The Politics Of An American Feminist Writing About Indian Women

Elizabeth Bumiller is an American journalist who documents her visit to India in her book 'May You Be the Mother of a Thousand Sons'

Published in 1990, May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons chronicles the journey of its author Elizabeth Bullimer to India in the mid-80s. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, former U.S. Ambassador to India, accurately places her in the historical legacy of Western travelers writing about India when he asserts, "This is the rarest of achievements, a western writer who has actually discovered India. What E.M. Forster and Ruth Jhabvala have achieved as art, Elisabeth Bumiller has captured by plain reporting of the most complex civilizations on earth."

As a woman author writing about women of another culture, her work is an interesting case study into the nuances, intricacies, and development of feminist philosophy and politics.

may you be the mother of a hundred sons; feminism; women; india
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The politics of Bullimer's choice of travel is apparent, and her self-awareness on the matter is cognizant of a meta-analytic post-modernist identification ethos. She writes, "I was already sensitive about my status as “the wife” who had followed her husband halfway around the world. I certainly didn’t want to write the predictable - woman’s book."

What eventually brings her to the decision to go ahead with it anyway is the wise recognition that stories of women's experiences can be 'used' as points of cultural entry to questions of larger societal and political relevance in India - all her hot-button issues ("poverty, overpopulation, threats to national unity and religious violence") ultimately have a human component that can be best articulated by a sincere reportage of women's issues. To quote her, "Women, I was beginning to realize, were my window into the Indian interior world, and into the issues of family, culture, history, religion, poverty, overpopulation, national unity—indeed, the very problems I had earlier thought were unrelated to the concerns of women."

This brings to attention larger socio-political debates within feminist theory and its breadth and scope of the study. It also highlights that Woman is not a neatly defined uniform and universal category, but rather a component of a larger population, that allows for an ethnographic mode of study of a culture and its larger dynamics.

Elizabeth Bumiller
Elizabeth Bumiller. image source: ytimg

Bumiller is also representative of the economic and cultural progress that the Western woman has made over the years. The differences in her concerns as a Western feminist and the experiences of Indian women is a data point that doesn't escape even her own attention. She writes, ".... but there my most impassioned feminist emotions centered on the kitchen, in arguments with my husband over who should cook dinner and clear the table." She also notes the stark cultural divide, "No American woman who struggles with family and career can completely imagine what this means in India."

The fact that Bumiller was able to get her news corporation to create a special journalistic opportunity for her to validate her travel to India with her husband is in sharp contrast to the experiences of past authors in the canon of female travel writers. In fact, critic Susan Bassnett draws special attention to this aspect in her theorization of travel literature with respect to gender. "Women, have rarely been commissioned to travel’, hence in the absence of a patron or authority figure women can afford to be more discursive, more impressionable, more ordinary." Whether the absence of patron figures expands or contracts authorial freedom is a question worth contemplating.

Bumiller's humility towards the Indian culture is also more progressive in comparison to her predecessors. Bassnett notes, "The theory of the exceptional woman who is somehow different from other women and therefore empowered to perform feats (such as travel writing) no normal woman would be capable of carrying out" has been one of the classic ways of representation in former travel texts (emphasis mine). The trope essentially divides women and prevents them from uniting, at least theoretically, against the dominant patriarchal narrative. 

May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons also draws our attention to the politics of intersectional feminism, and how dominant patriarchal narratives influence the power structures within the feminine or womankind. In her essay, 'Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses', scholar Chandra Talpade Mohanty eloquently problematizes the issue. "What I wish to analyze is specifically the production of the "Third World Woman" as a singular monolithic subject in some recent (Western) feminist texts.

The definition of colonization I wish to invoke here is a predominantly discursive one, focusing on a certain mode of appropriation and codification of "scholarship" and "knowledge" about women in the third world by particular analytic categories employed in specific writings on the subject which take as their referent feminist interests as they have been articulated in the U.S. and Western Europe." Bumiller finds herself in political discourse where these issues are mainstream and emphatic, and she is aware of that.

She gracefully confesses, "Throughout my journey, I was always aware of the outsider's limitations in a foreign country. I struggled daily with the problem of what standards to apply. There have been Western journalists who romanticized India, and there have been others who saw in it only those things that reinforced their own sense of cultural superiority."

An interesting point of cross-cultural experience is the confidence of Indian women in Bumiller, a foreigner. Some of them like Manju and Meena were more than willing to share the details of their experiences with a reporter like they were confiding in an elder sister. It goes on to show the relevance of an international feminist theoretical discourse despite cultural idiosyncrasies. It alludes to the presence of a feminine bond that transcends national boundaries and hence is capable of recognizing and capturing human experience in its truth beyond socially constructed paradigms. The striking difference, then, between the patriarchal notion of travel and the feminist one is this. The former travel to conquer the unknown. The latter does so to embrace it.

sister bond; feminism; love
Source: Elite Daily

Works Cited:

Bassnett, Susan. "Travel Writing and Gender." Ed. Hulme, Peter and Tim Youngs. The Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 225-241.

Bumiller, Elisabeth. May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons: a Journey among the Women of India. New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 1990.

Talpade Mohanty, Chadra. "Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses." On Humanism and the University: The Discourse of Humanism 12.3 (1984): 333-358.

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