Mothers of our mother(land)

Land of our birth, our faith, our pride,

For whose dear sake our fathers died;

Oh, Motherland, we pledge to thee

Head, heart and hand through the years to be!

“The Children’s Song”, Puck of Pook’s Hill, Rudyard Kipling


Every year as Independence Day grows closer, discourse and debate about what language the national anthem is to be sung in is rekindled. There is much chatter about a mother tongue, how as inhabitants of what most dub a multicultural society, allegiance is to be pledged using only one language. This year, it has extended to talks of making changes to the national flag. I am neither surprised nor frustrated at this development, but these pockets of non-feeling are a privilege I can enjoy as what some would classify as a Sinhala-Buddhist child of this motherland. Another Independence Day passes by, and I find myself reflecting on the motherland, this year more so regarding the legacies both created and endured by the eponymous mothers of this land.

“A man’s heart is a wretched thing,” writes Afghan-American novelist Khaled Hosseini. “It isn’t like a mother’s womb. It won’t bleed. It won’t stretch to make room for you.” The power of a mother’s lifeblood, her willingness to shed it, is a fascinating motif, especially in the Global South. In Sri Lanka, mothers’ capacity to turn “blood into milk” paints an almost chimerical image of motherhood, a being who achieves the impossible task of finding strength in vulnerability. Motherhood is more often than not invoked in broader conversations around womanhood in Sri Lanka, history, and present. Figures such as Vihara Maha Devi (the daughter of King Kelanitissa and the queen consort of King Kavantissa), the ultimate representation of a heroine-mother, remain a cornerstone of the formative imaginings of the Sri Lankan motherland. Mothers of this land are keepers of stories albeit unknowingly, often without much control of how their stories are penned. 

The grief of mothers as they plead for information about their disappeared children

It would be remiss to discuss motherhood and motherland without noting the late anthropologist Dr. Malathi de Alwis, whose work on the politicisation of grief and motherhood as a space of protest within a patriarchal nationalist state remains forever salient. I’m aware that this is an oversimplification of the highly nuanced body of work of Dr. de Alwis, but for the purposes of this piece, I refer specifically to her paper on the “moral mother syndrome”. She writes about the nationalist imagining of motherhood through the valorisation of Vihara Maha Devi, an extraordinarily maternalised role model. Vihara Maha Devi’s positioning as the ultimate aspiration of motherhood is bolstered by her willingness to self-sacrifice in order to save a country, and her role as the resilient nurturer of King Dutugemunu, the saviour and great uniter of the Sinhala country. As such, an intrinsic link between maternity and righteous morality is established the standard for a patriotic mother that Sri Lankan womanhood must aspire to in exchange for the space it takes up on the motherland.

Motherhood in contemporary Sri Lanka, caught between competing nationalisms, is more complex than that of Vihara Maha Devi’s. Yet, even the most emblematic Vihara Maha Devi is not exempt from the nationalist revision of Sri Lankan  –and more specifically, Sinhalese motherhood. Some, such as historian Professor Samita Sen, posit that this is perhaps a natural consequence of postcolonial nation-building in the Global South. With a public sphere controlled by a violent coloniser, anti-colonial nation-building found refuge in spaces that are generally unconventional for the political. The sprouts of postcolonial nationalism were tended to within the safety of the domestic, a sphere traditionally associated with sanctuary, with nurturing, with mother(hood). And what of the mothers, of the women that occupy these spaces already? Their positioning naturally becomes relative to that of the father and the son; the mother is the “repository of tradition”, writes Sen, in that she is now the dutiful protector of this new sanctum of nationalist resistance.

Herein possibly lies the superimposition of motherhood onto the postcolonial, nationalist imagining of motherland; a sanctuary from the other. Emotions tied to, chained to rather, culture and morality that is meant to inspire the righteous. Motherland becomes a grossly maternalised entity, which in itself is the birther of patriotic sons. The verse at the beginning of this piece is by the famous children’s book author, British poet, and recondite European imperialist Rudyard Kipling. He wrote it about the British empire, yet it does make one wonder whether this personification and maternalisation of land is another headache of the colonial hangover. 

Much like the Sri Lankan flag we dutifully remember to dig out of a closet come February, motherhood and motherland are in storage until the nationalist state needs to use it to invoke whichever emotion is that day’s fancy. 

Mothers of fallen soldiers check for the name of their sons engraved on the National War Heroes Memorial in Colombo in May 2017

We are a country whose claim to women having unfettered agency continues to be the prime ministerial appointment of a newly widowed Sirimavo Bandaranaike two generations ago. It is no surprise that motherhood and its complex spectrum of feeling are co-opted by those whose best gamble has always been funded with the limitless currency that is generational grief. Motherhood remained a powerful galvaniser during the war years, and continues to buttress nationalist imaginings of Sri Lankan statehood. Sinhala and Tamil nationalism both insisted on the nurturing role of mothers, to bear the human cost of conflict. Mothers are exemplified as both victim and heroine when their sons are no more, their grief co-opted by competing statehood politics to legitimise claims to land, language, and liberation. While I do not make presumptions about these mothers’ agency over their own grief, I feel deep unease towards how mothers’ grief is captured and presented by agents of any nationalism, on any end of the political spectrum. It is a glaring reminder of how human causality and the raw emotion of loss are used to legitimise more violence, more casualties, and more loss. The racist state invokes motherhood to create more mothers clad in white or with smudged pottu, holding vigil over the physical evidence of incomparable loss or, as Dr. de Alwis aptly describes the emotion of enforced disappearances, the “absence of presence” of their kin. 

To borrow from socio-legal criminologist Dr. Rachel Seoighe’s work on Sri Lanka’s post-war nation-building, the political capital of suffering forms the core of the Nationalist State’s political considerations, adopting the shroud of victim in favour of the cape of the hero. In the public imagination, nationalism is framed as a righteous effort to protect and to preserve, instead as the perpetrator of a legacy of violence. Sinhala and Buddhist motherhood are not exempt from this recasting. Instead of the heroine treatment that Vihara Maha Devi receives, modern Sinhala and Buddhist motherhood is reduced to perpetual victimhood – be it at the hands of terrorism robbing them of their children, the sterilisation pills hindering the moral duty of reproduction, or of men of other denominations waiting to convert them to ideologies that threaten their sense of personhood. Saffron-robed agents of majoritarianism position Sinhala-Buddhist women at the vanguard of preventing the minoritisation of the Sinhala Buddhist; nationalism dictates that Sinhala-Buddhist women should find empowerment in being reduced to walking uteruses. I suppose that that is precisely the point of patriarchal nationalist standards they are deliberately impossible to meet. 

But, a distinction: Having children may make one a mother, but motherhood is a political status by design. The latter is unequal in effect and affect, legitimising narratives that supplement the nationalist maternalisation of the State. We see this in how the grief of the mothers of deceased armed forces personnel is construed as an exclusively Sinhala-Buddhist burden to bear, because the ethnic conflict is a mission in saving the Sinhala-Buddhist motherland. Simultaneously, thousands of minority mothers have their suffering policed structurally, systematically. Every May, since 2010, it is a new photoset of weeping mothers in the North and East, and grandiose celebrations of heroism in the South; the disconnect so painfully evident. “This is our motherland. All of us are children of one mother,” said the then President and current Premier Mahinda Rajapaska during the Independence Day celebrations a year after the end of the ethnic conflict. The implied subtext is clear; disobedience to the mother(land) will be dealt with.

The tearing down of the Mullivaikkal Memorial on the Jaffna University grounds is yet another reminder that for all the talk of the collective grief of mothers in the North and South, only one can be permanent. The Nationalist State speaks on behalf of the motherland; grieve in private as mothers, not in public as those who have a claim to the political status of motherhood. In the South, some mothers cling to a motherhood that is at risk of being engulfed by the sands of time. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuma (JVP) insurrections and the state-sanctioned violence which robbed Southern mothers of their sons are spoken of with more nostalgia every passing year, with the political descendants of these violent chapters now positioning themselves as the righteous dissidents of a violent and increasingly militarising State. There is no accountability, only more mothers who grieve and a state that recognises their motherhood but only if they can use it in the service of more violent agendas. There is grief that is readily memorialised, like that of the hero soldier Hasalaka Gamini’s mother, and there’s grief that can only find what a conditioned pessimist such as myself can only see as semi-permanent memorialisation within the archives of the Office of Missing Persons.

More recently and currently, Covid-19 has revealed the realities of more mothers whose motherhoods no longer serve an immediate purpose. In a capitalist world order we are all just labour. Migrant domestic workers, sometimes mothers of children left behind, and sometimes the children of mothers who pray for their safety and safe return, continue to fall low on the Government’s list of priorities during the pandemic. Migrant domestic workers who were routinely linked to a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) percentage, characterised as the backbone of a national economy, who, almost a year since the pandemic first broke out, are now expected to pay a cumulative six-figure amount for safe passage back to the motherland. It is more mothers, protesting and grieving in both the motherland and foreign lands for an ounce of humanity. Perhaps this apathy is the price we pay for reducing people to numbers without considering the long-term implication of dehumanisation; perhaps that is why there is no consideration of their motherhoods in what the Nationalist State continues to brand as their best effort at protecting the motherland against this newest existential threat.

The gut-wrenching photos of weeping mothers with folded arms and others at the feet of law-enforcement officers in the context of the Mahara Prison massacre are a rare case of the permanent memorialisation of how, while motherhood is propped up by a nationalist state as a status of virtue, mothers will continue to bear the burden of this same state’s violence. The massacre continues to be characterised as a prison riot instead of terrified sons of mothers begging to be saved during a deadly pandemic. A Facebook post stays in my mind, two months since I first saw it. It speaks of mothers’ losses in the South during the JVP state tension, and the co-opting of the Mahara mothers’ grief by agents of that violence in the 1980s. “But these (Mahara) sons did not die for being drug dealers, rapists, and committing other criminal and antisocial acts,” it posits, reminding me once again that some mothers are allowed to grieve more legitimately than others. Motherhood is whatever is recognised as politically useful, it has little to do with the emotions that come with being a mother. 

Baby Shaykh Mohammed’s forced cremation undoubtedly made even some of the most ardent supporters of racist nationalism rethink their (in)humanity. His mother was not aware of her baby’s cremation at the time of the story breaking. I wonder how this mother, then yet unaware of the absence of presence she was about to experience, is faring now on the motherland that violently impinged on her motherhood. Her grief must be immeasurable on several fronts, and is just a microcosm of the fear of other Muslim mothers, afraid of having more children be the victims of a violent, racist policy. What it must be like to attempt to protect your children or even the memory of them, without any of the political power of motherhood, most of us will never know. The motherland needs protecting, they insist; they also decide as to who pays the cost. Maybe Hosseini is right; maybe men’s hearts are wretched after all, even if they too are nurtured in a womb that bleeds. 

“Eka mawakage dharu kaela baewina (like the children of one mother)” goes the National Anthem, which the Nationalist State and its actors demand should be sung in one language. They will tell us that this is the mother tongue, although I am convinced that grief is the common tongue spoken by the mothers of Sri Lanka. I am still deciding as to what language motherhood speaks, because politics are fickle and largely uncaring for emotions that detract from the pursuit of power, but I know this maternalised island we call home is not a sanctuary for all. Is it truly motherland if some are not cared for, if some are violated, if some are denied dignity and humanity? Then again, I suppose mothers may have favourites too. I suppose sometimes, mothers are capable of abuse and great unkindness, too. 


(The author is a Social Media Analyst at Hashtag Generation)