It would be tempting to read Tova Reich’s Mother India while looking for who to blame for the terrible things that happen in it. The narrator, Meena, adds to this temptation in her self-centeredness and naive trust of rabbis and gurus as she tells us of how her life came apart. Reading as a juror is not the right path to take, I think. Instead, I would tell readers that this book should be read as an exploration of why people put themselves in the hands of charismatic leaders who preach unswerving devotion, asceticism, and sacrifice. Reich doesn’t give any straight answers, but her book offers a banquet of food for thought about religion, cults, mothers, and the eternal appeal of India as a place to find one’s path in life.
Meena Sati (formerly Mina Tabor of Brooklyn) tells the story of the worst years of her life in three parts. In the first part, she deals with her mother’s unusual dying wish to live near a ghat on the Ganges and be cremated like a Hindu when she succumbs to metastatic breast cancer. Meena’s mother had always lived like a good Othrodox rabbi’s wife. Moving to Varanasi would have been strange enough, but the request to be cremated violates Jewish law. This section, even with all its emotional weight, is blackly funny. Even though one shouldn’t laugh at anything that happens, I couldn’t help letting out a suppressed chuckle over the standoff between the local rabbi and Meena, her mother’s hijra friends, and a troop of monkeys.
The second and third parts are much darker. In the second, Meena directly addresses her daughter as she relates the years after Meena’s Indian wife left them. While Meena is grieving her mother and her marriage, she loses her daughter first to a group of Chabad Orthodox Jews, then to a cult run by the motherly Amma, and lastly to…No, I won’t ruin that part. In the last part, Meena seeks shelter with her cultish rabbi brother, who is under threat of extradition to Israel for his unsettling and illegal actions towards the female members of his following.
Over and over, Meena surrenders to faith. In the first third, she surrenders to her mother’s belief that cremation in a Varanasi ghat will free her from all Jewish strictures and expectations. Later, she surrenders her child to a woman she views as a more powerful mother than she. Mothers, she tells herself, know best for their children—except, presumably Jewish mothers, in Meena’s telling. Then she surrenders to her brother’s strange interpretation of tikkun olam—“mending the world”—and his attempts to rescue devadasi girls from sex trafficking. The way that Meena and the other followers we see in Mother India repeatedly act against their best interests for a variety of reasons. Some actually hope to do good in the world. Others, like Meena, I suspect, follow gurus and cult leaders because they desperately want to shuck off their guilt and be ruled by someone else.
Though I would have loved to blame Meena for what goes wrong in her life for trusting the wrong people and relinquishing responsibility, I find that I can’t. Meena tells us that she broke with her Orthodox Jewish family because she found it stifling, but it’s clear from the rest of her actions that Meena very much wants to have a higher power to turn to. She adopts a few Hindu practices to cobble together a belief system to guide her through life and turns to Amma in emergencies. But it’s clear that Meena is not meant to be a solitary spiritual seeker, no matter how hard she tries.
Mother India is a deeply moving, not to say depressing, book. It’s the kind of book that I wished I had read with a group because there is so much to talk about. Not only does it have so much content to parse through, it is thickly layered with meaning. And not only is it masterfully written, Mother India dances up and down the emotional spectrum and delivers astoundingly original and fully realized characters. One read is not enough to capture all that’s contained within this book. I very much want to go back when I have more time and subject it to the full English major treatment.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 1 October 2018.