By Sandipan Deb
Many years ago, in a secondhand bookshop in New Orleans, I picked up an old copy of a book called Mother India by Katherine Mayo.
I had not heard of the book, but reviewers’ comments printed on the fly leaf piqued my interest.
Said the Chicago Evening Post critic: “If this book and Dante’s Inferno were ever entered in a competition for the imaginative realisation of human suffering, Dante would lose the prize.”
The book, obviously, had been a huge success.
I had bought what was a 1931 edition, but it was the thirty-second printing, which was astonishing, since the book had been first published just four years before, in 1927.
But I never got beyond flipping through Mother India till recently, when I actually sat down and read the whole damn thing.
Since buying the book, I had learnt that it had been famous/notorious in its time, and most Indian historians and social researchers (I am neither) would be familiar with it.
When he saw the book in my possession, my father had smilingly remarked: “Ah, the drain inspector’s report!”
He was, I later learnt, quoting Mahatma Gandhi, who had written: “It is the report of a drain inspector sent out with the one purpose of opening and examining the drains of the country to be reported upon, or to give a graphic description of the stench exuded by the opened drains.”
Mayo, an American researcher and historian, spent five months travelling across India, meeting people from every section of society, from Gandhi and millionaire barristers to the poorest Dalits.
And her conclusions – she pulls no punches – are deeply disturbing to read even today.
Many educated Indians she meets blame the British for the poverty and backwardness of the people, but her response to that is simple.
She notes that in 1926, the total number of Englishmen in the army, police and civil services in India was a mere 67,432: “This is the entire local strength of the body to whose oppressive presence the Indian attributes what he himself describes as the ‘slave mentality’ of 247,000,000 human beings.”
Mother India is a relentless recounting of horrors, overflowing with Mayo’s utter contempt for the people of India, their faiths, beliefs, cultures and practices.
She even implies that India is “a tumour in the body of human civilisation”, and if something is not done quickly, it could, at the very least, trigger off a global epidemic of deadly diseases.
She believes that the only agency that can save Indians from doom is the British Raj, and is disdainful of the demand for an independent nation.
She thinks Gandhi is a cross between a delusional fool and a pompous hypocrite, and selectively highlights whatever regressive statements she can find among Gandhi’s writings.
For instance, “What do you propose to do by giving (a peasant) a knowledge of letters? Will you add an inch to his happiness? It is not necessary to make education compulsory.”
And “It is beyond dispute that (railways) propagate evil…God set a limit to man’s locomotive ambition in the construction of his body. Man immediately proceeded to discover means of over-riding the limit…Railways are a dangerous institution.”
In her beliefs, Mayo was something beyond a white supremacist.
Not only did she vehemently and publicly declare many times that non-whites were inferior people, and oppose every independence movement in every Western colony, but also campaigned against allowing Catholics to migrate to the Unites States. Hers was an Anglo-Saxon Protestant racism.
In Mother India, her biases sometimes cause her to make claims that are downright weird and funny; for example, that all Indian men are manic masturbators from a very early age (with active encouragement from their mothers, apparently), and this leads to loss of all vigour by the time they are 30.
However, her untempered rage about many aspects of India are absolutely valid.
Her first-hand reportage on female infanticide, child marriages, the status of the widow in Hindu society, or the plight of Dalits makes all the more shocking reading because we are still hardly rid of these loathsome evils.
It remains a supreme irony to me that on May 11, 1998, the day India did its Pokhran-II nuclear tests, and our netas were crowing about our technological prowess, a village just a hundred miles from Pokhran was celebrating, for the first time in 110 years, the wedding of a girl.
Quite simply, no girl child had been allowed to reach marriageable age in this Rajasthan hamlet for more than a century.
We have come to accept the living-dead widows of Brindavan as such a natural part of India that they have become perfectly invisible; even Western journalists have tired of doing features and photo-essays on them.
As for Dalits, a 2010 survey by the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front, an umbrella group comprising nearly 150 labour, Dalit and human rights movements, documented an astonishing 80-odd practices of untouchability still prevalent in the state.
Among the most despicable and bizarre ones: Dalits not being allowed to speak on a cell phone in the presence of caste Hindus (this was reported in a Lok Sabha constituency reserved for Dalits!), separate work timings under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, separate ration shops or queues or timings for Dalits, Dalit students being forced to clean toilets in schools, Dalits not allowed to sport a moustache, or keep male dogs (they might breed with female dogs from upper caste neighbourhoods!).
Mother India, when it was first published, caused immense outrage in India – I should say, among educated Indians, since the illiteracy rate was 92 per cent at that time.
Even today, reading this American lady’s merciless treatise laced with the purest derision, one involuntarily bristles as an Indian.
But we cannot deny that much of what she saw 85 years ago remains true even today.
It is we who are in denial. We do not see the drains she inspected.
(The writer’s novel The Last War was published recently)
(Courtesy Daily Mail)