God could not be everywhere and therefore he made mothers.
-- Jewish proverb.
-- The Vedas
Paradise lies at the feet of mothers.
-- The Koran.
Motherhood is venerated in most cultures. Pictures of beatific mothers with cherubic children abound, often in collaboration with sentimental poetry.
But there is a darker side to motherhood, and this is the focus of Shinie Antony's book of short stories, "Barefoot and Pregnant". Most of the women here do not want to be mothers. Some are forced into motherhood, and some discover post-facto that it does not suit them, but there are no blissful parents here.
It would be easy to dismiss these characters as dysfunctional, but that would deny the real ambivalence that most mothers feel about their role, at least occasionally. Many new mothers will empathize with 'Sara', who is exhausted by the continuing demands of her infant and her own sleeplessness. Her husband suggests that "other women manage", and she sinks deeper into her own depression while the surrounding world blurs into the distances of her mind.
Some of the stories will be remote from the experiences of the middle-class readers of this book, but are the more moving for this distance. 'Jimmy', a 9-year-old prostitute, sleeps on the cold hard pavements of city streets. In 'Bay Bee', a hugely pregnant beggar captures the eye of a woman in a car, but cannot hold her attention long enough to get some money before the lights change.
'Jahnvi' is about a young doctor who prefers work among the poor to earning a large salary among the rich. Here the writing meanders somewhat, touching on the reactions of his parents to his sacrifice, and then wandering off to spend some prose on the family servant who is sent to tend to his comfort. The story is brought sharply back to reality by the wrenching discovery of incest among his patients.
This periodic lack of focus, I found, was common to some of the longer stories which often had extraneous characters that were distractingly tangential to the plot. The shorter stories, sometimes just a page or two, were intense, and their brevity highlighted the descriptive writing.
The final story, 'Darling-Darling', covers the terrain of transsexuality. The title is a literal translation of the protagonist's name, Omanakuttan. The story switches back and forth between the present day where an upstairs neighbour has died in mysterious circumstances, and the past of Omana's lonely childhood. It quivers on the border between thriller and tragedy. Given the anti-stereotypes in the other stories, I was a little surprised that non-mainstream sexuality was associated with such a host of stereotypically unpleasant actions in this one.
The stories are overtly linked by the puzzling technique of naming every main male character 'Joe', or some variation thereof. (Jo for Joginder Singh, Joe for Joseph Ambookan...). Perhaps the intention is that the men should be viewed as 'just average Joes', and perhaps I am too literal a reader, but I found this quite distracting. Just to make it more confusing, three of the stories do actually contain the same Joe.
There is not a hint of sentimentality in these stories. Black humour is more this author's style:
"Mrs Joseph.." he wailed [...] "how will I tell the children?" [..] I remembered Kitty Kutty rambling on about how bright, how brilliant etc. her children were, so a capacity to grasp the simple fact of their mother's death, I presumed, wouldn't be beyond them.
Despite the loaded title, the tales themselves don't fall into a clear-cut feminist pattern: there are women here who long for children against the wishes of their men, women who understand the hunger well enough to volunteer as surrogate mothers, and men who desire the birth experience themselves.
This collection will be interesting reading for most (though I would not advise tackling it during the uncertainty of a first-time pregnancy), and is an excellent counterweight to the excessively sentimental fiction about mothers that is more commonly found. It is an unusual set of stories about a side of motherhood that is rarely featured: sometimes moving, sometimes startling, sometimes unnerving, and sometimes tragic.
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