood

Kamla emerged as a feminist’s worst nightmare. She pitched herself ‘against’ the women of today who she thinks, are occupying themselves with distractions that causes them to stray away from the basic purpose of being woman. Her essentialist argument for womanhood carves out a limited agenda, the care of the family, a task for which the young girl is prepared by a (biological) disposition. She feels that mothers have a special gift, the ability and eagerness to care for another person.

“A mother’s love for her child is incomparable to any other form of affection among humans. The love which a mother shows for her children cannot be equalled by anybody. We love everybody even the trees and plants in our home but the love which a mother has for her children is known as Mamta and it cannot be compared to any other love. This quality which a woman has, I think she gets it right from her birth.”

Talking about being female, she firmly believes that the preparation for being mother, is something that even little girls express from an early age,

“When she is a little girl she loves her inanimate doll a lot, takes good care of her, at times she makes her cry falsely and then soothes her, at times she feeds her by making her eat something or the other, and at times she makes her fall ill then gives her medicines and cares for her. So she gives so much love to her doll that she does not give to any other thing in her home. So according to me a women gets this right from her birth and as she grows up gradually this love of hers also grows. As she gives birth to the child or when she conceives the child this Mamta gets attached to her. For her she, like I have experienced, I don’t know much about others. I am telling you what I have experienced so from very beginning she starts dreaming for the child, she not only loves the child, for her the child’s future what he/she wants to be all this gets attached with her from the start. Since the time the child comes in her stomach she starts giving it love, affection and mamta. So when the child is born she gives her full love to bring her up. For this even the God helps her by giving her the feed for the child. God gives her milk also, I have seen in this in the world that the amount of love a mother gives her child, the God also gives her that much milk. Some mothers who doesn’t get the feeling of mamta or mothers who does not want to give birth to a child don’t even get milk in their breasts.”

According to Kamla, the presence of a child in a woman’s life is supposed to provide completion to her being, a view that resonates with the prevalent belief in the self. The happiness and the satisfaction that a woman derives from her relationship with the child is an outcome of the self-fulfilling love. This here is seen as a formula wherein the presence of another in a person’s life is seen as the reason for individual completeness (Chaudhary, 2004; Trawick, 1990). However, one finds it difficult to resolve some of the assumptions that Kamla seems to make with so much ease. Is being female so irrelevant outside of motherhood? Is that the essence of Indian views on women? Certainly instances from history would be able to prove otherwise. From ancient times, real and mythical stories have displayed the strength and effectiveness of women in many domains, although being mother is an important one. However, one could not say that culturally being woman can be reduced to being a ‘mother’. Kamla presents a specific slice of the cultural reality that seems to preoccupy her thoughts.

In a recent study on day care choices of urban educated mothers, Kapoor found a similar refrain among the caregivers of children of working mothers. The prevailing view of the day care teachers, helpers and grandmothers was that the woman’s primary responsibility was to care for her child. Interestingly, the maternal grandmothers in the study provided an interesting contrast to the day care teachers, the helpers and paternal grandmothers. As mothers of young women who were educated, these women provided whole-hearted support for the careers of their daughters. The arguments they used were that as qualified women, it was important for self-fulfilment and happiness to have work and earn a salary. Of course this was not to happen at the cost of the child, they were there to provide the support for the care of the young children. In all other instances, the caregivers felt that the place of a young child was with the mother or a family member and not in institutional care. With increasing numbers of women opting for careers outside the home, the care of young children is becoming increasingly problematic due to such pressures from society. This example provides an interesting paradox. The same situation was evaluated differently depending upon the relationship with the person. An employed woman was evaluated negatively as a daughter-in-law, a colleague, a client and an employer, but as a daughter, she received full support and encouragement.

Kamla the respondent

In her approach to the researchers, Kamla was affectionate and forthcoming. She frequently addressed the young women as “children” or “child” with affection. Her manner was able to endear the researchers to her person, and made her one of the most ‘discussed’ cases during the fieldwork. She also spoke of her ambition to write a book on mothering so that she could make her views public, and future generations could access her thoughts.

“Now at times at midnight I think a lot, I think I should get up and write something, on child development, on children, how the child is, how the child is when he is born, in what environment how mother and father should care for the child, all this. So my heart says that I should write and tell today’s mothers where are they wrong”

Like many other respondents in the study, she declares that feeling of Mamta defies simple explanation, and then embarks into elaborate explanations without being daunted by that clause.

“Child (to the researcher), the feeling of mamta cannot be described….its a lot (pause)….she considers herself happy and satisfied that is called mother’s mamta. Every moment she lives and dies for her child and every moment she feels from inside she feels herself complete.”

Perhaps one can assume that the initial trepidation is strategic, since this attitude facilitates the opening up of a discussion. It is quite likely that during the interview, the respondents actually construct, reorganise and reconfigure their thoughts as they speak. It is difficult to imagine that issues about which we interview people in research are always well thought out a priori. Thus, the opening statements are critical to the entry into a specific domain of discussion for the interviewees.

Researchers often enter into social investigations naively assuming that respondents will have distinct ideas about the area of investigation, and are often disappointed, by the frequent inability to discover the same enthusiasm or understanding for the issues under study in the respondents as they have. Gradually, with experience that leads to repeated confrontations with this fact, a researcher develops the realisation that what may be a high priority for them may not necessarily be so for the other person. Kamla, however, provides a contrast to that. She was very enthusiastic about our study.

Past ‘perfect’

Kamla believes in the inherent goodness of the past, perhaps unwilling to accept that every generation must have had its dark moments, that people in the past could not all have been exemplary in their conduct. Apart from excessively glorifying the past, such a position underestimates the present and future, a task that Kamla completes with ease. In Kamla’s words:

“Otherwise if we see our grandmothers (paternal and maternal) were there, they were illiterate, what my experience is that their children, i.e. our fathers, our uncles etc. all were the children of illiterate mothers but we see in them all the qualities which should be there in a human being. They came as good human beings, good for the country, good for the society, even good for home and household, they were good in everything. Then came the time of our mothers, our mothers also must have gone to school till class four or five. She could and she mostly read religious text. Their children i.e. we people were also good. We were five brothers and sisters, not only we our age aunts and their children all were good. Now these educated mothers have come, they are aware and literate, why now days children are getting spoilt? Why children do not obey, why are they taking drugs? Why are they losing their way outside? Why are children leaving our sanskriti (culture) and sabhyata (tradition) and going towards discos and drinks and for this they are stealing, they are going on stealing mother-father’s money. Why did this happen? Where did these traditions come from? Did educated, literate mothers instil these traditions?”

Somewhere in this discussion, there is a troubling clause regarding the “educated, literate mother” and her actions. It is fairly established that education and occupation are the strongest forces in the attainment of social recognition and personal regard, independent of the social position a person may occupy. This is especially true for women, whose identity and life-course is believed to be deeply rooted in her associations with family (Kumar, 2003). In Kamla’s response, there is a positive bias towards the past, but in asking the last question, she raises an important debate that underlies her thinking. What is knowledge doing to the socialisation of children? She is implying that the processes of modernisation through information and education are a corrupting influence. In my opinion, here Kamla makes her second pointed attack against modernity. The first one was towards the putative role of women in society, and the second is towards education and liberalisation, and its effect on children of the future generations. Perhaps in this way, attempting to hold on to the past in the name of ‘culture’, unwilling to expand and adapt to the ways of the new. Her daughter-in-law was employed outside the home. The young couple (Kamla’s son and daughter-in-law) had two children and Kamla cared for them after school. Kamla believes that her daughter-in-law is responsible for the fact that one of their children is a slow learner, saying that she (the daughter-in-law) should have been home when the child was young. In this assault, Kamla failed to acknowledge the respect for tradition that the young couple carry that facilitates her stay with them acceptable.

“And second thing is that the more educated these mothers came, these slow learner children also started coming, I went and saw at various places. I keep going for Isha (the granddaughter). It looked like as if there are lot of children like this every where. Children of illiterate mothers were not like that. If we go back in time and see we will find very few of these children. If you see Isha, there are many children who are younger than Isha. Although pregnant mothers knew what to they have to think, what to do, how to live, and what to eat but earlier mothers did not know what to eat and what not to eat she ate whatever she got. So those children were alright. Now what has happened, why are children like this? Anyways let’s leave the talk of slow learners……”

On occasion, she reiterates,

“If now we do a study on children we see that now they have so many bad habits which were not their in children in earlier days. Main thing in earlier days was that children used to obey their elders, which they don’t do now. They don’t listen at all, listen, they argue back. Children in earlier times used to respect elders, and second thing was that they used to believe in God, that is why they even had the fear of sin and virtue. Third thing was that we had a society, you are writing on children that’s why I am telling you that we had a society and we had a colony, a lane where we used to live. Any elder or older person of that house, of neighbourhood or living two to four houses away if saw any child doing or playing something wrong could scold him, they could explain to him. Those children had the fear of whole colony and community. Even their mothers used to explain them this that if you do something wrong what will the neighbours’ say, what people will say. What was explained to us was that what people will say. So we people, people means society, to make society happy we kept on sacrificing many things. Don’t do this what will people say, don’t do that what will people say, don’t behave like that what will people say, don’t say that god will get angry. So doing all this we all children took ourselves to great heights, character-wise also. Now just by saying all this, your neighbour cannot scold your child, scolding is another thing he won’t even know what is the child doing, where is he studying, who is he? Person living four houses away won’t even recognize your child, even children living above and below have no attachment and affection. At that time it was like that the child was of everybody, the daughter was considered as the daughter of the whole community. If the whole community saw him standing with the wrong man they could scold him but now there is no custom like this, that is why children now days are not scared of anybody. Neither are they afraid of people nor are they afraid of society behind people. Now there is no society neither is there a community.”

Here, Kamla perhaps makes the most serious allegation, blaming the increase in the incidence of developmental difficulties to present day to modern parenting. This is not her unique view. It is a frequent refrain among the people who feel compelled to attribute arbitrary causes for unfortunate situations that they are unwilling or unable to accept, tending to pick a cluster of practices that they are unfamiliar with or against, and attribute to these, causes of everything that maybe wrong with the world, and in this process, perhaps making inaccurate assessments. The uncaring dismissal of a way of life that is the right of the individual, attempting to dominate the life of an individual while invoking an ‘older’, putatively more honourable way of living.

Virginity and culture

The protection of chastity is an old story. Cultural practices have evolved around the reproductive role of women and predominant cultural patterns can be found to correlate with the value on women’s sexual activity; For instance those cultures that have gift exchange at marriage place a greater emphasis on a bride’s virginity, sometimes even demanding its proof. Patriarchy necessitates the control over women’s sexuality to ensure the perpetuation of the household and the care of children a feature that is clearly demonstrated in the marriage practices of northern India. In the case of the peasant economy of northern India during the colonial period, legal provisions for women were found to be clearly linked to their status as married women and there were little or no provisions for inheritance of property or wealth for widows, sisters and daughters. Women are to be worshiped as mothers, protected as sisters and daughters and to be controlled as wives. The sexuality of an unmarried woman or a widow without protection is a major threat to the social system and for this reason, many regions of the peasant community in northern India, permit widow remarriage in contrast to the brahmincal tradition (Chowdhury, 1994). Women were seen as critical to production (in the peasant economy) and the reproduction (in patriarchy), and therefore to be kept within the family. Practices of levirate and sororate marriages are evidence for this phenomenon.

Kamla airs her anxiety and sees the threat of the present times in the apparent loss of social control over young women and their sexuality:

“Earlier children used to think that our parents will be let down or embarrassed if we do something wrong, now this also doesn’t happen. Now nuclear families have come, they are small; children are no longer scared of their parents nor are they scared of the community. So who will carry our culture on? It has really become bad, if we see properly we will find that in hundred if not 50 then 20 girls, I am not blaming you or ……….. you might think your generation ………. girls are not virgins before marriage.”

The contemporary Indian woman: Stree and Shakti

Mythical presentations of Indian women, in literature or art, have been fairly explicit about the power and sexuality of women. Far from the Kamla’s concerns, the stories of ancient women suggest dramatised manifestations of control and agency within the framework of a controlled patriarchy that has persisted. The position of women has also been subjected to changes over the history of the subcontinent. Research on the colonial period has suggested that the British reinforced patriarchy (and thereby the exploitation and subjugation of women) by their policies in order to keep the landholdings and families intact. Women were not allowed a share in the land and sources even recorded that British officers sought to keep Indian women under ‘control’ of the men, a task that they saw slipping from their hands back in England. Although research on the post-colonial identity of the ordinary Indian woman shows that she has stayed within the narrow framework defined for her by society, marginal voices also discuss the inherent strength and resilience of women. By and large, it is true that women lead difficult lives and often join groups of religious activity to find a socially acceptable alternative to the rigidly structured routine of the home. Whether such collection of women is a threat to patriarchy, only time will tell.

Concomitant with the large scale subjugation of women and falling demographic scales in favour of the male population, India remains one of the few places where women leaders have been acceptable to the populace. This displays the inherent contradiction of social reality. Perhaps this acceptance can be argued as resulting from the practice of domination itself. That once a woman is outside of the mould of femininity, she becomes capable of anything. As researchers in rural Haryana in the early eighties, we were often compared with “Indira Gandhi” as we confidently walked the unpaved streets of villages with notebooks in our hands, studying women’s (and therefore men’s) participation in agriculture.

Undoubtedly, the lives of women in India defy simple explanations. Perhaps the attempted social control of sexuality is in itself a recognition of the potential power of the female, that once unleashed can potentially cause destruction. Kamla certainly comes across as a forceful woman, confident and articulate in her ideas. Despite her support of tradition, she does not come across as powerless in any way.

The intimate enemy: How Indians prevent existential collapse

Indians are deeply entrenched in their relationships. Although the family is the primary institution of affiliation, there are several phenomena that facilitate relationships with people outside the large family, basically encouraged by the idea of affiliation. How then does the individual survive? In Kamla’s responses, we can attempt to search for the answers to this. Kamla lives with her son, his wife and their two children. She claims the deepest of affection for her grandchildren, and great regard for her son. However, she retains an equally strong resentment despite this affiliation and interdependence. This resentment, in my judgement, coexists with the closeness and it may be speculated, even because of it. The great deal of expectation in relationships in the Indian family results in the development of strategies to counter the forces of cohesion and affiliation with those of autonomy and separation. Since this separation is not part of the developmental pathways prescribed by tradition, people find several ways of expressing the rise of resentment, as and when it is felt. Trawick (2003) suggests that women often join religious ways of coping with difficult relationships with men within the family. There is also evidence for the tremendous force that it takes for the joint family to splinter, recalled through the voices of youth, remembering stressful events in their lives (Kaura, 2004). It seems therefore that the intensity of the closeness necessitates a distancing in socially acceptable ways. The unexpected openness of Indian women, otherwise reputed to be mysterious and secretive, was experienced by Roland (1988) in his clinical work in India. He found that women showed a great deal of comfort and ease in talking about their personal lives, an openness that was far greater than that which he had experienced with western women.

Perhaps we can assume that the ability to step outside of a close relationship and separate oneself despite physical proximity and togetherness that joint households necessitate, is the created in order to permit the individual to live on in a collectivity and survive as an individual. The resentment and distancing from the daughter-in-law prevents Kamla from becoming “too involved” with her son’s family, and therefore her son.


Kamla’s story has substantial content. In her exaggeration, Kamla accentuates cultural-historic issues of motherhood, thereby providing material for the social construction of the phenomenon under study. Kamla’s discussion of contemporary reality as fraught with dissent and discord, quite different from the perfect past, is a commonly encountered theme among older Indians, and in that refrain, she voices the concerns of a passing generation of people. However, the status of women in India has always defied simple answers about their social and individual status. The ambivalence towards Indian women is quite evident in several sources, where one encounters admiration, worship, control, exploitation and abuse by the same collectivity. The symbols of impurity, in the many stages of life (menstruation, child-birth) become the sources of power or shakti. In the instance of folk songs of women in the hill communities of northern India, lyrics were found to contain values that promote gender-based discrimination as well as alternative visions. Gender politics underlies almost all dimensions of everyday life that is clearly divided into the worlds of men and women in which women live in a predominantly androcentric system from which escape is possible only through education, occupation and religious activity.

It is not uncommon to encounter Indian women as enthusiastic perpetuators of the conventions of patriarchy. Perhaps one of the reasons for this seeming self-deprecation can be that for women, the ‘family’ is a more significant group for membership than ‘womanhood’. In my understanding, much of the activity in controlling younger women emerges from the concern for the family unit rather than an act against the woman per se. The membership of the nebulous group of ‘aurat jat’ may be too far removed from the everyday reality of the household in which one lives and learns.

Kamla’s voice is in clear conflict with the forces of modernisation that seem to have gained momentum after six decades of freedom from colonial rule. She opposes the liberal choices of modern women around her and remembers a more socially regulated past with sadness. Her concern is manifested in other locations as well. Social forces maintain a delicate balance through symbols like advertisements to ensure the emancipation is regulated and controlled. From her dialogues, we gain access into one person’s reconstruction of the reality of being woman and mother as a contested domain, created through participation and thought about life.

[1] Mamta: The transformation of meaning in everyday use.

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