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(ARCHIVE) VOL. XXII NO. 24, April 1-15, 2013
Katherine Mayo vs. Mother India
Ganga Powell remembers Jayalakshmi Kumar
A daughter recalls a mother's contribution to women's emancipation

In 1927, the Women's Indian Association (WIA) organised a public meeting in Triplicane in Madras. This was to protest against the publication of Katherine Mayo's book Mother India. The WIA was founded in Madras in 1917 by three Theosophists, Annie Besant, Margaret Cousins and Dorothy Jinarajadasa. All three were Irish and suffragettes – and, along with Theosophy, a potent mix. The organisation's model for feminine involvement in civic affairs was derived from the West. Their initial concern was voting rights for women. The Mayo controversy, however, made them realise the power women could wield and the close connect between political and social reforms in the Indian colonial context.

I must have been about 12 years old when my mother, Jayalakshmi Kumar, spoke to me about Katherine Mayo. All I took in was that Mayo had written a terrible book decrying all things Indian. My mother said women all over India had marched in protest. She also had been on one such flag-waving, placard-carrying march. I stored this away in the recesses of my memory until now, while trying to flesh out her life. Co-incidentally, revisionist historians have also reignited interest in Katherine Mayo and her book Mother India.

Revisionists look at history through different lenses, as it were, to add multiple perspectives to traditional histories of dates and events. The commonly quoted example is of Jefferson's slaves. Traditional history talks of Jefferson's role in the wording of the Declaration of Independence wherein "all men are created equal … they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights … among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Revisionists point out that contrary to the spirit of the Declaration, Jefferson in fact kept slaves. This then throws up questions of black/white relations at the time. In this manner, issues of gender, feminism, minorities and colonised people have been areas of interest that have added more colour and depth, as in a hologram, to previous historical studies.

Mayo was an American historian and her book came out in 1927. She tells us in her introductory chapter that she visited India to see for herself what it really was like. When she approached the Colonial Office in London for a permit to visit in 1925, they asked what she wanted from them.

"Nothing," I answered, "except to believe what I say. A foreign stranger prying about India, not studying ancient architecture, not seeking philosophers or poets, not even hunting big game, and commissioned by no one, anywhere, may seem a queer figure. Especially if that stranger develops an acute tendency to ask questions. I should like it to be accepted that I am neither an idle busybody nor a political agent, but merely an ordinary American citizen seeking test facts to lay before my own people."

She spent three months in India and the book appeared two years later. She ripped into the social fabric, especially Hindu culture. She condemned child marriage, accused Indians of being obsessed with sex, slammed insanitary practices of child-bearing and child-rearing, decried the men as weak and lacking moral scruples, and described the condition of women as wretched, stating they were illiterate and controlled by their menfolk and tradition. Her final conclusion was that Indians were not ready for independence, being incapable of taking on the socio-political challenges this would entail.

These were the inter-war years marked by the rise of American influence on world affairs, an upsurge of nationalism across colonies world-wide, the rise of feminist and suffragette movements and, above all, a sense of global connectedness as never before. For all these reasons the book sent shock waves across the globe. It was translated into German, French, Italian, Danish, Dutch, Swedish, and Hebrew as well as many Indian languages.

Mrinalini Sinha's book Specters of Mother India is a revisionist look at history, published in 2006. She says, "Except perhaps for Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, few books have ever come close to matching Mother India in provoking such fury and such vehement support across several continents." She argues that the book marked a turning point in Indian social history: women asserted their ability and determination to speak for themselves with one voice, undivided by caste and religion. Mayo's book was a catalyst for change in ways quite contrary to her original intent.

In India, the book hurt. Many saw the truth in some of her observations. But none could stomach the sheer viciousness of the attack from a person who had spent a mere three months 'researching' her book. Mahatma Gandhi called it a "Drain Inspector's Report". Indians delighted in this pithy put-down. It expressed what many felt were the limited objectives of the book, and pricked the balloon of the undoubtedly intentional, grandiose irony of its title, Mother India.

The unkindest cut of all was Mayo's conclusion that India was unfit for independence; this from an American in a new world order where what Americans thought mattered. The U.S.A. was seen as sympathetic to the aspirations of colonial peoples. The years between the wars were a critical time in Indo-British relations. At the end of World War I in 1919, Britain had passed the Government of India Act. By this Act provincial assemblies had elected members and possessed limited control over local matters. Indian nationalists saw this as a step in the direction of self-government sooner or later. With the Great War over and the pro-independence movement gaining more support, hopes were high in the 1920s. A statutory commission (known as the Simon Commission after its leader) was to arrive in India to judge the successes or failures of local governments and much hinged on this, both for the imperialists and the nationalists. At such a time Mayo's book was seen as opportune or disastrous, depending on which side a person's sympathies lay.

The protests were nation-wide, across divides of gender, caste and creed. Literally thousands expressed their feelings – in marches, writings, public meetings, speeches and resolutions. Mother was a member of the Madras branch of the WIA. When it organised a protest meeting in Triplicane, she spoke to a gathering of thousands. Sinha tells us that this was "the largest protest meeting of women against Mother India." I can imagine Mother's smouldering eyes flashing with indignation, much as they did twenty-odd years later when she told me about Katherine Mayo and her dreadful book. She said in her speech: "If [Mayo] had … lived with us and tried to understand us with sympathy in order to help, we would gladly welcome her comment. But her setting out on a quest for finding fault with a great country, simply because others overpraised it, cannot meet with any sympathy… She deals in her book with child marriage and suggests all kinds of loathsome things as contributing towards this custom. But this was uncalled for, as the enlightened are doing their utmost to stop this evil… She talks of the British being unable to pressure natives to accept reform. That is exactly our complaint; the natives of the land can compel with impunity where a foreigner cannot and that is why we want political freedom so that we may compel social improvement… Let us endeavour to change the really bad social customs and let that be our protest against all such books." (emphasis mine)

Sinha alludes to a colonial myth, "the dominant colonial trope of the women's question in India – the view of white men and occasionally white women saving brown women from brown men …" She says of the above speech, "Jayalakshmi Kumar's speech … justified the demand for political freedom in the name of social 'improvement', including the position of women. Such arguments by women contributed a new twist to the familiar framing of the 'woman question' in India – from a discourse that justified reforms for women as necessary for the sake of the nation to one that endorsed national self-government for its role in changing the position of women." Indian women were not waiting to be 'saved' by the chivalrous colonial government. They spoke for themselves, loudly and clearly flouted the above myth and allied themselves squarely with their countrymen. Sanjay Seth's book, Subject Lessons The Western Education of Colonial India, also revisionist in intent, was published in 2007. He also quotes from the same speech. Seth looks at the role assigned to 'Indian womanhood' in the abstract by Indians themselves. As it was incumbent on Indian men to engage economically, politically, even technically with Western mores, women were idealised as the repository of the essence of Indian culture. In this scenario too, women were not speaking for themselves; they were being assigned a role as in the 'colonial trope', but this time by Indian men. This stereotyping also was shattered "when Jayalakshmi Kumar spoke out for the constituency of women."

Most important, as Seth points out, was the resolution that was passed at that public meeting. This resolution not only denounced the book but also pushed for legislation against the two evils of child marriage and enforced widowhood. This marked another shift, "a newfound commitment in nationalist ranks to matching words with deeds," according to Seth.

This was what led to the passing of the Child Marriage Restraint Bill, popularly known as the Sarda Act, in 1929. The Act had in fact been introduced before Mayo's book was published, but its passage was being stalled, with neither the colonial government nor the conservative Indian lobby really wanting to upset the status quo. Now all this changed quite dramatically. The passing of the Sarda Act was India's response to Mother India. As revisionists have now shown, Indian women across communal, cultural and religious differences spoke with one voice; this played a crucial role both in instigating social transformation and strengthening the push for political change.

Of course, this wave of activism was a direct result of the introduction of modern education for women in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. It had created a 'new woman' with interests "that went beyond the households". Organisations like the WIA provided these aspiring women a network of like-minded people and a platform from which to speak.

Some passionate activists of the time had experienced traumas in their own lives. Kamala Devi Chattopadhyaya had been a teen-age widow. Education gave her opportunities that custom would have denied her. Others, like Mother, were thrown opportunities and challenges at incredibly young ages. In 1924, one year after her marriage, Jayalakshmi Kumar was appointed bench magistrate in Madanapalle where she had moved with her husband. She, thus, had the singular honour to become the first Indian woman to sit on the Bench – at the ripe age of 21! When she spoke in Triplicane, she was 24 years old and had a two-year-old son. She was a minor player in this drama that included major activists like Sarojini Naidu, Mrs. S. Srinivasa Iyengar, Dhanwanti Rama Rao, Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy and many more. But she delivered her lines with telling effect.

Mother continued to support various causes throughout her life, but they were peripheral to her roles as wife and mother. In Madanapalle she was involved with the 'Baby Welcome Home' for orphan children. She brought art and theatre to the campus life of the Besant Theosophical College there, where her husband was Principal for many years. In Madras she was on the committee of her friend Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy's Avvai Home in Adyar for orphaned girls and deserted women. Much later she was on the board of the Adyar Cancer Institute.

Geraldine Forbes makes the point that while organisations like the WIA owed their genesis to Western models, they were also different: "… in the Indian context these organisations developed in harmony with a view of the 'new woman' as a companion and help-mate to man, an ideal mother, and a credit to her country." This was the model advocated by Annie Besant, according to Seth. My mother adored Mrs. Besant on a visceral level: she was a product of the girls' school started by her in Benares (Varanasi) and recalled with pride that Mrs. Besant had attended her wedding in Adyar. While Forbes' comment may not be applicable to all activists of that era, I think it encapsulates Mother's view of her role as a 'new woman'.

Author's note: This is part of ongoing research on my parents, their lives and times.

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In this Issue

An innovative budget
Mistaking reconstruction for restoration
On the Bookshelves
That mosquito buzz
A hundred years of the Stanes
Katherine Mayo vs. Mother India
Heading the Academy for 30 years
The Stanley Spirit
Hero, Sati, Memorial and Naga stones

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Our Readers Write
Quizzin' with Ram'nan
Dates for Your Diary
Madras Eye


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