Mothers in a Conflict – Ridden ‘Her land’: The Mothers of Maya Diip by Suniti Namjoshi


Abstract: This paper looks into Namjoshi’s speculations about radical possibilities. She exposes the mental and physical constraints that the ideology of femininity imposes on all women such as motherhood and child rearing. She questions the centrality of dominant heterosexist ideologies and refutes the ‘closure’ they represent by subverting them and exposing their spurious complacency. The paper discusses the methods employed by her in order to scrutinise the patriarchal dominance over women’s role in society. Namjoshi decodes the subtext of misogyny embedded in myths, legends and fairytales. She further challenges the imbedded cultural values that are expected of women by in turn bringing about a sense of rejection, and subversion of its requirements.

Keywords: motherhood, Mayan society, dialectic of sex, matriarchy, child rearing, women nurturers, cultural values, feminist revolution, femininity

`Turning my back on unpleasantness and hostility had become a habit, as had the making of a distinction between a private world and a public one.’

Suniti Namjoshi

This was the public confession of the expatriate Indian writer Suniti Namjoshi, who declared her lesbian-ideologies openly in print at the age of thirty-eight. Suniti Namjoshi, formerly an officer in the Indian Administrative Service, now lives and teaches in Canada. In many of her fictional works Namjoshi uses ‘parody’ as a strategy to articulate a caricature of patriarchal construct of the image of femininity, which involves both the rejection, and subversion of its requirements. Wit, humour, satire, irony and parody become her major tools. Deconstructing the logic of ‘normality’, they strip the veil of familiarity from normality to reveal its cruelty, perversity and unnaturalness. Namjoshi’s celebrated fictional work o(1981) dismantles andro ocentric assumptions and reveals ‘woman’ as a product of male supremacist ideological construction. Discrediting prominent mythologies as pathological account of male desire and fantasy, Namjoshi decodes the subtext of misogyny embedded in myths, legends and fairytales. She portrays myriad images of women in patriarchal societies and unmasks the oppressive nature of sexist stereotypical representations, which if converted into role models, offer an alarmingly limited view of what a woman can expect from society. In the works of Namjoshi, there is laughter as well as anger. They also reveal a subversive spirit of feminine mischief able to parody, appropriate and reshape `male’ stories. Namjoshi focuses on myths, legends and fairy tales as they contain some of the traditionally sanctioned representations of women.

The Mothers of Maya Diip (1989) appeals to an assortment of our comic sensibilities the satiric, the whimsical, the sardonic, the rousing belly laugh —all in the interest of exposing the absurdities of accepted pieties, particularly in the context of an essentialist reification of women’s roles as ‘Mothers’.

As a humorous delineation of a supposedly utopian matriarchy, this feminist fictional work shares a special affinity with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915). Utopian thinking has always been a source of political inspiration for feminists. In her feminist fiction Herland Gilman creates utopian visions of a conflict-free matriarchal world where women are models for humanity. The Mothers of Maya Diip, which is a parody of Herland, presents a conflict – ridden matriarchy. But for both Namjoshi and Gilman, the utopian mode becomes a crucial form of sociological imagination and their feminist utopian narratives originate from a concern with the phenomena in our real world. ‘It is that engagement with the here and now that fuels the desire for something else, for something elsewhere’ (Lefanu 88). These utopias are distinguished by a subversive use of humour to deflate the patriarchal order. They recognise the power of humour as a device for social criticism, a power which, as with Suniti Namjoshi, is located essentially in an imaginative work. There is a humorous expose of the bigoted point of view of the patriarchal establishment and a critique of the traditional gender roles, their rigidities and the asymmetrical gender socialisation, which they promote. In The Mothers of Maya Diip, exploring the complexities of matriarchy in lively humorous prose against the pervasive frame of reference of patriarchal reality, Namjoshi lays bare the conflict between motherhood and sexuality — restrictive stereotypes and prohibitions surrounding motherhood in contemporary society.

In its non-idealised account of motherhood, The Mothers of Maya Diip is also reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale (1986). In The Handmaid’s Tale Atwood exposes the identification of women with nature, the body and the domestic sphere of life as by no means natural but as constructs created and enforced by a patriarchal culture. She emphasises more forcefully than any other contemporary writer the horrific degree of exploitation, degradation and suffering to which they can give rise. If in the republic of Gilead, young women in the reproductive age group are made to undergo a grim metamorphosis and are transformed into ‘wombs on two legs’, or ‘ambulatory chalices’, in The Mothers of Maya Diip, obsession with motherhood thoroughly dehumanises the woman of the matriarchate of Maya Diip. They are subjected to a rigorous brain washing. The focus of this matriarchy is motherhood, which includes both biological and non-biological ‘mothering’. The Mayans conform to the traditional views of women as nurturers of the young and hearers of the cultural values of love and co-operation. To the women of Maya Diip, to admit any serious dissatisfaction with mothering is to admit failure as a person. The matriarchy also creates divisions among women such as child begetters, AIM bearers and child bearers. Some women bear children. They are assisted by other women who will rear these new borns from infancy to adulthood. A member of the Mayan matriarchate understands and perceives `motherhood’ as a crucial step towards the attainment of womanhood. Unless she is a mother, she is not a woman. Jyanvi, a lesbian poet who visits the island of Maya with her friend, the ‘blue donkey’ who has taken the vow of celibacy finds thin view of women very restricting. In its relentless emphasis on compulsory motherhood for all its women, the Mayan matriarchy almost resembles the dystopian Gilead of The Handmaid’s Tale.

The island of Maya Diip is located off the West Coast of India. The blue donkey informs Jyanvi that Rani Saheb is the queen of Mayan matriarchy, Jyanvi and blue donkey meet Saraswati, the daughter of ‘Rani Saheb’ who takes them to Maya Diip. When the Blue Donkey and Jyanvi tell Saraswati that they do not have children, Saraswati is astonished and asks them if neither of them has attained motherhood, how did they achieve adult status. In Maya Diip, adult status is synonymous with motherhood. The daughters of the Mayan matriarchate look up to their matriarch ‘Rani Saheb’ as an incarnation of the supreme mother. This obsession with motherhood and its glorification deeply perturbs Jyanvi. She feels that Maya Diip is a difficult society for a woman to live in as women’s lives and their aspirations are sacrificed at the altar of motherhood. Valerie, a western immigrant staying in Maya Diip for the past ten years, protests strongly and explains to Jyanvi that It’s not like, that at all, As you know, in patriarchies, the children govern; and though to be a woman is bad, to be a mother is usually worse. Here on Maya we have the Rule of the Mother’s: and the Rule of the Mothers is just, gentle and generous.’ Although Valerie is trying to be helpful, a sad, disillusioned lesbian feminist Jyanvi grapples with the inexorable reality of Maya Diip that has no use at all for childless women, women who do not want to become mothers. The inhabitants of Maya Diip comfort an inconsolable Jyanvi by focusing on the utopian features of this unique society. They draw her attention to the redeeming features of this matriarchy, which is founded on the premise that women are nurturers of the young and bearess of the cultural values of love and co-operation and therefore they are in an ideal position to create an alternative social vision. The pacifist matriarchy of Maya Diip does not maintain an army. The Guilds of Therapists have replaced the army. Valerie explains the functions of the therapist’s guilds to the blue donkey. These guilds are similar to the police departments of other societies and chiefly deal with crimes of passion. Valerie expatiates on these crimes of passion in order to enlighten a bemused looking blue donkey and her equally muddled companion Jyanvi. The perpetrators of such crimes in the Mayan society are ‘maladjusted mothers, unsisterly sisters, rivalries and jealousies of diverse sorts, non conformity with Mayan customs and of course the problems of lovers’ (128). Valerie also reassures the disgruntled women by adding that no individual is isolated in the Mayan society and each woman is bound to the other by ties of kinship, accepted loyalties and professional affiliations. However, the blue donkey and Jyanvi conclude that Mayan society is indeed an extremely complex, rigid society and being a Mayan is not easy.

There are humorous, ironic description of Mayan obsession with ‘mothering’ and the consequent grotesque idealisation of motherhood. Such practices have resulted in the stratification of Mayan society and consequent inequalities in power distribution. The mothers of the society are classified as grade A, B and C mothers. In a Mayan recitation contest, writers recite poems, which represent the longings and frustrations of the diverse strata of Mayan mothers.

The song of the grade A mother

First I worked hard,

Then I worked harder,

Then my daughters came.

They sang and they yelped.

My sisters all helped.

Life was never the same.

Now my daughters are mothers.

They look to the others.

They are gentle and just and same. (131)

Song of the grade B mothers

That first wrench hurt-

When they took her from me.

The other mother raised her.

Daily she grows.

In strength and beauty; and I,

Whoever had her,

(yet I made her)

Am as content

As is necessary (131).

Song of the grade C mothers

Other women’s children for whom we care.

Snotty nosed darlings-dream and despair

Shall these daughters grow? We trim and we pare

The unfinished young we did not bear. (132)

The Mayan society comes dangerously close to dehumanising reproduction by turning it into a mode of commodity production. However, it is Jyanvi as an outsider, who succeeds in disturbing the equanimity of Mayans and step motherhood of all its glories. By reciting a poem, which is a parody of `Mayan’ attitudes, Jyanvi has sinned against motherhood; against the core of Mayan women’s identities, their religion and their family structure. Jyanvi strikes a discordant, disharmonious note with her ‘song of a non mother’.

Song of a Non-Mother

I loved my love with passion.

She said, Will you marry me?’

I said, ‘Is that the fashion?’

She said, ‘It is indeed;’

I cooked and cleaned and scoured.

I worked myself to the bone,

Her little children devoured

My labours everyone.

They were clean and quick and sprightly

They scampered in the sun.

`I must go’ I said politely,

And left true love alone. (132)

Jyanvi affirms the validity of a woman’s wish not to be a mother. The compulsory childbearing or child rearing obligations of Mayan women have managed to excise female sexuality as an autonomous bearer of non-productive pleasure. Femininity is solely defined in terms of reproductive duties. In this sense, the society of Maya Diip appears like a replace of what Spivak terms as a ‘uterine social organisation’ which most civilised patriarchies are. ‘Not loving children is a sacrilege in Maya’. The Mayan authorities try to reform Jyanvi. She is appointed as a grade C mother/servant to Gagri the Good who is to be the matriarch’s successor. Jyanvi resents her duty and shares her grief with blue donkey. Jyanvi, who does not wish to be a ‘mother’, feels that motherhood is an extremely unrewarding experience. The children take everything and give nothing. The mother must abandon her maternity in so far it suffocates her potentialities as a woman. For Jyanvi, at the heart of a woman’s oppression are her child bearing and child-rearing role. Motherhood is to be considered a duty without rights or rewards, a form of exploitation; subjugation of a whole class recognised either as mothers or nothing. It is therefore imperative not to idealise motherhood or glorify it.

In the Mothers of Maya Diip, the second wave feminist theoretical underpinnings are clearly discernible. Reproductive rights and a radical reappraisal of female sexuality and sex role stereotyping constitute the core. of second wave feminism. In her radical feminist work The Dialectic of Sex: The Cases for Feminist Revolution (1970) Shulamith Firestone posits an agreement that biological mothering and the tyranny of heterosexual reproductive practices are the material bases of women’s oppression. Namjoshi vindicates this position by subscribing to the view that women’s compulsory reproductive duties could be burdensome and also that women’s femininity is a construct of culture rather than a fact of nature.

The revaluation of the experience of motherhood in patriarchy is a major development of the women centered analytical work of the 1970s. Shulamith Firestone argues that to abolish motherhood in its current form would change society. According to Firestone, the fact that only women, and not men, reproduce is the reason for the gender-based division of labour on which patriarchy and its ruling ideology sexism are constructed. However feminists like Adrienne Rich feel that it is not the biological experience of motherhood itself is the problem but the way in which society has institutionalised motherhood. Gilman’s fantasy novel Herland depicts a society without men where motherhood can be gratifying and not oppressive. Conceived as a parody of Herland, The Mothers of Maya Diip raises certain disturbing questions about the feminist paradise of a matriarchate. The stereotype Of a ‘feminine’ woman who has to sacrifice herself on the altar of motherhood comes under scathing scrutiny. What makes The Mothers of Maya Diip a fascinating work is its dialectical structure. As the name suggests, ‘Maya Diip’ is an illusory utopia, insulated from the ideology prevailing in ‘normal’ heterosexual patriarchies. `The thought that it might be a functioning reality made feminists tremble’ (113). But, over-whelmed by the maternal spirit that seems to pervade everything in Maya Diip, the ‘non mother’ sojourner Jyanvi begins to wonder if a proper matriarchy would ever be a viable, sensible, salutary substitute for a patriarchy or wouldn’t it enslave women in a different way to their reproductive function?

Motherhood, be it biological or otherwise, is the most sacred function of every adult woman of Maya. Only female babies are accepted and nurtured. The male babies are ruthlessly abandoned. The society of Maya classifies all the mothers into three categories; grade A mother is the one who shares the burden of child rearing with the biological mother of the child. She is a co-mother. Grade B mother is the biological mother. Grade C mother is the one who does the chores. When she has worked long enough and can pay to have a daughter, she can apply for grade A status. A grade B mother in order to become a biological mother is expected to pass some qualifying tests and emerge successful in them.

Asha, the daughter of the matriarch of Maya, rebels against the discriminatory policies of Mayans concerning the boys. She is exiled to the forest. Undaunted, Asha succeeds in building her own empire ‘Ashagad’ and brings up ‘Ashans’ or the pretty boys, the castaways of Maya Diip. These boys are trained to become mothers of grade A and grade C status, thereby conforming to the traditional ideals of Maya Diip. In The Mothers of Maya Diip, Namjoshi takes an ironic look at male hegemony in patriarchies. Valerie, a western immigrant to the island of Maya Diip enlightens the Ashans about the ways of her society in their own language.

It was Valerie who burst out, ‘You know, I originally came from a country where the pretty boys rule…In patriarchal societies, the pretty boys grow to a large size and attempt to rule. Many of then take up, after a fashion, the functions of co-mothers….’ (191).

`You see the ‘Ashans’ and the ‘Mayans’ in my country live together. And the `Ashans’ bullied the ‘Mayans’ …the Ashans wanted the Mayan to bear their children…

Ashans in my country have enslaved the Mayans in order to force them to have their babies; Ashan and Mayan babies then belong to a particular Ashan. Think of it this way… Every Ashan thought of himself as a kind of farmer and every Mayan as a bit of land or a field which could be his property. The babies are branded by his specific genes. An Ashan is always the grade A mother, and a Mayan is always the grade B mother; Valerie said, but the Ashan delegates his duties to the Mayan. Sometimes, if they are rich they hire a number of Mayans and very occasionally an Ashan or two to function as grade C (192-194).

By re-describing patriarchal in terms of the concepts of the inhabitants of Maya Diip who are unfamiliar with the heterosexual patriarchy, Namjoshi reveals the reproductive power politics of our societies through the strategy of defamiliarisation. She exposes the mental and physical constraints that the ideology of femininity imposes on all women. What would happen if women refuse to be the silent bearers of meaning, step out of their traditional functions? Namjoshi speculates about radical possibilities. She questions the centrality of dominant heterosexist ideologies and refutes the ‘closure’ they represent by subverting them and exposing their spurious complacency.


1. Atwood, Margaret. (1986), The Handmaid’s Tale, Fawcett Crest, New York.

2. Blain, Virginia, Patricia Clements and Isobel Grundy.eds. (1990), Feminist Companion to Literature in English: Women Writers from the Middle Ages to the Present, B.T.Batsford Ltd, London.

3. Firestone, Shulamith. (1970), The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, Bantam Books, New York.

4. Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. (1999), Herland, Pantheon, New York.

5. Lefanu, Sarah. (1988), In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction, Indiana Univ. Press, Bloomington.

6. Namjoshi, Suniti. (1981), Feminist Fables, Sheba Feminist Publishers, Great Britain.

7. Namjoshi, Suniti. (1991), The Blue Donkey Fables and The Mothers of Maya Diip, Penguin, Harmondsworth.


K.S. VAISHALI. Lecturer, Department of English, Bangalore University. She has many published articles to her credit.

Default image
Lecturer, Department of English, Bangalore University. She has many published articles to her credit.

Newsletter Updates

Enter your email address below to subscribe to our newsletter

Leave a Reply

Physical Address

304 North Cardinal St.
Dorchester Center, MA 02124