A Journey Among the Women of India

By Elisabeth Bumiller

Random House. 306 pp. $19.95

"WELL, which is it?" the Economist asked years ago. "The world's largest democracy and the light of Asia or a crumbling antheap of starving people and starved cows?'

You can still ask it about India, even if a Germany-sized middle class has managed to scramble up to the top of the antheap. We all have mental images: Sabu on an elephant; Myrna Loy dying of cholera so Tyrone Power can go back and save his people; Mahatma Gandhi striding into Buckingham Palace barelegged in his dhoti.

There is the fabulous India of Kipling's Kim; the poignant India of Satyajit Ray's "Pather Panchali"; the imperial India of "The Jewel in the Crown"; the alien India of Mrs. Moore in the Marabar Caves; the political India of Nehru and his patrician era and daughter Indira, imperious empress shot by her own Sikh bodyguards; the horrible India of Katherine Mayo's 1927 best-seller, Mother India, with its depictions of untouchability, widow burning and infanticide; and finally the exotic India of holy men and bejeweled maharajahs, snake charmers and Gunga Din.

Elisabeth Bumiller, formerly a writer for The Washington Post's Style section, here takes on all these Indias and, looking at them through the eyes of women, breathes new life into the old images. This is a splendid book.

May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons -- the title is a popular blessing Bumiller comes to see as a sexist curse -- is at times shocking, at times deeply moving, at times sheer fun. Bumiller's ultimate concern is the powerlessness of Indian women. Unless they get better education and jobs, she says, India's population -- 348 million in 1947, over 800 million now -- will surely exceed even the calamitous 1.3 billion projected for 2050.

"The women of India had to be lifted out of bondage," she argues, " . . . because no less than the future of India depended on it." E.M. Forster once wrote that an Indian town seems "made of mud, the people of mud moving." Bumiller's are all flesh and blood. We are haunted by a low-caste laborer's wife, a veritable beast of burden, who tells her, "I am like an animal." Nobody has written of India's women, behind the mud walls of their 560,000 villages, with greater empathy.

She writes with such a distinctive and honest voice, it wins the reader's sympathy from the minute she steps out of the plane in Delhi and breathes the air -- "smoky and sweet and overripe" (Arthur Koestler compared it to a wet diaper). Jogging the next morning in an exotic misty park full of crumbling Moghul tombs she comes across a poor woman collecting cow dung for fuel.

"At the very least," she tells us much later, "my journey forced me to question assumptions about mortality, religion, duty, fate, the way a society governs itself and the roles of men and women. It deepened my feminist convictions and made me realize how individual, yet universal, is each woman's experience. In the beginning, there were times when I felt that what I was exploring had little consequence for the lives in the world from which I had come. But slowly I realized that the way Indian women live is the way the majority of women in the world spend their lives; it is Americans who are peculiar. Ultimately, I realized my journey to India was a privilege. Rather than going to the periphery, I had come to the center."

Bumiller gives us good reason to listen intently to what she has to say, as when she describes the ways of the people in a village where she sometimes stays as "the ways of most of humanity."

In an interview not long before he died in 1964, I asked Nehru what he felt was his greatest achievement in 27 years in power. "The political liberation of India's women," he said. For most, this is not yet social liberation. Bumiller treads on delicate ground to take up arranged marriages, bride burning, sati (widow self-immolation) and infanticide. She recognizes that "60 years later, Indians still revile Katherine Mayo" who wrote of village midwives with "vermin-infested hair" and "dirty claws," who might thrust a "long-unwashed hand, loaded with dirty rings and contaminations, into a patient's body, pulling and twisting" and sometimes even tearing off a newborn baby's arm or leg.

Unlike Mayo's overwrought prose, Bumiller's discussion of these topics is lucid, well-informed and intelligently sympathetic. But she reports that while midwives are not really so malevolent, she did find many of them "still push on the mother's stomach during labor, risking rupture of the uterus."

Bumiller also documents the sufferings of Surinder Kaur, an illiterate Sikh mother who in 1983 nearly burned to death and accused her husband and sister-in-law of setting her on fire because she had not brought enough dowry to the marriage. She finds that the age-old custom of dowry, dangerously altered by city living and consumerism, can be a motive for murder (the official 1987 figure for dowry deaths was 1,800).

One reads with fascinated horror about an educated woman named Roop Kanwar, 18, who in 1987 burned alive on her husband's funeral pyre. Why, Bumiller asks, out of hundreds, maybe thousands, of villagers who watched, "did not one person try to help?" She provides a wealth of information on female infanticide among the poor of Tamil Nadu and sex-selective abortion among the richer, educated women of Bombay. (One apologizes, "In India every parent must have one son.")

Bumiller writes just as admirably about successful Indian women. She is perceptive about Indira Gandhi, killed just before she got to India, who she decides was more feminine than her public image. I agree having met Mrs. Gandhi several times in the 1960s, though I see her with a less enraptured eye, after being banned for a time in 1973 for stories written eight years before.

There is a lot of charm to portraits of Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Nehru's sister; Gayatri Devi, ex-maharani of Jaipur; members of Parliament; Calcutta intellectuals; a policewoman and a contented housewife. Bumiller writes well. Part of the charm is that she knows when to let her subjects tell the story.

The chapter on the lusty antics of Bombay film stars is glorious ("love triangles, love children, love nests"). Who can resist the tempestuous Rekha, who reads only Cosmopolitan and Archie comic books and at 30 is "immediately branded as 'aging' " by India's vast male audiences.

This is, in all, a fine and affectionate guide and the most stimulating and thought-provoking book on India in a long time. "India," she says, "made me come to terms with being a woman." By seeing it through women's eyes, Bumiller has made India new and immediate again.

Richard Critchfield, the author of "Villages" and "An American Looks at Britain," lived in India for five years.