The theme of the month (of the Book Club I’m in) is “banned books,” and I chose the super-duper controversial “Mother India” which was written in 1927 by Katherine Mayo, an American researcher. An ardent supporter of colonialism, she has apparently criticised the Indian people’s capability to self-govern in this book. I began reading the book with an open mind and a vigilant sensibility keeping stock of the author’s background and the time at which it was written. My impression so far is that, though the content is jaundiced, Mayo is a smart, articulate writer with a flair for creating vivid imagery with her words.
So this book was written in response to the popular nationalist movement in India (the freedom movement) that was quickly gaining momentum and supporters in America (also owing to the rise of liberal parties and sentiments in the U.S.). Mayo’s initial plans were to cover public health in India, however, taken as she was with the British elite society, her focus naturally changed and she reported on the Indian peoples’ ability to govern a country instead.
Mayo first attempts to create a pretty graphic picture of India (a vivid description of the ritualistic occurrences at the Kali Mandir in Calcutta) – an abject exposure she extends to her readers (mostly well-meaning Americans with not a clue of India except for Gandhi) as if to say “this is India in all its superstitious folly!” After this prologue, her writing style turns ostentatious and her tone changes rather quickly from that of a travelling observer to one of an insulting, preachy and prophetic nature. Holding on to this acrimonious tone till the end, Mayo makes claims supported by official records about the cause of societal ills plaguing the country like child marriage and even temple prostitution (devdasis). She does so intelligently, despite the tone. She calls out the Indian propensity to transfer all blame and responsibility to the British Raj, and asks the Indian people to acknowledge their failing systems in place (religious dogma) – albeit exaggeratedly.