Motherhood in the Novels of Anita Desai and Varsha Adalja
Woman and motherhood are very closely associated in Indian social, religious and mythical systems. The Vedic notion that says Matrudevo bhava puts mother on the high pedestal of god/dev and hence highly respected and revered position. Motherhood is greatly admired and therefore a traditional Indian woman believes that her gratification or fulfillment is realized in motherhood alone. Childless married women are not only abused but also ill-treated in Indian society. Despite legal rights and other so-called social securities provided to women, the situation is still pathetic and much effort need to be made at the grass root level. On the extreme other end, in mythologies of many civilizations of the world including Indian and African, mother in the form of Goddess and mother Earth are connected to creation myth. Their variant roles such as creator, caretaker and carrier of culture are worshipped. Such a disparity has been the prime concern of feminism ever since its beginning. Marriage, pregnancy, parturition and child rearing are issues very crucial to feminist literary theory and criticism. Marriage, marital harmony spousal relationship and motherhood are often used as measuring units in judging the position of woman in a particular society. Feminist literature and criticism exhibit and attempt to lessen this distance and disparity between mythical-ideal and social-real position of woman.
The present paper compares Anita Desai and Varsha Adalja in the light of the concept of motherhood treated by them in some of their novels. Anita Desai's the Cry the Peacock, Where Shall We Go this Summer, Fire on the Mountain, and Clear Light of Day and Varsha Adalja's Mare Pan Ek Ghar Hoy, Retpankhi, Matinu Ghar and Shag Re Sankorun are selected for a comparative analysis.
These novels exhibit a visible pattern of women's rising consciousnesses towards their selfhood. What makes this over-all pattern interesting and challenging are the variations within the over-all pattern. The variation emerges from the different kinds of repressive forces depicted, the protagonists' individual methods of dealing with these forces and most interestingly, the authors' different attitudes to the same complex problem of establishing female selfhood. All the women characters of these novels by Anita Desai and Varsha Adalja become the victims of patriarchy. The patriarchal constructs may be family or/and society. Maya, the protagonist of Desai's Cry the Peacock reacts violently in the end like Lata, the protagonist of Adalja's Matinu Ghar. Both end their marriage, by killing their husbands, under the effect of schizophrenia. However, the causes of this schizophrenic state with Maya are father-fixation, death phobia inserted in her by the albino prophecy, unaccomplished motherhood and inability to give enough vent to her sexual urge. Lata arrives at the schizophrenic state due to traumatic childhood inflicted upon her by her cruel father, her inability to come out of its effect, and her inability to accept the loss of her sister and mother caused due to unnatural deaths. Mangaldas the father of Lata had longed for a son who would continue his family lineage. It was Lata an unwanted daughter born and never loved by her father that left a never to heal scar in her mind. Being motherless and not having attained motherhood Maya sees her existence as futile. Concepts of Matrutva (motherhood) and Matrushakti (mother goddess) are deeply ingrained in the psyche of Indian women. Maya remains a child-woman perhaps because she is motherless and could not become mother herself. "…my childhood was one in which much was excluded, which grew steadily more restricted, unnatural even, and in which I lived as a toy princess in a toy world" (CP 89). It seems that Desai's women characters are more under the sway of modernism. Moreover, the conflict arises because they are unable to come out of the traditions so deeply rooted in them. In both the novels (CP & MG), the myth of lord Shiva and Amba are respectively used to reinforce the motif of woman's power to destroy the evil. In Cry, the Peacock what is a hindrance in Maya's self-actualization is evil in the form of Gautam who is unable to fulfill the emotional urge of Maya and make her a mother. In Matinu Ghar, Lata brings a disaster in her own life by inadvertently killing her husband instead of her father. She succeeds in killing the demon in her father but the price paid is the life of Anand and her own death-like life for she eventually slips into coma. He undergoes repentance and regrets the injustice he did to his family. Lata's attachment to her mother and a motherly sister is so intense that she cannot fit properly in her own happy life without them. Her mother was a worshipper of Goddess Amba. In addition, she too visualizes herself in the role of Goddess destroying the asuras(demons). Thus, motherhood and matrushakti (mother goddess) motifs remains a very strong common feature of these two novelists.
These motifs take an ambiguous turn when we meet Sita unwillingly to give birth to her fifth child. This pregnancy leads her to re-examine herself in the light of a woman haunted by the spirit of her mother who had left the children at the care and mercy of their father who had incestuous relations with her stepsister. The ambiguity of the parent's image detains her from growing up a whole human being. She doubts whether she had really enjoyed pregnancy, parturition and child rearing. She too is motherless but she is saved from being very neurotic because on the island she realizes that she must not push her children into similar fate like hers. Motherhood, though not complete at least partially gives her self-actualization. On the other hand Adalja's Sunanda the protagonist of Retpankhi is an orphan, brought up by her uncle and aunt. The novelist genuinely depicts Sunanda's sexual urge, an unusual instance in Gujarati novel writing. Desai's Maya, Adalja's Sunanda and Vasant are the women who try to express their sexual desire but without proper reciprocation. In Sunanda's case, her lover is accidentally sent away by fate and the novelist to America leaving Sunanda to enjoy her practical self-actualization in being a foster mother to Seema the daughter of her neurotic cousin Tara. Nanda Kaul's (the grand old woman of Fire on the Mountain) retreat Kasauli Hills is in it a unique step into the arena untread by women so far. Males are considered as worthier of such spiritual pursuit than women are in this zone. Nanda had longed for the life of a recluse ever since her marriage but it became possible only after the death of her husband. Her husband a Vice- Chancellor had a life long extra marital love affair with a woman whom he could not marry because she was a Christian. Unable to throw away the societal and psychological dogmas Nanda Kaul pulls along in the roles of wife, mother, grandmother and host till the death of her husband. She retreats to Kasauli Hills with a thought that she had now done away with the world. Marital disharmony and a compelled motherhood and great grand motherhood is the prime concern of Desai's Fire on the Mountain. Parallel to this is Adalja's Shag Re Sankorun, which deals with the theme of brhamacharya (celibacy). The protagonist Vasant does not shift to different location but within the grihasthashram they are recluse. Her husband Krishakant's vow of celibacy taken out of pseudo religiosity is forced upon her also. In Indian context, expression of female sexuality before marriage and even after marriage is considered as immoral. Anuradha Roy writes:
In Indian society, even at the fag end of the twentieth century, centuries of indoctrination regarding the expression of female sexuality continue to hold ground. A natural expression of a woman's sexual nature within and outside the hollowed precincts of marriage is summarily branded as immoral, for female sexuality is traditionally centered around the function of reproduction. (Roy: 44)
In addition, interestingly enough the life long suffering of Vasant whose passionate love making to her husband is branded as an act of lust and her daughter, Ami, conceived of this act as fruit of her sin, lust. Yet if Vasant sustains in her twenty long lonely years is because she had actualized herself completely in her motherhood. She had given her daughters, Meghna and Ami, roots and wings both to develop as individuals representing 'New Woman'.
Bim, the protagonist of Clear Light of Day, becomes the victim of the family. She is an aging spinster, frustrated and furious for twenty years for not being able to forgive Raja, her brother, for having left her and Baba, their autistic brother, to live by themselves. She rejects the institution of marriage (perhaps from her observation of her parents’ and Mira-masi's lives) and still it is always Bim who is caring and nursing her ailing brother Raja, neurotic and alcoholic aunt and mentally retarded brother, Baba. By choosing to be Baba's motherly guardian and a teacher of history by profession, she not only attains her self-actualization but also creates a landmark in the history of Desai's women characters. Once again we see it is through foster motherhood, that Bim accomplishes her self-hood. Quite similarly, in Adalja's Mare Pan Ek Ghar Hoy, Leena becomes the victim of her family and attains self-actualization through being a foster mother of Apurva, the son of her schizophrenic sister Surekha. The picture that then becomes clear is; for Desai's women motherhood alone is not always enough for her women's self-actualization. They still yearn for something else, of which they themselves may not be sure. Adalja seems to be more footed in Indian soil, and hence her women characters may wish to pursue vocation but motherhood either biological in case of Vasant or foster in case of Leena and Sunanda is enough to make them harmonious whole human beings.
It is thus quite evident that both the women novelists have used the concept of motherhood as one of the themes in the above-mentioned novels. They have responded to it in their own ways. Though it seems that Anita Desai has tried to problematize motherhood as in the case of Sita and Nanda Kaul, she endorses it very strongly and clearly in the case of Bim.It is with Bim that the motherhood transcends to vasudhaiv-kutumbakam (world as family). She looks after the servants and pets of Hyder Ali after their departure to Hyderabad. On the other hand, Adalja has consistently endorsed motherhood as an important aspect of Indian woman's self-actualization. Leena and Sunanda attain fulfillment of their life's purpose in becoming foster mothers to Apurva and Seema respectively. Once again, it is because of motherhood that Vasant is able to fight the hypocrisy and pseudo-religiosity of her husband Krishnakant. Vasant, the mother of two young daughters, Meghna and Ami ,extends the idea of vaishvik chetna (global consciousness) and thus transcends above her husband's fake orthodox vaishnav religiosity.
To conclude it can be said that the concept of motherhood remains quite central in the novels of Anita Desai and Varsha Adalja. Feminism may undergo various phases of change and vicissitudes but for an Indian woman it is not very easy to do away with a concept so deeply rooted in her. Thus, it would not be too much to say that motherhood is sociologically, psychologically and mythologically associated with Indian womanhood.
Desai, Anita. Cry, The Peacock. Delhi: Orient Paperbacks;  1980.
---.Where Shall We Go This Summer. Delhi: Orient Paperbacks;  2005.
---. Fire on the Mountain. London: Vintage;  1999.
---. Clear Light of Day. London: Vintage;  2001.
Roy, Anuradha. Patterns of Feminist Consciousness in Indian Women Writers. New Delhi:Prestige Books;1999.
Adalja, Varsha. Mare Pan Ek Ghar Hoy. Ahmedabad: R. R. Sheth & Co;  2001.
---. Ret Pankhi. Ahmedabad: R. R. Sheth & Co.;  1996.
---. Matinu Ghar. Ahmedabad: R. R. Sheth & Co.;  1998.
---. Shag Re Sankorun. Ahmedabad: R. R. Sheth & Co.; 2004.