Bookaholicanonymous is extremely privileged to bring to you this conversation with Tova Reich. She is the author of the novels Mother India, One Hundred Philistine Foreskins, My Holocaust, The Jewish War, Master of the Return and Mara. Her stories have appeared in the Atlantic, Harper’s, AGNI, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of the National Magazine Award for Fiction, the Edward Lewis Wallant Book Award as well as other prizes. She speaks to us extensively about her latest book Mother India, which as you can guess from the title, is based in India.
About Tova Reich: She was born in New York and holds an M.A. in English literature. She has worked as an editor for several publishers and has taught literature and writing at a number of universities, but she is, and always has been, above all, a writer. She has traveled extensively, including many visits to Israel, living in the ultra-Orthodox quarter of the holy city of Jerusalem, as well as visits to India, living on the ghats in the holy city of Varanasi where Hindus are cremated. Her permanent home, though, is on the fringe of the unholy city of Washington, D.C., where she lives with her husband, psychiatrist and author Walter Reich. They have three grown children.
In your previous books you have set your books in Israel, New York, and Eastern Europe, but with 'Mother India', you have added India. Why? What attracted you to India?An ongoing focus of my work has been religion, what people want and need from it, and how it affects them in both the negative and positive sense--fanaticism, intolerance, extremism, narrow-mindedness on the negative side, morality, learning, spirituality and so on, on the positive. For that reason I have always been drawn to Israel and to India, since both of these countries stand out as destinations for seekers, for souls searching for the meaning of life, which is at the heart of religious aspiration. Because I am Jewish myself, and steeped from childhood in Jewish texts and tradition, I have been able to quite smoothly bring my characters to Israel to surprising satiric and dramatic effect, but always it has been my intention to take them one day to India as well.
Have you been to India and Varanasi in particular?
I have spent time in India, and especially in Varanasi, an ancient city that in so many ways reminds me of Jerusalem, perhaps most strongly (especially for the purposes of Mother India) for its focus on death and its status as life's final destination toward which believers strive.
Your books have strong female characters, don't they? Is it deliberate? In 'Mother India' she is Meena.
I would say that for Mother India I have in fact deliberately created four strong female characters—Ma, who surprises as she works her will; Maya, the child who, in effect, exacts her revenge by engineering her own destruction; and Meena, the narrator who reveals far more than she says. Together, they represent three generations of one family, but mention should also be made of a fourth woman, Manika, the Indian servant who exerts her masterful control from her first appearance to the very last page. I have also in my writing deliberately created many strong male characters over the years, including, in Mother India, the Jewish guru and fugitive, Shmelke, Meena’s twin brother and her intimate, essential other half, as strong and as driven as she.
Any reason for giving the title 'Mother India'? What did you want to convey? How long did you take to write ’Mother India
Over the three years I spent writing Mother India, the novel’s working title was “MaMayaMeena” to encapsulate the three generations of Tabor women. The title Mother India emerged toward the end of the writing process, when I found my working title requiring too much explanation. For some readers it no doubt evokes two notable works of the same title on opposite ends of the spectrum--Katherine Mayo’s notorious book denigrating India, and the epic film idealizing Indian motherhood. In contrast, my Mother India aims for a complex living truth, employing comedy and tragedy to take on, among other themes (such as religion, seekers, ideologies, family, children, illness, death, etc.) both the idea and the reality of Mother and of India.
You are trying to compare Jewish and Indian way of life aren't you? Why?
Though in many respects Judaism and Hinduism are of course radically different from each other, I have always been struck by the similarities between Indians and Jews in such realms as value systems, sense of self, aspirations, and attitudes toward family. Just think about Indian and Jewish mothers, for example, mighty and fierce sisters under the skin—and central to Mother India is the inescapably powerful “idea” of mother versus the reality, a long-standing preoccupation in my work.
In 'Mother India' you have used real people and real events. Like the Mumbai terror attack in 2008, where Meena and her daughter are caught up in the horror of the Chabad Center attack. You write about the politics in the Jewish community in both Mumbai and Israel following the murders. You also write about the 'Hugging Mother' - Mātā Amṛtānandamayī Devī. Did you research on these events and people?
In just about all my previous novels I have at times placed my fictional characters in the middle of current affairs and in juxtaposition with public figures. In the context of Mother India, a novel in which Jews and mothers are such a dominant presence, the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack on Nariman House and the subsequent politics in the Jewish community, as well as the activities of the “Hugging Mother,” fit in seamlessly. I was familiar with both the attack and with Amma, so in creating the novel, the type of research I found it necessary to do was more like fact-checking, to ensure the accuracy of the physical and chronological details into which I would insert my fictional world in order to render it believable. In the terrorist attack, the intense disaster that struck both the Indian and Jewish community of Mumbai forms a resonant background for the newborn passion between Meena and Geeta, containing within it the seeds of future catastrophe. In the fictionalized hugging marathon, the idea of “Mother” as all-powerful is played out not only at its most self-sacrificing and comforting level, but also its most manipulative and menacing.
Bookaholicanonymous cannot thank Tova enough for taking out time for us. We wish to read more of her work. Keep inspiring us Tova!
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