It did, to the India of the 1920s. And very negatively. When that American writer travelled to this country in 1925-26 as an “unsubsidised, uncommitted, and unattached” private observer to write her notorious book Mother India, she was two years shy of 60. There was no other shyness about her. She came to record and report on life in this land. “They call their country ‘Mother India’ do they ?” we can imagine her saying, “Let me check out the mother’s daughters first”. And she proceeded to tour the country observing in particular how it treated its women.
Mayo was a good observer. But she has so ruined her acute observations by her obtuse biases that she has become a byword for bias. In fact, for malice.
Gandhi’s unforgettable description of the book is well-known. He called it the “report of an inspector of open drains and their stench”. That remark is taken to have dismissed the book. Gandhi disliked the book; he did not dismiss it.
Not so well known as the ‘drains’ quote is Gandhi’s further comment in the same response published in Young India of September 15, 1927: “… it is a book that every Indian can read with some degree of profit. We may… not repudiate the substance underlying the many allegations she has made. It is a good thing to see ourselves as others see us. We need not even examine the motive with which the book is written.”
Why did he say that?
There was one good reason. The book gave us, with its deplorable bias no doubt, some bitter truths about the young woman in India. In fact, about the girl. Such as: “…the girl looks for motherhood nine months after reaching puberty — or anywhere between the ages of fourteen, and eight. The latter age is extreme, although in some sections not exceptional; the former is well above the average. Because of her years and upbringing and because countless generations behind her have been bred even as she, she is frail of body. She is also completely unlettered, her stock of knowledge comprising only the ritual of worship of the household idols, the rites of placation of the wrath of deities and evil spirits, and the detailed ceremony of the service of her husband, who is ritualistically her personal god.
As to the husband, he may be a child scarcely older than herself or he may be a widower of fifty, when first he requires of her his conjugal rights…”
As I was re-reading that quote in the context of a talk that I have to give, came this news item from Namakkal in Tamil Nadu: “On a tip-off that a man in his 40s had married a 14-year-old girl who had attained puberty a few weeks ago, Tahsildar T Tirugnanam and sub-inspector of police Palaniammal rushed to the village. But when they began making inquiries, they were encircled by a mob and held captive. Three hours later, they were let off with the warning that they should never be seen in the vicinity again.”
This is more than eight decades after the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929, known as the Sarda Act after its prime mover Rai Bahadur Harbilas Sarda came into being.
Mayo writes of debates in the Central Legislative Assembly in 1926 in the context of the Bill in the Central Legislative Assembly culminating in that Act that fixed the age of marriage for girls at 14 years and boys at 18 years. The Act applied to all of British India, not just to Hindus. For that time, the age-refixing was revolutionary.
Several members of the Central Assembly, from all parts of India, opposed the reform. But Mayo tells us of a remarkable member from “the Panjab” who backed up reform most sturdily. The gentleman was Sardar Bahadur Captain Hira Singh Brar, described by Mayo as “an old Sikh fighting man”, who told the House: “Is it not a sin when they call a baby of nine or ten years…a wife? It is a shame. (Voices: “No, no!”)... a misfortune for this generation and for the future generation...Girls of nine or ten, babies themselves who ought to be playing with their dolls rather than becoming wives, are mothers of children… I feel ashamed...”. And the good legislator then said, “I think, Sir, the real solution for preventing infant mortality lies in smacking the parent who produces such children, and more so, in slapping many of our friends who always oppose the raising of the age...” Thank god for Harbilas Sarda, thank god for. It is believed Mayo’s damning book catalysed the Sarda Act. While she hated almost every part of India that she saw, Mayo had a soft corner for Punjab. If she were to visit us today, she might well ask us in Punjabi: “Ay, ki mein jhutthu boliyan?” We would hate her for that. But can we counter her?
Pre-natal medical technologies for the identification of the sex of the unborn child did not exist in Mayo’s time. But she may not have been shocked, if told, that such a future tool would lead, in India, to the horrors of female foeticide and female infanticide. But not even the jaundiced Mayo could have visualised the report in Hindustan Times (June 26, 2011) of the hideous misuse of surgery through genitoplasty to ‘convert’ girls into boys in Indore. India’s daughters must not have daughters who may become mothers of daughters.
Our laws cover a great many sins. They have learnt of, taken note of, and apportioned punishments for a large spectrum of crimes. The Indian Penal Code can leave the world’s most imaginative pervert aghast at the comprehensiveness of India’s criminal imagination. But even the most proactive of laws can be dodged by the fox called grey area. The cynical misuse of genitoplasty, bringing the most unimaginable distortions in the lives and personalities of the ‘girl -turned-into-boy’, is a grey area.
Will our Parliament take note of this unlegislated territory and enact a new law? Who will goad it? The National Commission for Women? The Medical Council of India?
Or perhaps a new Katherine Mayo, minus her bias, minus her animus, but with a mind as searing, eyes as scorning, and words as scorching as that India-baiter’s.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor. The views expressed by the author are personal.