Mother India: A Window into the Past

by Chandeen Santos

If the delivery is delayed, the dhai is expected to explore for the reason of the delay.  She thrusts her long-un-washed hand, loaded with dirty rings and bracelets and encrusted with untold living contaminations, into the patient’s body, pulling and twisting at what she finds there.  If the delivery is long delayed and difficult, a second or third dhai may be called in … and the child may be dragged forth in detached sections – a leg or an arm torn off at a time.[i]

~Mother India by Katherine Mayo

Katherine Mayo shocked the world with descriptions like these of the practices behind closed doors in India.   Her book, Mother India, had far reaching repercussions when it was published in 1927.  Katherine Mayo’s book had a significant impact on the way people in America and Britain understood women in India.  The success of Mother India can be attributed to several factors.  The book was reprinted and was issued in several editions for publication in the United States, Britain, and India. Mrinalini Sinha, an historian who has dedicated much of her career to researching Mother India[ii] suggests that the fact the book was also reviewed by “all major publications at the time on five continents”[iii] added to its popularity and effect on Western impressions of India.  Additionally, Mayo’s book created a debate between Indian nationals and the United States and Britain.  A search of the New York Public Library on the topic of “Mother India” will reveal over four hundred hits, many of which were written directly after the book was published.  These range from historical and memoir publications to full scale, in-depth discussions of women in India.  Finally, it is the shocking nature of the book’s content that helped distinguish it in the minds of readers and critics.  Sinha states that one U.S. journal argued that “three-fourth[s]” of the readers “found it pornographic.”[iv] This certainly inspired many from the United States and Britain to read the book.

As a journalist, Katherine Mayo wrote about the sexual practices of the Indian people  looking for the most shocking stories she could and using them to undermine the Indian people and their petitions for self-rule.  Mayo wrote about Indian women in relation to child marriage practices, the treatment of widows, purdah, and the birthing chamber, exploiting these practices to discredit the Indian people.  Mayo’s goal was to uphold British Imperialism in India because, as she argues, the Indian people were too backward to rule themselves.

Of the topics that Mayo discusses in Mother India child marriage is the most controversial.   She repeatedly asserts that child brides weaken the whole of the Indian population.  It was a common practice for a girl to be married nine months after she reached puberty but some were married even sooner.  In some of these cases the child bride was married to an older man.  Mayo states that, “a woman must be married before she knows she is one.”[v] This implies such activities were the norm in India. Mayo suggests that the practice of marrying off pubescent and pre-pubescent girls offers an opportunity for domestic abuse.  In one case, Mayo goes into a long description of a child wife who is in a local women’s hospital because of the physical abuse by her husband.  “Her internal wounds were alive with maggots” says the doctor in the hospital.  He tells a horrible story of the child being repeatedly abused by her older husband.  He talks about how the wife plays with dolls. The doctor concludes with the shocking evidence that the husband “is suing her [the child bride] to recover his marital rights and force her back into his possession.”[vi] Mayo links the age of these brides to their terrible treatment and abuse by their husbands.With stories like this, Mayo underlines her political motives arguing that a population with such young mothers and, therefore, weak sons has no energy to self-rule.[vii]

Critics of Mayo’s work accuse her of being a racist; her work before Mother India helps to support this argument.  Her strongest critic, Mrinalini Sinha affirms this charge by referencing a collection of Mayo’s short stories that “expressed all the dominant prejudices of colonial society.”[viii] This work was inspired by her eight years living in Dutch Guiana with her father.[ix] In her book, Specters of Mother India, Sinha observes that Mayo “peopled her stories with … sly and mysterious ‘Hindus,’ whose alien culture invariably threatened the ‘proper’ ordering of colonial society.”[x] Mayo’s support for imperialist ideology and governmental systems continues to be evidenced in her later work .  In her only book concerning the United States, Mayo argues that New York needed a state police force.  The New York police force “was to be modeled on the newly created Pennsylvania State Police, which itself had drawn inspiration from imperial sources.”[xi] Finally, the book Mayo published right before Mother India was a pro-imperialist depiction of the Philippines called The Isles of Fear.[xii]

In Specters of Mother India Sinha outlines overwhelming proof of Mayo’s political motives.  Sinha uncovers evidence that Mayo was in clear alliance with head British colonial government officers and even discusses her overall thesis of how to prove the ultimate argument that India was unfit for self-rule.[xiii] This seems to support the claim any historians have made suggesting that Mayo may have been politically motivated to write Mother India.  Sinha was the first to find proof.  Specters of Mother India offers an answer to one of the controversies surrounding Mother India.  Mayo’s book was clearly a political work and not, as other authors have argued, a cultural critique of India.

In her article, “Gender in the Critiques of Colonialism and Nationalism: Locating the ‘Indian Woman,’” Sinha aims to do just what the title implies, find “Indian womanhood.”[xiv] Sinha is not looking to ask who should speak for Indian women, but who is an “Indian woman” and how is she represented in Mother India?  “[W]omen were merely the sites on which competing views of tradition and modernity were debated… in the Mother India controversy,” argues Sinha.[xv] Sinha states that the very debate on Indian women was not for the women’s benefit but a way to debate the larger questions of Indian independence and autonomy.  The authors debating Mother India were not concerned with the true state of “Indian womanhood,” but rather with how to use Indian women to support their arguments against Indian independence.

Sinha then turns to the issue of who should speak for the women, but she presents this issue from the perspective of Indian women in the late 1920s.  Indian women at the time of the Mother India controversy took their own stand on the issue.  They got together and argued for a place in the debate.[xvi] They demanded to be heard.  Dhanvanthi Rama Rau, “an active member of three of the all-Indian women’s organizations” went so far as to attack British women’s attempts to represent them, and declared that “the work had to be done in India by Indians.”[xvii] In short, Rau rejected any outside voice.  Rau believed that Indian women should represent themselves.  Although it took the West sixty years to ask who should speak for Third World women, Indian women knew at the time that they wanted the right to speak for themselves.

Katherine Mayo’s Mother India has been a controversial book from the moment it was published and continues to fascinate the academic world.  There is a wealth of concepts, arguments, evidence, and stereotypes to be found in this book and the debates it has raised.  Mother India is a window from which historians can view how Indian women were understood by British and U.S.  political leaders, as well as how the public learned about the Indian people.  Although Mother India is clearly biased and did a terrible disservice to the Indian people, it also provides historians with a medium for exploring the racism of the time and may perhaps still serve as a useful tool for recognizing contemporary biases. ▢


[i] Katherine Mayo, Mother India, ed. Mrinalini Sinha (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2000), 139-40.

[ii] Mrinalini Sinha, Specters of Mother India: The Global Restructuring of an Empire (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 1.

[iii] Sinha, Specters of Mother India, 2.

[iv] Katherine Mayo, Mother India, ed. Mrinalini Sinha (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2000), 87.

[v] Mayo, Mother India, 103.

[vi] Mayo, Mother India, 109.

[vii] Mayo, Mother India, 79.

[viii] Sinha, Specters of Mother India, 68.

[ix] Sinha, Specters of Mother India, 68.

[x] Sinha, Specters of Mother India, 68.

[xi] Sinha, Specters of Mother India, 69.

[xii] Sinha, Specters of Mother India, 72.

[xiii] Mrinalini Sinha, Specters of Mother India: The Global Restructuring of an Empire (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 79.

[xiv] Sinha, “Gender in the Critiques of Colonialism and Nationalism.” 478.

[xv] Sinha, “Gender in the Critiques of Colonialism and Nationalism.” 481.

[xvi] Sinha, “Gender in the Critiques of Colonialism and Nationalism.” 493.

[xvii] Sinha, “Gender in the Critiques of Colonialism and Nationalism.” 493.

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