ABOUT THE POEM Indian literature, like Indian life, abounds with praise for mothers. They embody love, constancy, sacrifice; often their motherhood threatens, sometimes with their willing complicity, to obscure the rest of their being. The paradox is that womanhood is not necessarily a source of power under patriarchy, but motherhood is. In valorising motherhood and rendering it free of all ambiguity, our culture often problematically wishes to turn women into saints.
In P Lankesh’s poem, mother-feeling is powerfully expressed, but in a refreshingly anti-romantic way. The lyric speaker’s mother is as capable of pettiness and prejudice as any other human being. Her enormous capacity for work is linked to the human instinct for survival as much as to a mother’s tenderness for her brood. She herself seems to want to escape the mythology of motherhood; none of the models of motherhood in the great works of Indian literature seem to apply to her. Perhaps this is why, when we are told of her unobtrusive departure, we mourn against the grain of her own attitude towards this life.
Black, fertile land,
a stretch of green leaves, and
a fest of fair flowers, my mother;
stronger with every burn,
with more suffering,
more fruits and flowers.
Kick of her kids, heavenly bliss.
Resting the basket on the ground, she
groaned, closed her eyes, didn’t open again.
Youth spent in tattered saris,
her hands tilled the lands,
watered the fields, and raised
pepper, jowar, corn and grains;
she grew sacks full of corn
to please her man, win a hug, a bracelet;
She died, with her double-bent back.
How old do you think was the granny?
How many full moons did she see?
And how many times
baked pancakes in the hot oven?
How many times did she howl over
soiled coins, festered crop and dead calf?
How many villages did she cross
looking for the lost, old buffalo?
She was no Sita,
neither Savitri nor Urmila;
no, she wasn’t any holy wife—
docile, dignified, graceful—you
find on the pages of histories and epics;
no, you can’t even compare her to
the great wives of Gandhi and Ramakrishna;
she didn’t pray, like a good wife
she didn’t even wear
the sacred kumkum on her face.
Like the wild bear,
she bore her kids, reared her husband,
and saved some money for hard times;
like the hurt bitch,
she growled and fought too;
petty, cheap, she picked faults,
bickered like a baboon;
she did everything, to save
her house, husband, kids.
She would flare: when her son
went wayward; and her husband
sniffed here and there.
The wild bear
needs no book of doctrines,
and none of your holy Gita;
my mother lived for grass and grain;
for her kids and hard work;
for rice, a roof over head,
and blanket to cover; and,
to walk equal with her peers.
To this woman, here’s some love,
praise, and tears of gratitude;
for bearing us; for rearing us;
for living in the soil; and,
for leaving us, amid some small talk,
as casually as she would go
from home to fields.
H S Komalesha is an associate professor of English at IIT Kharagpur, and the author of Issues of Identity in Indian English Fiction (Oxford, Peter Lang). The Sahitya Akademi has published two of his English translations under its Makers of Modern Indian Literature series.