I have been thinking of Sane Guruji lately. Sane ( Sah-nay) Guruji—teacher Sane—was a writer who every Maharashtrian child knew about when I was a child. What distinguished Sane Guruji’s stories from the usual childhood fare of Arabian Nights, the Panchatantra, or the Jataka tales was the fact that Sane Guruji did not dumb his fare down for children.
Instead, he provided an emotional experience so rich and vibrant that even adults enjoyed his works.
I was not a girl who was particularly close to my mother, yet when I read his magnum opus, Shyamchi Aai (Shyam’s Mother) I cried and cried. I think part of the reason was that I felt guilty for liking my father more than my mother.
When I read the part where Shyam’s mother patched up her sari so she could put food in the mouths of her children, I got goose bumps. When she fed her child flour mixed with water as a substitute substitute for milk, my heart ached.
Based entirely on Sane Guruji’s experiences with his own mother, the stories were a rare amalgam of fiction and autobiography. The reason they still tower over the memoir genre is because the author achieved the unusual feat of condensing each personal anecdote into its essential moral and wisdom while highlighting the human condition. And it was the human condition that plucked at readers’ heartstrings, for Guruji wrote these tales in early twentieth century-India which was then mired in colonial exploitation, poverty, and deprivation. Millions of middle class Indian women lived lives like his mother’s in those days, sacrificing themselves for their families and living only for others. Yet, Shyam’s mother was no pre-feminist victim; she wielded power in the quiet, understated, but firm manner of many of her contemporaries who were revered by their families because of their strength, their values, and their tenacity in weaving the ethical fabrics of their households.
Shyamchi Aai was made into a movie by Acharya Pralhad Keshav Atre, a writer, poet, educator, political activist, newspaperman, actor, orator, and film producer. The film won the first ever National Film Award of India in 1953. It is important to remember that long before the so-called French new wave heralded realism in cinema, Marathi films were breaking new ground with such films with social significance.
I never saw the film version of Shyamchi Aai but Sane Guruji’s words have left a deep mark on me. What strikes me today about the story is that we may decry the subjugation of women in Hindu mythology and culture—take Sita who had to die to prove her purity, or Draupadi who was treated like a chattel and shared by her five husbands—but Shyamchi Aai creates a role model of a wife and a mother that endures and demands respect even today.
An equivalent in Western literature is hard to find. Fathers are much celebrated in European and American culture, but mothers are made into comic figures and ridiculed. Or else they are demonized, a la Freud, and blamed for every flaw in their progeny. I can’t think of one Western book, children’s or adult, that celebrates motherhood in quite the way that Shyamchi Aai does.
Shyamchi Aai is that rare tribute to motherhood. It is, in a sense, an anti-memoir, for it does not trash the parent or make the narrator into a martyr to dysfunctional family life. Instead, it highlights the triumph of human virtue over adversity. Since Guruji’s books were written at the height of India’s freedom struggle, of which the author was very much a part, the subjugation that provided the backdrop to the story was not just to material privation but also to foreign domination.
Sane Guruji formed an essential element of India’s social reform movement, heralded by Mahatma Gandhi and executed by stalwarts like Maharshi Karve, champion of women’s education, Baba Amte, caregiver to leprosy sufferers, and Baba Ambedkar, activist for untouchables. But even if Sane Guruji had only been a writer, his contribution would have been unparalleled in the history of world literature.
It is a pity that even though so many writers of Indian origin have won much acclaim in England and the United States, much of India’s literature, particularly that written in its native idioms, remains unknown by the rest of the world.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that on Mother’s Day in 2010, Sane Guruji and his book Shyamchi Aai was commemorated all over India with screenings and kathakathan—storytelling events. I can only hope that the film will one day be distributed across Europe and America as an icon of cinema history and celebrated for its reverence for female power.
As I get older, I am becoming painfully aware of the lack of respect for women in American society. If they are not seen as sexual tools, they are simply ignored. In a culture where old women are treated as hags at worst and seen as invisible at best, the respect that Indian culture offers to women at its brightest moments is truly heartening.
Mother’s Day with its tokens of chocolates and flowers, has done nothing to uplift the status of women, but the publication of a book like Shyamchi Aaican.
Alas, my sons have not read Sane Guruji’s books, nor have they seen the film. It is my fault that they do not even know Marathi. Nevertheless, something in my upbringing has rubbed off on them. For even though they are fully steeped in American culture, they have inherently adopted an attitude of utmost respect for their mother. My older son calls me every night to check on me. And every time I see my younger son, which is almost every day, since he lives with me, he tells me he loves me. I wish I had said “I love you” to mydeparted mother every day of my life too.
But even as I grieve my failure as a daughter, I celebrate my success as a mother. I am grateful to be a kindred spirit to Shyamchi Aai.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. Visitwww.saritasarvate.com