Fic­tion

Moth­er India

Tova Reich

By – March 11, 2019

Writ­ten with inti­ma­cy, and occa­sion­al­ly even bru­tal hon­esty, Moth­er India fol­lows the expe­ri­ences of three gen­er­a­tions of Jew­ish women who go to India in search of trans­for­ma­tion and tran­scen­dence. They want to know if it’s pos­si­ble to gain what they call eter­nal release from the pro­found suf­fer­ing of life.” Wit­ty and satir­i­cal, the writ­ing has bite. We come to love and iden­ti­fy with nar­ra­tor Meena Sati, for­mer­ly Meena Tabor of Brook­lyn, an Amer­i­can woman who attempts to make India her spir­i­tu­al and phys­i­cal home.

The sto­ry is deeply orig­i­nal, pro­found­ly fun­ny, and dark­ly sat­is­fy­ing — a result of Reich’s skill­ful jux­ta­po­si­tion of the myr­i­ad ele­ments of faith, soci­ety, moth­er-daugh­ter love, and per­son­al iden­ti­ty. A per­fect book club read, the nov­el con­tains com­plex char­ac­ters, pro­found insights, and a thick­ly lay­ered plot­line that will engage read­ers from start to finish.

The sto­ry unfolds in three parts (“Ma,” Maya,” and Meena), all of which take place in a stark­ly com­ic uni­verse. All of the char­ac­ters — not only the women who trav­el to India, but the peo­ple there whose lives they touch — are drawn with depth and dra­ma. Meena’s moth­er, Ma, for exam­ple, is a tra­di­tion­al­ly obser­vant Jew and the wid­ow of an Ortho­dox rab­bi who wants to die in India and be cre­mat­ed in the Hin­du tra­di­tion, on the banks of the Ganges Riv­er — despite the fact that cre­ma­tion vio­lates Jew­ish law. Ma seeks the help of her daugh­ter and grand­daugh­ter in achiev­ing these wishes.

Meena’s for­mer lover, Gee­ta, an Indi­an woman, winds her life around Meena and her fam­i­ly in both pas­sion­ate and hilar­i­ous ways, par­tic­u­lar­ly when she decides, in a fury of black humor, to leave them. Her char­ac­ter works as a lit­er­ary foil against Shmelke, Meena’s twin broth­er, who turns out to be not only a rab­bi and a some­time-guru but also an inter­na­tion­al fugitive.

Much of the book deals with loss. Even when Maya deserts her moth­er, Meena — first to a group of Chabad Ortho­dox Jews and then to an Indi­an cult — we see how Meena sur­ren­ders to faith and gives up respon­si­bil­i­ty for her­self. Despite break­ing from her own Ortho­dox fam­i­ly, she is con­tin­u­al­ly drawn toward new def­i­n­i­tions of what it means to hon­or a high­er power.

Reich has care­ful­ly honed her abil­i­ty to trans­mit her com­ic vision on the page. In Moth­er India, she uses those skills to bring us insights into reli­gion and cults, mar­riage and moth­er­hood, India itself, and the uni­ver­sal dream of find­ing one’s cor­rect path in life.

Lin­da F. Burghardt is a New York-based jour­nal­ist and author who has con­tributed com­men­tary, break­ing news, and fea­tures to major news­pa­pers across the U.S., in addi­tion to hav­ing three non-fic­tion books pub­lished. She writes fre­quent­ly on Jew­ish top­ics and is now serv­ing as Schol­ar-in-Res­i­dence at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al & Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau County.

Discussion Questions

One of the many great strengths of Tova Reich’s Moth­er India is its insis­tence on alter­nat­ing wild­ly between wrench­ing pathos and bit­ing satire; the read­er won’t rest long with received pieties. Cen­tered on Meena, a Jew­ish Amer­i­can les­bian who has moved to India, and told in three parts struc­tured by three female gen­er­a­tions of her fam­i­ly — the parts are titled, respec­tive­ly, Ma,” Maya” (Meena’s daugh­ter), and Meena” — the nov­el nar­rates a fleet of tragedies, includ­ing can­cer, ter­ror­ism, kid­nap­ping, and sex slav­ery, among oth­ers, in its per­sua­sive attempt to pil­lo­ry charis­mat­ic lead­ers, the temp­ta­tion to fol­low them, and religion’s fetishiz­ing seduc­tive­ness. Read­ers of Reich will know that idol wor­ship has been her focus since she began writ­ing, but admir­ers will also know that in her mas­ter­ful hands the theme is always fresh, and its vic­tims are nev­er sim­ply par­o­died. Ded­i­cat­ed to root­ing out sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty and cliché, Reich is one of our most sen­si­tive writ­ers, and her book vibrates with pas­sion for human values.