Lavanya was about a year old when her mother, 28-year-old Manju Iyer, heard someone say her child was ‘not normal’. A year and a half later, Lavanya was diagnosed with autism. Manju, tense and anxious, began an extensive research on autism, reading up madly.
All Manju could talk about was what she read. She had always wanted a child, enjoying the company of children more than that of adults. Years of that and all her research sharpened her instincts on what was right for her child. She stopped the therapy that felt forced on the child, quit her job, and researched even more. Finally, she found a way to connect to her little girl, became so good at it that she turned into a full-time therapist for other families too. Lavanya is now six.
Manju and Lavanya’s is one of the many moving stories on Momspeak, authored by Pooja Pande, writer, editor and strategy head at Khabar Lahariya, a rural newspaper run by women that is published in various rural dialects.
“Listening to Manju’s story of mothering Lavanya was very overwhelming for me personally, and it was also an extremely overwhelming experience to put together – it was impossible to remain dry-eyed,” Pooja writes in an email interview.
She spoke to a number of mothers for the book – married and single, queer parents, sex workers, and more.
Some stories like Manju and Lavanya’s had been too overwhelming. “Manju’s motherhood experience is so stunningly shaped by the special needs of her daughter, it takes my breath away. There is pain and yet she brings so much joy to it,” Pooja says.
There were some stories of motherhood that surprised her too. “I’d say that the feeling of not wanting to become a version of your own mother, which kept coming up in almost every interview I did, took me by surprise. It’s something I have never felt myself – far from it, in fact – and hence the surprise, I guess. I certainly hadn’t imagined I would end up writing an entire chapter on it, but I sort of had to.”
The book itself appears to be something she had to do. Motherhood shook her into action and shaped a creative impulse, she says. But it has been more than that – a journey, she says, that she’s been on as a woman, a mother, a human being, a feminist, and a writer.
“The truths of womanhood and motherhood are seldom spoken of as we know, and this is of course because we live in broken cultures – systems that have long perpetuated stark injustice and sheer inequality in the name of power-mongering,” she notes.
“The decision to write the book emerged from a space of awareness then – the larger awareness of this dystopia we live in (and are in fact complicit in), and the self-awareness of my multiple identities as woman, mother, human being, feminist, writer, which make me, me. Perhaps you could say the book’s birthing point was in this space – of these two kinds of awareness coming together,” Pooja says.
In the book, she touches upon issues that come with motherhood that few may even acknowledge, much less talk about – a new mother expected to be all-knowing, postpartum depression, being left alone to deal with it all herself. In short, about how motherhood has been portrayed as the epitome of sacrifice and everything selfless, and ‘nothing short of a religion’.
Pooja says, “I feel like the entire book is precisely about this. An interrogation of these long-held notions and beliefs around mothers and motherhood, which are all essentialist in nature – and hence, non-existent in reality, i.e., these so-called perfect mothers exist only in fiction! – and stem from patriarchal systems.”
She has been getting varied and mixed responses for the book and she thinks that’s largely because there are serious gaps in the story of motherhood in India. “We rarely, if ever, see single mothers, queer mothers, or hear about sex workers as mothers in news, culture, pop culture, or even just in regular conversations.”
At one point in the book, she quotes Javed Akhtar as having said, “When we say respect mothers, what we’re really saying is don’t respect women.”
Even as the book narrates all sorts of stories about motherhood, there is a question that comes up – whether women who don’t wish to be mothers and are childless by choice for whatever reasons would have something to add. Especially when popular fiction has a habit of reiterating that a woman’s purpose in life isn’t complete unless she becomes a mother.
Pooja’s book has stories of women like Kamla Bhasin who had not planned to become a mother but later did. “Besides Kamlaji, there are other narratives too that speak of not wanting to be a mother as a choice, but the reason to not include and/or explore say, anti-natalism in a full-blown manner, was ultimately largely, and unfortunately, a logistical one. Ditto for stories of women who adopt. Perhaps I need to plan a sequel with more such chapters, the motherhood story is an ever-evolving one after all.”