A LABOR OF LOVE: Grandmothers, Remembering, and Renewal in Vineeta Vijayaraghavan’s Motherland


(Nancy Gerber holds a doctorate in Literatures in English from Rutgers University and teaches in the Women’s Studies and English departments of Rutgers University, Newark. Her most recent book is Losing a Life: A Daughter’s Memoir of Caregiving (Hamilton Books, 2005). )

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“Language is both source and womb of creativity, a
means of giving birth to new stories, new myths, of
telling the stories of women that have previously been
silenced; it can also become ‘a major site of contest, a revolutionary struggle.’”
-- Susheila Nasta, Motherlands (xiii)


Many contemporary narratives are inscribed by patterns of migration -- of leaving familiar territory in search of alternate futures. These voyages between old and new, motherland and metropolis, are marked by moments of rupture, loss, and rebirth as geographical, socioeconomic, cultural, and linguistic boundaries are crossed and re-crossed. In recent fictions that explore such movements, the grandmother, a bearer of the motherline of culture, represents a bridge between old and new, a source of individual and collective memory, and a catalyst for regeneration and renewal. Motherland (2001), by Vineeta Vijayaraghavan, is a recent novel of Diaspora and coming-of-age in which the grandmother is depicted as a figure with agency, a character both empowered and empowering. In her multiple ties to both scripted and unwritten narratives, to the past and the future, the grandmother appears as wise woman, a keeper of oft-told stories and legends, whose relationship to her granddaughter is complex and transformative. In Motherland, the grandmother is crucial to the formation of a positive female identity through her ability to transcend oppressive familial and cultural histories and envision alternative stories of empowerment and choice. Through her ability negotiate the pre-Oedipal realm of the semiotic – the non-verbal period of mother-daughter bonding – as well as the symbolic realm of language, the figure of the grandmother potentially displaces dominant constructions of old age as a time of emotional, psychological, and spiritual stasis (Barbara Macdonald, in her powerful critique of ageism in the United States, notes, “From the day the old woman was born, society was afraid that she would someday take charge of her own life” 100). The grandmother’s mothering of the granddaughter also helps to heal a damaged mother-daughter relationship, thereby repairing a potential rupture to the motherline and enabling the daughter to understand and forgive her mother’s inability to nurture.

A bildungsroman set in the mountains outside Coimbatore, a city in southern India, Motherland is narrated in the first person voice of Maya, the15-year-old daughter of Indian-born parents who have migrated to the affluent suburb of Scarsdale, near New York City. We learn that Maya was born in India and lived there with her grandmother, Ammamma, until the age of four, when she joined her parents in the U.S. The novel opens with Maya’s return to India for a family visit and her arrival at the Coimbatore airport, where she is greeted, not by her family, but by government intelligence officials who accuse her of associating with Tamil rebels suspected of assassinating Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The interrogation scene, with its accusations of collaboration and threats of violence, locates Maya’s story within the realm of politics and history, eliminating the possibility of sentimentalized and idealized readings of her text. At the same time, Maya’s refusal to cower in front of her interrogators reveals both a fierce determination and youthful arrogance as she imagines her American passport and adolescent bravado will protect her from harm.

As the Indian born daughter of Indian born parents living in the U.S., Maya finds herself poised on the threshold of conflicting identities. She hungers for personal freedom, which she claims as the prerogative of an American adolescence, and resents the claims of familial duty, which she sees as a set of restrictions imposed by her Indian relatives. She resents her uncle Sanjay’s and aunt Reema’s wish that she not spend a week with her rebellious English cousin, Madhu, at Goa, a beach resort popular with young people. Madhu makes people upset with her opinions and behavior, Reema tells Maya, adding, “It’s up to you. You can come here and be a tourist, do whatever you like to do, or you can come here and be a member of this family, with responsibilities and obligations. You choose” (115). Reluctantly, Maya agrees to stay with Ammamma (who lives with Reema and Sanjay), while Madhu goes off to Goa and aunt and uncle attend a wedding in Bombay.

The three-week period Maya spends alone in the house with Ammamma is the emotional core of the novel. The departure of Reema and Sanjay, positioned mid-way though the narrative, creates a womb-like space which Maya initially finds oppressive, more prison than sanctuary. The isolation of the two women, underscored by the remoteness of the house high in the mountains, and the unvarying regularity of Ammamma’s days irritate Maya, who is accustomed to independence and adventure. She observes Ammamma’s daily routine of praying, bathing, reading Sanskrit texts, writing letters, knitting, listening to music, and walking in the garden and feels excluded, since to her these activities are dull and uninteresting: “I had no way of sharing in her quiet, slow days. I didn’t know how to knit or write Malayalam or sing bhajans. So we just went on with our separate lives in this house where we had been left together” (138). Maya’s present state of emotional and physical detachment from her grandmother contrasts with memories of an earlier bond, when she would climb onto Ammamma’s lap during prayer, “feeling against my body the quiet vibration of hers. . . .” (134).

To alleviate Maya’s boredom, Ammamma hires Rupa, a girl from a nearby village, to keep her granddaughter company. Maya complains that she doesn’t need an ayah, a babysitter (and indeed, Rupa had been the ayah for Brindha, Reema and Sanjay’s ten-year-old daughter away at boarding school), but welcomes the presence of someone her own age. Rupa accompanies Maya on explorations beyond the garden walls into the tea plantations supervised by Sanjay. Maya asks Rupa to show her the waterfall where Brindha liked to bathe. These excursions provide Maya with an education into caste. Rupa’s caste status prohibits her from bathing in the same water with Maya, until Maya commands her to do so. A member of the swim team at her high school, Maya feels at home and competitive in the water. She challenges Rupa to a race, longing for familiar sensations of pleasure and exhilaration. The scene of the two young women playing together in the pool at the base of the waterfall is a foreshadowing of scenes of communion and intimacy that follow. Rupa is naked, while Maya wears a swimsuit, exposing Rupa’s vulnerability and Maya’s thwarted desire for closeness and intimacy. Alienated from her mother, bored by her grandmother, she desires a friendship with Rupa that is impossible because of caste differences. As in the scene at the airport, Maya reads her surroundings through the lens of American idealism, which has taught her that people should be treated as equals, while the text tells us that only she -- neither Rupa nor the people who know Rupa -- views their relationship this way.

Shortly after their swim together, Maya falls in the shower, breaking her arm and suffering a deep gash to her head. The accident occurs when she slips on oil she has borrowed from her grandmother, which pools on the floor when she rinses her hair (her Indian relatives do not rinse the oil from their hair, perhaps for this very reason). Ironically, just before the devastating fall, Maya delights in her body; she feels “unexpectedly intoxicated, droplets of water glistening on my stomach, my richly soft hair exotic to me. I imagined growing it really long, so it could be braided and flowers would stay in it” (141). Rupa’s hair had become unbraided and loose during the swim, and seeing it aroused Maya’s awareness of her own sensuality. Maya’s celebration of her body contrasts sharply with how she feels after the accident, when her head is partially shaved so that the doctor can sew up the wound to her scalp, with stitches that feel like “a rain of bee stings” (146). Worried that her grandmother will not be able care for her, Maya announces that she would rather stay in the infirmary than return to the house: “I looked at my grandmother standing there…her hair straggly and meager . . . wearing ratty pink bedroom slippers my mother had brought two trips ago. I looked at the hospital, at the nurses in their stiff uniforms and the beds made with square corners” (148). At this moment the infirmary, unlike her grandmother, represents safety and security, but it does not keep patients overnight.

Maya’s journey toward recovery under Ammamma’s care brings the two women closer, recreating an earlier physical and emotional bond that had been ruptured through diaspora and migration. With Ammamma, Maya experiences the symbiotic closeness of the pre-Oedipal realm, which she missed due to the early separation from her mother, and she learns suppressed knowledge through the revelation of a family secret which enables her to forgive her mother. The illness and recovery period occasions Maya’s emotional and psychological rebirth, a theme revealed by the chapter title, “The Lying-In.” This movement toward regeneration proceeds in reverse order from the typical progression of human development: whereas human subjects experience the pre-Oedipal realm before entering the symbolic, Maya experiences the symbolic before re-entering the pre-Oedipal. This reverse trajectory takes Maya back in time to the experiences of her mother and her grandmother, creating a bond across generations known as the ‘motherline’, a metaphor for the formation of a woman-centered female identity.

The first step in Maya’s recovery occurs on a symbolic level through the process of recording personal history. The doctor, concerned about possible brain damage and memory loss, urges Maya to become author of her past and encourages Ammamma to serve as amanuensis and write down Maya’s memories in a notebook. This process reverses the conventional pattern of grandmother as storyteller and granddaughter as listener. Maya begins with memories that are “safe” – first tree house, first swim team medal, first period – and proceeds toward those that are more “dangerous” -- her first kiss. Ammamma notices Maya’s reluctance to confide in her and says, “Pretend I’m not your grandmother . . . I am old, and I won’t try to tell you what is acceptable or not. Tell me everything, so that you can have everything back that is yours. These notebooks you can take, and the things I know I will take to my grave” (154). Through this promise of confidentiality and acceptance, Ammamma positions herself non-hierarchically as companion and friend rather than judge and jury. When Ammamma decides to edit the narrative of her own life by tearing out and discarding pages of her address book, Maya protests the erasure: “These are my memories, too. . . . These years before I was born” (156). Thus Maya observes and confirms her place in the ‘motherline’ by claiming Ammamamma’s past as her own (For a more complete discussion of the significance of the motherline, see Andrea O’Reilly, Toni Morrison and Motherhood, pp. 42-45).

Ammamma’s attempt to erase her past by ripping apart the address book enables another kind of birth, the disclosure of a secret she and the rest of the family have kept from Maya. In birthing this secret – that Maya had a twin sister who died shortly after they were born -- Ammamma empowers Maya to claim full knowledge of herself and her history. The secret had been shared by a large circle of friends who had hoped to protect Maya and her mother from remembering the pain of loss. Too, Ammamma had felt guilty about her role in the events surrounding the death of the infant girl: she insisted that Maya’s mother return to India from Scarsdale so that she could care for her daughter during the last months of pregnancy. Unable to resist Ammamma’s exhortations, Maya’s mother returns to her motherland to honor her mother’s wishes, in spite of her own strong desire to remain in the U.S. After the death of the infant, Maya’s mother succumbs to severe post-partum depression and returns to Scarsdale to recuperate, while Maya remains in India with Ammamma. By the time Maya returns to her mother, at the age of four, she has matured beyond the pre-Oedipal stage, and both mother and daughter have lost that first opportunity for physical intimacy. As Maya grows, she comes to view her mother as detached and self-centered and mourns the loss of her grandmother: “But Ammamma, I didn’t even really know that you were not my mother. When I went to America, I kept wondering why you sent me to live here with nice auntie and uncle. . . .” (156). Through delivery of the secret of the lost twin, Ammamma is able to forgive herself for insisting that her daughter return to India, in turn enabling Maya to understand and empathize with her mother’s pain and suffering.

The themes of birth and rebirth are enacted in a series of gestures that mirror the closeness and intimacy of the lost pre-Oedipal period between mother and daughter. The project of recording Maya’s memories is abandoned after the secret of the lost sister is revealed; instead, Maya follows Ammamma into the kitchen to document her grandmother’s recipes for garam masala and gobi. This interest in the maternal culture of food and nourishment is followed by a scene in which Ammamma feeds Maya by hand, reproducing the early mother-child bond established by breastfeeding. Ammamma also bathes her granddaughter, a scene formalized in language rich with eroticism which echoes Maya’s previous watery encounter with her body: “I felt a shiver travel over my spine, my arms bristling with goose-pimples, my breasts rising up under her touch. She moved quickly, smoothly, soaping, then rinsing, shampooing, then rinsing” (169). Ammamma is nurturing mother and competent nurse, her loving ministrations contrasting with the efficient sterility of the infirmary where Maya once wished to stay. Sleepy from the bath, Maya says, “I drew Ammamma down next to me on my bed, and we slept the afternoon away,” a vocabulary evoking the intimacy of lovers (171). This trope of female union is repeated when Ammamma is taken to the hospital following a severe stroke after Reema and Sanjay’s return. Like a young child, Maya crawls into the space left by her grandmother: “I looked over at Ammamma’s bed, and there was a valley where she and I been laying together. I went and huddled there, fitting entirely within the silhouette of her body, breathing her smells, the vicks, the rosewater, the sweetness of hair oil” (189).

The return of Reema and Sanjay disrupts the womb-like closeness of granddaughter and grandmother. Aunt and uncle are shocked when they learn of Maya’s accident and worried about Ammamma’s health. Both young and old are put to bed, this time as invalids, not as companions. During this period of confinement, Reema and Sanjay are asked to host a visit between Maya and a young man whose parents wish to see if Maya is a suitable bride for their son. Reema is eager to help: this marriage would guarantee social status and respectability for aunt and uncle. Maya, who is not informed of the purpose of the young man’s visit, is upset when she realizes her aunt is attempting to arrange her future. She asks a distraught Ammamma whether she, too, was involved in the plot. Ammamma tells her no, saying, “Everything is up to you ultimately. There are a lot of rules here, the way we live, and I think some of them probably should be broken. . . . you have to think hard about which rules to break, and you have to break them because you have a good reason. . . . you have to make your choices mean something” (187). This is the voice of wisdom and experience. Ammamma give Maya the freedom and authority to choose to live a hybrid life: to create a synthesis from the heritage and rituals of her motherland and the culture of independence and autonomy she knows in the United States. As a mentor and guide, Ammamma is herself comfortable with crossing boundaries of gender and class: while Reema and Sanjay are away she takes her own meals rather than insisting on being served by Matthew and his wife, Visani. She is also teaching the two house servants to read and write, thereby helping them to establish a place in the realm of the symbolic.

Ammamma’s message is that while there is no such thing as absolute freedom, neither should one be bound by traditions that restrict or confine. She has learned this lesson from her own experience of loss: that insistence on tradition can sometimes lead to pain and loss. The permission to write one’s own story is the grandmother’s gift to her granddaughter. Thus Maya rejects the script her defiant cousin, Madhu, has chosen, since Madhu is indifferent to the motherline.

Madhu’s inability to serve as guide and mentor to is related to a disconnection from her own grandmother. Both Madhu’s grandmother and Maya’s grandmother relate to their granddaughters the story of the goddess Sita, wife of Rama. In Madhu’s case, the story has a cautionary meaning about the importance of chastity in marriage. Maya notes that there are many stories about Sita’s courtship, marriage, and abduction by an evil demon king; the stories are retold as bedtime tales, dance dramas, television serials, even comic strips. Madhu recounts to Maya the version her grandmother told her: Sita has given her word of honor that she has not been with any man other than Rama, that she is still pure, but no one believes her. Even though she passes a test – she walks through fire unscathed – she loses the trust of her people and her husband. She asks Mother Earth to take her in, and Rama reigns alone. Maya realizes it was not enough that Sita insisted she was “pure” – “everyone had to believe she was good” – and Madhu concurs, saying “[My grandmother] wanted me to know that’s how much purity matters in India” (111). Madhu’s grandmother schools her granddaughter in the perpetuation of patriarchal privileging of female chastity. Though Madhu rejects this teaching, she also denies her heritage: “In Britain, we know who we are, and we’re not Indian” (103). In Ammamma’s interpretation of the Sita story, mothering and acceptance triumphs over patriarchy and shame: “Mother Earth . . . gives Sita refuge. That’s what mothers do, Maya. They accept, even when no one else does” (188). Thus grandmother offers granddaughter the promise of unconditional love.

Ammamma’s death at the end of the novel reinscribes the first separation experienced by Maya at the moment of departure from India some ten years earlier. Although this parting will be final, Maya is enriched is by her grandmother’s gifts of self-knowledge, self-awareness, and deep appreciation for the stories of the motherland.


Works Cited

Gerber, Nancy. Portrait of the Mother-Artist: Class and Creativity in Contemporary
American Fiction
. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2003.

Macdonald, Barbara with Cynthia Rich. Look Me in the Eye: Old Women, Aging and
. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1983.

Nasta, Susheila, ed. Motherlands: Black Women’s Writing from Africa, the Caribbean
and South Asia
. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1992.

O’Reilly, Andrea. Toni Morrison and Motherhood: A Politics of the Heart. Albany, NY:
SUNY Press, 2004.

Vijayaraghavan, Vineeta. Motherland. New York: Soho Press, 2001.


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