Review: Mother India by Tova Reich
At the Jaipur literature festival earlier this year, publisher Arpita Das called Tova Reich’s Mother India “the lesbian Shantaram.” There’s even a hat tip to Gregory David Roberts, the “celebrated writer of a doorstop novel about the Bombay underworld… a former murderer and hoodlum who had reportedly escaped life imprisonment in Australia to become a bestselling author with a cult following and whom I would spot now and then holding court at his reserved table at the Leopold with his consort at his side.”
This otherwise inconsequential detail, a third way in, foreshadows the novel’s descent into another foreigner’s derisive account of grimy India. Mother India is also about the griminess of the soul.
Meena, a middle-aged lesbian from Brooklyn, runs a travel business in Mumbai and considers herself “an old India hand, a Hin-Jew”. She recounts the adventures of three members of her ultra orthodox Jewish family in India: Varanasi, where her mother moves to die; Mumbai, where her daughter copes with the trauma of 26/11; and Kolkata where her rabbi brother becomes a guru.
The novel opens with Meena’s mother who decides to terminate chemotherapy for her stage IV breast cancer and move to Varanasi to achieve liberation. While waiting to die, she builds a life romping around Banaras with her maid, a group of hijras, a rickshawallah and monkeys. The solemnity of death is broken by the absurdity of rituals in the best scene of the novel. Ma’s entourage of hijras guard her body – which she wanted cremated, a practice forbidden to orthodox Jews – while a rabbi urges his young Israeli followers to kidnap it for a proper Jewish burial. Stealing a dead body is well and good, but how do you tackle non-binary bodies protecting it? Here, the young boys (post-army stoner backpackers) ponder issues of gender: “whether or not it was permissible for them to engage in battle with an enemy of questionable gender. Were their opponents women or men? If the former, then were the laws of negiah applicable, prohibiting the physical contact that would inevitably ensue from hand-to-hand combat? If the latter, would not one be rendered impure simply by touching the perversion of the garb of a woman on the body of a man? And… whether they were male or female, what about the danger of inadvertently being brought to a state of physical arousal.”
Throughout the book, Meena ruminates on ideas of Judaism and Hinduism, making biblical references and alluding to Indian customs, mocking everything and everyone. This egalitarian contempt softens her scathing westerner’s gaze at the messiness of India. It also serves as an amusing – although confusing, possibly deliberately distorted – introduction to Jewish theology. Her critique of the Chabad (an orthodox Hasidic outreach movement) and ideas of the Kabbalah (a practice of Jewish mysticism) is further obfuscated by her unreliable narration.
In Mumbai, on the night of the 26/11 terror attacks, Meena and Geeta, a rich Delhi woman she later marries and is divorced by, rush out of Leopold Cafe to the sea and watch “a series of thunderous blasts and the sky lit up, illuminating a hidden universe of lovers tucked in the niches and crannies of the rocks, their eyes startled and fluttering wildly. Spears of flame were shooting up from the Taj.” Meena and Maya are traumatized by the attack, especially on Chabad House where the victims were their neighbors.
Real life events and characters mixed with manic fictional ones (not one of them likable) relayed by an increasingly unhinged Meena muddle up the narrative, which had been ingenious until this midpoint.
Teenaged Maya first becomes observant and turns to the Chabad Movement, then she throws herself into the arms of a godwoman in Kerala – based on the internationally renowned Mātā Amritānandamayī Devī known as “hugging amma”. Later to Dharavi. There’s a Jihadi movement and references to Lolita. Subplots point to conspiracies, none of which evoke concern.
In Kolkata, Shmelke, Meena’s twin brother (built on Eliezer Berland, an Israeli fugitive sex-convict rabbi) and his followers occupy Mother Teresa’s old hospice ridden with underage devadasis and disease. He believes that holy men like himself must commit the vilest of sins to “restore the world to the purity of its original light as at the time of creation.”
With him, the novel too plunges into the worst depths of humanity in its search for meaning. It’s a revolting and tedious fall and unfortunately, there’s nothing in the abyss.
Saudamini Jain is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.