The Eternal Mothers of India

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My lake-side seat has become my favourite place to sit at Somnath. Every morning after breakfast I head to the concrete plinth beneath a Mimosa tree and assume a position of dedicated intent; buttocks and feet are planted to establish a tripod and then I survey the scene (I am more of an eyes-wide-open meditator).

This morning I was distracted (a regular occurrence) by a diminutive figure on the road and watched as a very short, very dark and very old woman hove into view. Dressed in a flamboyant but faded pink and yellow sari she moved in a peculiar robotic fashion. To say it was a comical sight sounds unkind but the first time I saw her the image that first came to mind was of the film ‘The Terminator’ and the similarly angular, stilted gait of the man-like machine. But every day as she nears me my little ‘terminator in a pink and yellow sari’ puts what remains of her hands in front of her chest and through betel-stained teeth croaks “Maste” (Namaste = hello) to me and I do the same back to her (a supreme ‘Lord Jim’ moment Conrad fans!)

In many ways she is an archetypal figure in this often benighted country. A body battered but not broken by decades of toil, bent double planting rice or sweeping floors, squatting on floors to cook and eat and sleeping on hard beds or floors. She could probably walk a thousand miles in her unique way and wouldn’t grumble once – she may already have done so to some distant temple. Far more representative of what keeps this chaotic country running than the air-brushed Bollywood princesses with their Aryanised features, paler skin and coquettish facial expressions. No, the real India looks you square in the face with a smile and spits a betel-flavoured ‘Namaste’ at you. And they number in the many tens of millions these eternal mothers of India. They are the real backbone and source of nourishment in this Lingam-worshipping land. As colourful as bee-eaters they either glide or trudge, depending on their age, across this harsh landscape.

But a new generation is rising, exemplified by the busloads of bright-eyed school girls who wave at us from battered buses and cry ‘Hello Good Morning’. Eager to practice their English at every opportunity they approach in doe-eyed giggling groups to ask us a routine set of questions. Their large satchels are full of books on every subject: computing, accounting, law, medicine, business and science. They feel the change afoot in this country and are eager to play a part in it. Many live in simple villages but when asked what job they would like reply ‘Aeronautical engineer’ or ‘Doctor’. They are shooting for the stars indeed and by the look of them quite a few will get there. Meanwhile their mothers continue to work tirelessly to pay for this new generation of Indian women who are the next front line in the ancient but ever evolving entity that is Mother India.

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