Review of ‘May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons …’ by Elisabeth Bumiller

The book, ‘May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons – A Journey Among the Women of India’, written by Elisabeth Bumiller appeared in 1991. The writer, a journalist with the Washington Post, narrated stories of Indian women across a cross-section of the society.

The title may seem biased to many but it is just a translation of a popular blessing  by Elders that greets a newly wedded woman.

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The book is not stereotyped and the writer recounts her narrative based on travels wide and far – the journey for her is certainly not a great Indian snake rope trick. Undoubtedly women face challenges in a conservative and patriarchal society – but the book is anything but a vale of tears. Instead it reflects optimism and determination that is encouraging.

It is narrated as a series of stories and that make it a very easy read. While it does touch a number of critical topics like arranged marriages, female infanticide, overpopulation, dowry abuse, she seems to sense that these are universal problems that women face across the world.

Some of the key insights from the book would include –

  • Arranged Marriages are not all that bad, the romance could be pepped up more for sure

She begins by expressing shock and surprise that a woman can accept a life-partner based on a single meeting that is short and circumscribed by social customs. And then she concedes that the meeting is really not so offhand – the Elders do take into account a variety of factors while doing match-making. Culture, family ties, financial status are not bad factors while deciding on marriages – indeed the Victorian marriages too were based on such considerations.

‘Love at first sight’ or choosing a partner post dating some options are no less risky and no guarantee for a successful marriage. Of course the romantic quotient of such marriages is hard to predict – mismatch of temperaments is all very possible. But the push to make a marriage work – even if it is due to lack of options – sees many couples through the turbulent phase of marriage.

  • Patriarchy is a reality particularly in the countryside

Her stories from the villages were like a reality check and indeed life is tough for women in such an environment. Ela Bhatt who runs an NGO called SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association of India) acknowledged this problem and mentioned it as a reason for not wanting men to be a part of her movement to empower women.

  • Women can be achievers and they can get support from the men in their family

A lady working for SEWA was encouraged by her husband while top cop Kiran Bedi was supported by her father. There are many such tales where men do silently support the women in their lives. It just does not make it newsworthy.

  • There are no easy choices – the working women faces a ‘double whammy’ as she straddles to balance home and office

Aparna Sen best narrated the angst of a successful woman who found it difficult to balance her marriage and her professional success. She talks about being torn in wanting to be dominated sexually while intellectually she wanted an equal relationship. There were no easy answers and she was honest enough to acknowledge that life would be extremely difficult for a woman in the India society.

To conclude, it is an insightful book and not at all a candy floss story cursorily put up by a condescending Westerner. The East-West divide is obviously there but she has made a genuine effort to bridge the gap.

By: ImagesBazaar Collection: Images Bazaar Courtesy: Getty Images
By: ImagesBazaar
Collection: Images Bazaar
Courtesy: Getty Images

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