Rinki Bhattacharya – in an exclusive interview

Rinki Bhattacharya in an exclusive interview Live Encounters Magazine May 2015

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Rinki Bhattacharya, Indian writer, columnist, documentary filmmaker and Editor of JANANI-Mothers, Daughters, Motherhood (published by SAGE), in an exclusive interview with Mark Ulyseas

What does it mean to be a mother?

This is an extremely subjective issue. You have to understand motherhood within the socio cultural context of gender /class/caste. Women have been brain washed that their ultimate role in society is to marry, be a wife and mother.

At marriage women are blessed: “May you be the mother of a thousand sons”.

The social impact of these ideas become obvious once you put age old conventional ideas of women’s role into perspective. Motherhood is believed to be the most fulfilling part of a woman’s life. Fortunately women are resisting rigid stereotyping. Many young women do not even want to give birth. They are pretty vocal about their decision, held in contempt, ridiculed, pay a personal price but persist. Then think of the common recurrence of child brides. A child is forced into motherhood. Or the victim is forced to bear a child of her assailant.

Many childless single women have strong maternal instincts. Being a mother is a layered, multi-dimensional experience. A woman’s entire world view is transformed by giving birth, caring, nurturing. Motherhood is fraught with life threatening dangers, physically exhausting yet exhilarating. Birthing can usher in morbid depression, a sense of divine fulfilment. There is no standard answer how it feels to be a mother.

Men, especially Indian men, ought to be asked – what it is to be a father? Men have not the faintest idea of fatherhood. Except to follow stereotypes of stern authoritarian figures thrown up by mainstream cinema, by fiction. Real life fathers are destructive like Mr. Barret of Wimpole Street!

However bear in mind the fact that women enjoy NO SOCIAL STATUS UNLESS THEY BECOME MOTHERS…it is the offspring that gives them a little sense of security in patriarchy. The birth of a male child even more so. This is why women are coerced to become mothers.

Is it true that the Indian women live in a violent patriarchal world?

Not just in India, women the world over, live, rather have to survive, in a patriarchal culture, which is the dominant culture in most societies.  If women oppose the ideals/norms of a hierarchal male culture to assert their individuality,  it turns extremely unpleasant, brutal, in fact. But this is inevitable, and has become increasingly frequent. Having broken the glass ceiling, women have made extraordinary progress in every profession. They have proved their competence. In a recent NDTV panel Mr. Narayan Murthy acknowledged this fact with candour. Cultural clashes are inevitable when those deemed socially inferior or social minors, for example, women, or Dalits, assert their positions.

What does it mean to be a daughter in a male dominated society? Could you give you give us a glimpse of your life as a girl growing up in India? Did you face or witness violence at home?

I will answer to both in one. Again this is subjective. It depends on the cultural context of the daughter’s family background. I was fortunate to be born to progressive parents who cherished me as an individual. They gave me space and freedom to choose. There were minor ground rules like timing. Not many women have the privilege I had. No, I had no experience of family violence. It was completely alien to my understanding.

There are many images in films as well as literature that depict the Indian male as a man obsessed with his mother. When it comes to ‘other’ women their attitude changes.

These images they are not in isolation, they emerge from life…. Though mother worshiping sons are an old school idea. They exist .It is a global phenomenon. Not being a son, I asked some men to comment how these sentiments work. I asked my son for his views, for example. He has lived in Italy for years. According to him Italian men are a race of unabashed Mother worshipers! Here are two other authentic male views from man friends that are interesting, amusing!! One believes that the real issue is hinged to the fact sons see mothers making heroic sacrifices all their life. They grow up with a sense of admiration for mother’s sacrifice. Fathers remain shadowy distant figure…while sons can emotionally bond with mothers.

The other view is that the mother- son relationship is like a master- dog one. The love is unconditional- it is a heady cocktail mix of many emotions. The love between mother and son last a lifetime. You may agree or not…that famous dialogue of Shashi Kapoor in DEEWAR. “Mere paas ma hai” rings loud in my head . It is a neat capsule.

I have no problem if a son truly cares for his mother, instead of it being a lip service.

But for the so called obsessive sons, the mother is often an excuse to ill-treat other women, the wife, girlfriends. It seems women have to take the entire responsibility of men’s anti-social behaviour. That is so convenient! It keeps patriarchy, the male culture in a state of eternal myopia, pretending to be pristine pure – almost virginal! We are guilty of blaming the mother for whatever children do – we are equally guilty of blaming cinema as the harbinger of all that is evil. Look beyond these excuses. We have to learn harmonious ways of respecting one another, raise the bar of man-woman relationship for society to progress in the right direction.

What is the difference between a mother-daughter relationship and mother in law – daughter in law relationship? And why does there appear to be so much angst prevalent in the later?

These are common assumptions, and convenient stereo types. The mother-daughter relationships can be equally traumatic. I have come across cordial relations of mom in law and bahu…it is a question of women defeating that time honoured divide and rule policy practised by society, that the British left us. Patriarchy has redefined and fine tuned this divisive trend.

Does religion play a role in defining the woman’s character and therefore she is marooned in a world not of her making?

Of course, religion comes second to family values in shaping women’s destiny. Women are the custodians of tradition and social values. It is they who keep up traditional expectations. All religious rituals have exploited women to maintain/ preserve our customs yet denied women primary roles like being priests, those who conduct these rituals. A few Churches have begun to admit women Priests.

How does she break free from the confines of society? For example, the story of Draupadi being shared by five brothers – how do you feel about this?

Both polygamy and polyandry demean women. It is repressive. There are many instances of a man being shared by several women…look around and you find multiple marriages, multiple relationships. Men are compulsive predators. Men thrive on striking relationships without taking the responsibility or giving respect to it. I find this callous and cowardly. And let me remind you, it is women who sport marital symbols, sindoor, mangalsutra to declare she is married. Do men sport no external symbol to show they are married? This leaves them to abuse the fact, to deceive.

Please give us an overview of JANANI – Mothers, Daughters, Motherhood

The book is a creative product of a particular period in women’s lives, known as the empty nest…a time when children leave home. Women begin to finally come to terms with the fact that they have given up everything to raise children at the cost of their own development. By then it is too late to recover their talents…many of us wanted to turn the searchlight on this period of loneliness, aging, neglect, longing…and the book was the result. I am mighty proud of this book.

Could you share with our readers a glimpse of your life and works?

The above ideas give you more than a glimpse of my life and work – both are profoundly inter connected!

Life inspires me.


Rinki Bhattacharya is Chairperson of the Bimal Roy Memorial Committee. She is also a well-known journalist and documentary film-maker based in Mumbai. Her documentary, Char Diwari, on domestic violence has received international acclaim. She made a five-minute audio-visual capsule, Janani—based on the same theme as this book. Ms Bhattacharya has also worked as a volunteer at Nari Kendra in Mumbai and started, in 1987, a crisis hotline called Help. Her publications include Bengal Spices (2005), Behind Closed Doors: Domestic Violence in India (2004), Indelible Imprints—Daughters Write on Fathers (1999), Uncertain Liaisions: Sex, Strife & Togetherness in Urban India (1996), Bimal Roy—A Man of Silence (1994), Cuisine Creations from Bengal (1993), monograph on the film-maker Bimal Roy, monograph on film-star Ashok Kumar, genres of Indian Cinema—Les star Du Indian Cinema.

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