Observations on Mother-Daughter Relationship in Marathi Fiction

Abstract: The article attempts to analyse the intricacies of the mother -daugher relationship in the fiction of prominent Marathi women writers. Depiction of mothers and daughters in the fiction of Vibhavari Shirukar, Kamal Desai, Gauri Deshpande and Saniya are discussed in the article that affirms that pre natal ties will remain unaltered.

 Keywords: mother-daughter relationship, concept of family, womanhood, motherhood, Kamal Desai, Gauri Deshpande, Vibhavari Shirukar, upper middle-class

It has now become a cliché to say that glorification of motherhood is largely an ideological construct and the real life experience of mothers, more often than not, falls short of that expected glory. Since human offspring need much longer period of nurture and support than animals, a great deal of part of their parents’ lives is tied up with them. As an adult and aware woman I can easily understand if a mother or a father develops a feeling of frustration or boredom as she / he has to give preference to the parental role more than other relationships or matters of life. But in the late seventies I was quite ignorant of this aspect.

Coming from a rural, Zamindar family where I had grown up among aunts, grandmothers and mother who never seemed to question the drudgery of womanhood, I was quite unaware that women could be wishing to give priority to some matter or relation of their own, other than serving their families, particularly husbands and children. Their ‘selflessness’ was so much taken for granted that it seemed only ‘natural’. Even the few who had stepped out to earn some support for their family regarded family as their central concern.

In lots of popular Marathi monthly magazines I had come across many women writers such as Jyotsna Deodhar, Snehalata Dasnoorkar,Kamala Phadke, Shakuntala Gogte and such others. They told stories of women’s hardships or clandestine relationships and romantic inclinations, in moving, touchy language, but they seldom probed their characters. The interactions of the characters were largely predictable, moulded by a mixture of conventions and romanticism.

Later during college days I discovered the fiction of women writers like Vibhavari Shirurkar, Vasudha Patil, Vijaya Rajadhyksha, Kamal Desai and began to appreciate their analytical and literary qualities. As a student of literature, I came across critical writings of Pralhad Vader, Bhalchandra Phadke, R.B.Patankar and others, and began to understand the difference between these two kinds of writings. The stories of this second kind of writers questioned the sets of given attitudes and conventions of women’s writings. The paradox of conventions and their felt thoughts and desires made their fiction distinct from the superficial stories that usually filled the pages of magazines. A note of protest against those givens were present in their writings.

In Kalyanche Nishwas by Vibhavari Shirurkar, there is a story titled ‘Tu Aai ki Davedarin?’ (Are You a Mother or a Claimant?) In this story, a daughter’s prospects of marriage are ruined when people come to know about her widowed mother’s pregnancy. The story ends with the daughter’s bitterness about this ‘shameful’ matter. It is notable that even a writer like Shirurkar, who is recognised for her feminist ideas, in 1933 did not go beyond the statement of this sad situation. In the 1976 Preface to a later edition, she commented on the social system that denies women any existence for themselves. She says, ‘For thousands of years the society inhumanly failed to understand that women too have natural feelings.’ It is ironic that the daughter in the story does not understand her mother’s aspect of the situation and is harshly judgemental. It only shows that in the 1930’s neither the reading public nor the writers were ready for too radical ideas regarding womanhood.

Even in 1975 Kamal Desai’s story ‘Kala Surya’ (The Dark Sun) which has a rebel female protagonist, the protagonist’s mother is depicted as a totally conventional woman. She accepts her role without a complaint and in turn wishes her daughters to comply and conform. She is meek, powerless and helpless and does not even dare to break away from the frame of womanhood and establish a real contact with the daughters. How deep-rooted the cultural biases usually are, we get to see in another important story on the mother-child relationship. It is Irawati Karve’s story ‘Paripurti’ written somewhere around mid sixties. In this story, the mother like Karve herself, is a woman with distinct social recognition as a scholar. At some formal gathering, she is variously introduced as a daughter-in law, as a wife and as a scholar but she finds the introduction incomplete and towards the end of the story she finds ‘Fulfilment’ only when someone identifies her as a ‘Mother’ of her child. Indeed it is difficult to ascertain how much of this sense of fulfilment is instinctual, and how much of it is a learnt behaviour.

So when I came across for the first time, Gauri Deshpande’s Radha in ‘Ek Ek Paan Galavaya’(Shedding off Leaf by Leaf) or the narrator of Nirganthi (Knots) and many of her stories in which the protagonists voice their own independent needs and concerns and choose to give them an upper hand in their dealings with their husbands, children and other relations, I was surprised and curious to the extent of disbelief and wished to question, where does one come across such women?

But now in the adult and informed perspective I think Deshpande has initiated a very significant shift in women writers’ attitude to motherhood. Far from singing praises of the oppressive, self effacing, evergiving, masochistic idea of motherhood, she took a no- nonsense stand on the issue and put across the conflict that mothers face in meeting the expectations of others and expectations of their own selves.

Radha in ‘Ek Ek Paan Galavaya’ is firm and decisive in her dealings with her grown up children Ganesh, Ambu and Niraja. Her husband, life-partner in the true sense, has been in foreign services and so the children have mostly grown up in hostels, away from the parents. According to Radha, she and Madhav, her husband, have fulfilled their duties towards their children as best as they could, without soggy sentimental love as a barrier to their independence, and the careers of the parents. But Ganesh and Ambu have a deep- seated grudge against the mother, who according to them, is not like other normal mothers. Ambu accuses Radha of causing a rift between the father and the children. Whereas the other daughter Niraja admires Radha as an individual, but does not think she has been an ideal or good mother. After Madhav’s death Ganesh thinks she should want to depend on him and he should take over her life, property dealings and money matters. Ambu too supports him, but Radha firmly informs them of her decision to live by herself.

In the new isolation she recalls the childhood days of children, introspects about Madhav’s and her decisions regarding their upbringing, and concludes that they have tried to raise the children with greater freedom to them, without letting the children demand more than their share of the parents’ lives and concerns. She accepts this isolation as a price she is willing to pay for preserving her individuality.

The portrayal of such motherhood created quite a sensation on the Marathi literary scenario. Many readers welcomed Radha as a role model of the new era women whereas others criticised Deshpande for presenting a pseudo-realistic, upper middle -class woman who sought justification of her exaggerated notions of individuality and selfhood.

What strikes the readers in this short novel is the representation of a decentred, urban family that is in transition. The children yearned for the old fashioned secure house that could hold together whereas the mother felt that they had failed to understand her. She is shaken but not broken. Her conscious mind carefully guards her individuality whereas the unconscious tries to grope for a foothold in the togetherness they experienced when the children were young. However her conscious, rational self gets an upper hand and she prefers to stand alone like a tree shedding off its leaves one by one.

The next short novel that I have chosen to discuss is, Nirganthi (Knots). It presents the life story of a woman who marries twice and has a daughter from the first marriage. The daughter fancies that her new father is interested in her. Her mother and the foster father have difficult time handling the delicate issue. On the other hand they have another daughter whose upbringing takes up huge share of their life together. The mother frets that she gets no time or peace to spend with the husband or pursue her own interests. The delightfully refreshing, realistic pictures of the drudgery of motherhood make reading of this novel a categorically different experience.

The title Nirganthi (Knots) indicates the intricate relationships as well as the psychological complications in the lives of both the daughters. The elder one Mimi, learns to adjust due to the successful counselling of a psychiatrist. The parents send her to her biological father in India for higher education. The younger daughter Shami is a normal pampered child of the upper middle-class. The mother gets exasperated having to cope up with her childhood tantrums. The descriptions of their encounters bust the myth of tolerant motherhood and innocent children. The daughter knows how to exploit the mother’s exasperation. The resolution of this conflict too, is found in sending her to a boarding school. The mother suffers a bad conscience for being unable to give herself totally to her daughters.

The narration is purely from the mother’s perspective. The mother’s inexhaustible interest in the second husband, his extremely supportive and understanding role in her life, and the rest of the upper middle-class smooth relations to fall back on, cushion the mother’s restless compunctions and she believes to have performed her role as a mother with honesty and sincerity.

What a reader wonders about is, the daughters’ responses to this case building. Does it suffice for the parents to provide for the day-to-day needs of children and good education for them? Is it enough to buy them presents on birthdays and keep a distance from them otherwise? Do the children wish to share something more? What if mothers, like the mother of Nirganthi do not bother much about the so- called responsibility of parents towards children? Is family a place people may get together at when it suits them, and otherwise care for themselves first and more than the rest of the members? The novel raises many such questions in one’s mind.

Bearing such questions in mind when I began to read other cotemporary women writers I found many had not touched these issues at all. In the short stories of Saniya (Sunanda Balaraman), however I was pleased to find daughters’ point of view of this relationship. Her story ‘Pratiti’ (Realisation) maps the journey of a daughter from her adolescence to the attainment of independent young womanhood. Chandana’s mother is a successful gynaecologist who runs a hospital and has limited time to spare for her family. Chandana has two elder brothers and an elder sister. She loves her quiet father more than anyone else in the family. On her sixteenth birthday she is agitated with a suspicion of being totally unloved and uncared for by the mother in particular and others (except the father) in general. The mother once mentions to her that her birth was an unplanned, chance matter. She is deeply hurt. She feels lonely, isolated and diffident.

The children call their mother by her first name, Manorama, instead of the customary Aai. It indicates that they look upon her as an individual more than as a mother. The mother takes everything in her stride. And thinks that the teen-age worries of Chandana will get sorted by the passage of time. She offers no warmth or help to her and does not think it necessary to assure her of her love or care. Chandana looks at her as a woman distinct and distant from herself and has no particular attachment to her.

The distance between them increases in the span of next five years. Chandana gets curious about man-woman relationship, but is actually repulsed when a college friend demands sex from her. She also learns from her elder sister that her father has had an extra-marital fling with the mother’s cousin. She no longer feels the same closeness to the father. The mother is ironically attached to the eldest son who has taken up a lot of her time and care in his childhood due to his illnesses, but has not turned out to be an achiever like the other two children.

He takes up odd jobs away from home and marries a muslim woman older than himself. The sister becomes a commercial artist and lives in a separate flat. The other brother becomes a doctor and settles abroad. Chandana is unable to relate to any of them. She completes her graduation and works in the periodical section of a publishing house. Her boss is a womaniser. He is intelligent and handsome. Chandana develops an approach-reproach syndrome towards him. The elder sister tells her that a physical relation with someone may not necessarily lead to marriage but Chandana is not able to swallow the idea of such casual relationship.

Meanwhile the father dies and the mother decides to go and stay with the eldest brother. It is at this lonely juncture that Chandana learns that the house no longer holds people together. In a way all relationships are casual contacts and as such they are transient. She learns her piece of wisdom and accepts to live with the boss till the mutual bond lasts without any obligations of permanent ties on either side.

The story raises disturbing questions regarding the institution of family and a mother’s role in it. Manorama’s family is quite affluent because she is a hard-working successful doctor. She has tried to balance her career and household, but the stress has made her weary. Her husband and the family get distanced from her in spite of her toiling hard at both the ends. Chandana neither loves her enough nor hates her. She understands her mother’s helplessness but she has grown up without much attention from the mother .She has a craving for affection but does not know who she should turn to for it. That lack has saddened her. She has become an introvert who is inclined to cynicism.

In a direct contrast to the confident careerist Manorama, we come across Janaki in another story ‘Pool’ (The Bridge) by Saniya. Janaki is a full time housewife married to a learned professor but has neither participation nor curiosity in his intellectual life. She has had to undergo a termination of pregnancy before marriage and in spite of knowing it Kamalesh has married her. She behaves as if she owes her life to him. He at times expresses doubts about her relation with his brother but she is never able to confront him in a direct manner .She does not seem to mind his dependence on his research assistant Anu. They have a college going daughter Jyotsna, who inherits many traits of her mother.

Janaki is a good homemaker and has a rare poise and beauty of her own even in her middle age. Rohit, her daughter’s boyfriend admires her grace.

Janaki tries to act as a bridge between the family members; between her husband’s brother and himself and between the husband and daughter. But she had chosen to be dumb and blind and let the household run with surface appearances. She tries to suppress the turbulences and turmoils of her inner world and avoids relating to the daughter. In fleeting moments she feels she should share her past with the daughter and it may help the daughter sort the crisis in her relationship with Rohit. She senses that the daughter too, probably is undergoing a similar tension due to pre-marital sex. But she does not have the courage to face her own past even after so many years. Her daughter senses the mother’s ambivalence. She has no hopes that the father will ever understand her or the mother will openly support her. So she is about to end her crisis by swallowing sleeping pills. It is by a mere chance that the mother notices the pills and averts the tragic moment. But she is not able to share even that moment of shock with her husband nor is she able to provide hope and courage to the daughter. The bridge does not withstand the burden.

In a subtle and artistic way Sania picks up the question of shared values; values that are transmitted from generation to generation. Woman’s ‘purity’ is an age-old concept and her chance pregnancy inevitably leads to a sense of guilt. Even in the so called modern times women still hand down the same ideas of chastity and purity of their bodies to their daughters. Janaki has never overcome her own guilt and so even though she senses the daughter’s troubles, she cannot support her.

These four stories are symptomatic of the many changes the concepts of family and mother-daughter relationships have undergone in the last 30 years. At the same time they also underline a resistance to those changes. Values, look-outs, stereotypical expectations do not change easily. For instance, Radha’s courage to stand by herself is admirable but her own daughters do not approve of it. They cling to the image of mother as someone who can always be taken for granted. On the other hand, the mother of Mimi and Shami doubts her own competence as a mother, wonders if she has failed as a mother because she has expected to look beyond motherhood and the daughters are not the core component of her life. Manorama represents the tensions and problems of carrying out two roles at a time. Chandana suffers the resultant sense of neglect and bleakness. In Janaki’s case we clearly see the heaviness of traditional values that give her a sense of guilt and diffidence and she fears that she will break down under it. Jyotsna’s sucidical inclinations alarm us because Chandana and Jyotsna are two faces of root-less-ness that the younger generation experiences in these years of social transition.

In spite of these socio-temporal changes and challenges there remains an unspoken, innate tie between mothers and daughters. The next two stories, ‘MyLeki’ (Mothers and Daughters) by Gauri Deshpande and ‘Pravah’ (The Stream) by Saniya deal with the theme of the tacit woman to woman bonding that is implied in any mother-daughter relationship. In a conversational style Deshpande’s narrator of ‘My Leki’ recognises the continuity and recurrence of certain traits in generations of mothers and daughters in their family. This gives her a sense of very secure bonding. She is amused to discover that her daughter inherits her grandmother’s traits and feels assured that however far flung the family may be, its roots remain always intact.

In ‘Pravah’, on the other hand, Vinita’s mother Gauri is a sensitive, creative woman who loves and preserves her womanhood even when she is well past her middle age whereas Vinita grows up away from her, in the father’s custody, and imbibes his rational, scientific and dry temper. After years of separation, Gauri visits Vinita after her father’s death. Vinita begins to notice the difference of living in a house with a woman around. Despite her dryness she feels there is a revival of womanhood in her as though Demeter has reclaimed Persephone and there is an assurance of continuance of life.

Both these stories give us ground to hope that these prenatal ties are and will remain unaltered. Social circumstances may change, definitions of womanhood and motherhood may alter, concepts of family too may differ from time to time but the mother-daughter bonding will always survive.


Bhal Chandra Phadke, Marathi Lekihka Chinta Ani Chintan, 1980-Shri Vidya Publications
Vibhavari Shirurkar, Kalyanche Niswas, 1933, 1976

Kamal Desai, Kala Surya, 1975 Mauj publications

Gauri Deshpande, Ek Ek Pann Galavaya, 1980 Mauj publications

Gauri Deshpande, Nirganthi, 1987 Mauj publications

Saniya, Pratiti, 1989 Mauj publications Gauri Deshpande, Aahe He Asa Aahe, 1981, Mauj publications

SUKHMANI ROY. Heads the Department of English at P.N. Doshi Women’s College, Ghatkopar. Her areas of research and interest are feminism and post modernism. She has written a number of articles in Marathi and English, and has also translated poems and short stories from Marathi into Hindi and English, as well as Hindi into Marathi. The Dark Sun and The Woman Who Wore a Hat are her English translations of two Marathi novels by Kamal Desai.

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Heads the Department of English at P.N. Doshi Women’s College, Ghatkopar. Her areas of research and interest are feminism and post modernism. She has written a number of articles in Marathi and English, and has also translated poems and short stories from Marathi into Hindi and English, as well as Hindi into Marathi. The Dark Sun and The Woman Who Wore a Hat are her English translations of two Marathi novels by Kamal Desai.

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