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Mother India': US writer's take on spiritual liberation


Press Trust of India New Delhi
About 10 years ago, American writer Tova Reich started visiting India and a few years later, she began to write a novel about Jews who come here seeking transformation and eternal release from the sufferings of life.
She wrote the first section and named it "Ma", setting it in Varanasi and centering on death and dying.
The novel "Mother India" was born out of a lifelong feeling of connection to India and its people and saw the light of the day in 2018 in the US. It was published in India this year by Macmillan.
It focuses on members of a deeply religiously observant Jewish family from New York and Israel who come to India, each in search of something: Ma seeks liberation, her daughter Meena (the narrator) searches for meaning, and her son (Meena's twin brother) Shmelke, seeks refuge.
Reich describes her book as a darkly comic work of fiction about, among other things, death, religion, the uses and abuses of children, and families, especially mothers - powerful mothers, tender and terrifying.
She says it is a work of fiction, but in creating its characters, she strove to bring them to life on the page and "make them so real that one could smell them".
The powerful mothers, for instance, should be very familiar, especially to Indians and Jews, she says.
Several of her previous novels are set in Israel, and involve American Jews who come to Israel searching for something - spirituality, purpose, enlightenment, holiness, inner peace - very similar to what people want from India, sometimes in a kind of haze of madness.
"You can think of it as the swami syndrome (India) and the messiah syndrome (Israel), and it is often a quest that is both comic and tragic," the Washington-based author says.
"This sense of something larger than oneself and one's material life is a pull that both India and Israel almost uniquely on the planet possess and exert, and (whether real or not) it is what draws people to those places, and also draws me, as a writer," Reich told PTI.
She thinks of her voice as a writer more as darkly comic than satiric, laced with a profound sense of the absurd. "This is a stance I have developed over the years to keep myself from sinking hopelessly into what is essentially a tragic vision of life."

Her book has made it to the long-list of this year's DSC Prize, which is exclusively for South Asian writing.
"Apart from feeling honoured to be included in this list, I feel quite at home in South Asian writing. It seems to me to be a very natural place for me, and for Mother India' to inhabit, she says.
For research for Mother India, Reich spent good periods of time over the last decade in India, breathing it in, soaking it up and finding quite naturally, just as I expected, most of my familiar references and themes.
In writing fiction, she thinks there is a danger in over-researching. It has been my experience that often a brief glimpse in passing into a dimly-lit room through a half open door can inspire for the writer a whole universe.
Reich, whose previous novels include My Holocaust and One Hundred Philistine Foreskins, is an avid reader and follower of Indian literature.
I would nevertheless have to say that first of all what attracted me are the ancient texts, The Ramayana', The Mahabharata', and so on, just as in my previous novels (and also in Mother India') I turn again and again to the Old Testament and other classic Jewish sources, she says.
Among the more recent Indian writers she has read, she mentions the names of Rabindranath Tagore, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, R K Narayan, Nirad Chaudhuri, Mulk Raj Anand, U R Ananthaumurthy, Saadat Hasan Manto, Anita Desai, Salman Rushdie and Vivek Shanbhag among others.

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First Published: Oct 31 2019 | 1:45 PM IST

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