In our society motherhood is much idealised. The role of mother is held up as an example of unconditional love and selflessness. Patriarchy highly celebrates it and cultural tradition proudly flaunts it: a woman reaches her apogee when she becomes mother. The image of mother is more of a mother hen but it contradicts the image reflected by our social history and literature. But for now we will try, very briefly of course, to explore the character of mother as we find in our long literacy tradition especially in the text composed by a great classical poet who dealt with legends.

The roles of mother in the tale of Heer composed by poet Damodar Das is highly relevant due to its depiction of historical reality of woman as mother. Mother’s role in the text is paradoxical. The paradox becomes highly visible when making a choice between supporting the husband and the daughter emerges as an excruciating ordeal. The positions of the father and the daughter are not only contradictory but also mutually exclusive regarding social norms, individual freedom and human/gender equality. The former, the chief of his tribe and patriarch, unquestionably defends the class-based patriarchal social norms, has no concept of individual freedom and takes historically generated inequality between man and woman as natural. The latter, a conscious young woman, aggressively defies class-based social structures, fiercely defends the right of individual freedom and vociferously rejects the chauvinistic concept of gender inequality. Such polarity of views puts the mother in a quandary: should she support her aristocratic heavy weight husband who protects the status quo or her fiercely independent-minded daughter who decides to lead life on her own terms against all odds. Her conflicting interests severely tests her strength as a wife and mother. Both the aspects - being a wife and a mother - are sources of her strength as a woman but the crisis apparently created by her defiant daughter weakens her position.

Initially she tries sailing on two boats. She makes an extra effort to simultaneously assuage her husband’s newly aroused fears and defend her daughter against insinuations and calumny. This is how in the words of Damodar the crisis began to surface: “One day Chuchak [Heer’s father] came out, embankment-digging started/ summoned the whole township, work to everyone allocated/ ‘days pass well Chuchak Khan, you no one ever lowered/ Heer is cancelling you out’, so some boor enumerated”. He comes home devastated and hides himself in the cellar. The wife worried with a forced smile wants to know the cause of his fraught silence. He answers thus: “Stomach rent, who’ll tie a bandage? To whom can I convey? / Unspeakable this matter, on the forehead uttering would array / Would that I take poison, from such living dying’s a better way”.

The wife pretending not to know anything says: “…Did some enemies bring evil, King Akbar comes in hot pursuit? /your condition’s not usual, you come in a state acute”. He replies: “…Neither developed evil intent, nor King Akbar in hot pursuit / Heer’s mamma, if you hadn’t born her! Who arrows at us does shoot”. The wife tells him the cause: “…In the outer chamber you heard this today, I keep hearing the same/ May children of our enemies die, they fevered your fame”. She advises that the father and brothers mustn’t vilify and stigmatise Heer, a virgin maiden, without having any solid proof. Resenting the gossips and suggestive remarks the mother sheds tears: “…All enemies we’ve lowered, now with face down I lie / If I knew I bore fire from the womb, wouldn’t her throat have cut I? “. She discreetly summons Heer: “…Listen daughter, in old age, you my womb-born one/ should I die or live, have my head severed, take poison? / Says the chief’s woman, O spoilt daughter, I’ve been undone!”. Heer replies that she is guiltless. “Hear daughter, you suckling babe, I for you a votive offering/ whose daughter, daughter-in-law are you? Lands, waters in their mastering / with Akbar whose assertion, all routes who’re controlling / Sometime understand O wise daughter, this is not becoming”. Damodar brilliantly delineates the perennial dilemma of woman as a wife and mother: in patriarchy different considerations and contradictory demands pull her in opposite directions causing her anguish to no end.

Heer’s mother epitomises the qualities of a good traditional woman in her roles as wife and mother. But the crisis at hand created by an unusually assertive daughter impales her on the horns of a dilemma, forcing an unbearably painful choice between her husband and daughter. If she chooses the husband, she would lose her daughter and if she chooses the daughter, she stands to lose everything. Losing husband would result in the loss of home and what it offers in terms of security and traditional social dignity. In the context of gender rights a woman’s love for her partner and for her daughter are things poles apart.

Mother invariably supports her daughter as long as she conforms to the social norms born of unequal man woman relationship. The moment she deviates from the rut, tries to take control of her body and begins making independent choices, social superstructure born of patriarchal economic base comes tumbling down. Defined male and female roles with the passage of time have become as sacred as caste roles in the subcontinental society. Woman as wife is tasked with protecting and defending the defined female role especially that of her daughter. And woman as a mother is naturally inclined to defend the rights of her daughter. But defending the daughter’s rights is a high-risk game; mother could be deprived of whatever rights she has as a wife. So a daughter can’t really rely on her mother at crunch time. When the chips are down mother despite her natural love for her daughter invariably chooses to save her male dominated household. She sacrifices the future of her daughter not for want of love but for lack of viable alternative. Hence the mother is usually an accomplice in the forced marriage of her daughter.

In a class society underpinned by patriarchy motherhood and wifehood don’t go together because of conflicting and contradictory demands they make on a woman. Motherhood is little more than a sacred myth if a daughter charts her route to freedom in defiance of traditions in a society that has deeply ingrained gender prejudice. Defiant daughter in search of freedom is really “fire from the womb” which can destroy social jungle. —

Note: Muzaffar Ghaffaar’s translations have been used in the column.

Published in Dawn, March 15th, 2021


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