In her novel Mai, Geetanjali Shree tells the story of a traditional middle-class woman in northern India. Mai, which is also a Hindi word for mother, plays the combined roles of wife, daughter-in-law and mother perfectly.
Her character is one that Geetanjali Shree's readers in India are expected to relate to immediately, but when the author met her German readers, she says she had to explain many things, such as the meaning of the traditional veil, the "purdah".
"It is a whole mindset," she told Deutsche Welle. "Even if you do not have the cloth on you, you have the mindset and perform certain roles. You accept certain positions, perhaps subordinate positions, you are demure, you keep your eyes lowered, you do not assert yourself and so on – this is maintaining purdah."
How to escape one's mother's fate
Geetanjali Shree’s novel is narrated by Mai's daughter, who fears she will have to follow in her mother's footsteps. She wonders how she can emancipate herself, whether she can persuade her mother to escape her repressive family situation.
However, she and her brother also acknowledge that they have benefited from their mother’s acceptance of the traditional role and they realize that they did not help matters by behaving as traditional children.
"Even while they thought they loved Mai terribly," explained the author, "and they were progressive and wanted to give Mai the best, even then, imagine, they were actually not seeing so much of Mai, and this is itself a major problem."
Real change has to be achieved at home
The narrator thinks it might help if Mai leaves India and moves to the West, but Geetanjali Shree says real change has to be achieved at home.
"Whatever my progressive ideas, there is also an unconscious I have imbibed," she pointed out. "There is a conditioning that I may or may not be aware of all the time, which is part of a make-up of centuries of patriarchal society. Even if one moves simply to New York, or to Paris, or to London, I don't think you just leave that behind."
Since it was first published in Hindi in the 1990s, Geetanjali Shree’s novel has been translated into English, Russian, and Serbian. When Geetanjali Shree appears at public readings abroad, she often hears stories about women who are similar to Mai.
"What I find very heartening is the fact that many readers from very different backgrounds and countries and cultures do not speak of exotic India but of the kind of woman they can recognize in their societies."
She is glad that her book about an Indian family can resonate with readers all over the world.
Author: Thomas Voelkner
Editor: Anne Thomas