Is India Dying? A Reply to 'Mother India'

IN Mother India, a book which has received remarkable attention both in England and in America, Miss Katherine Mayo presents India as ‘a sick man growing daily weaker, dying body and brain, of a disease that only himself can cure.’ What this disease is she states in the following way: ‘The whole pyramid of India’s woe, material and spiritual . . . rests on a rock-bottom physical base. The base is simply this, his manner of getting into the world and his sex life thenceforward.’ To support this contention Miss Mayo marshals a mass of quotations, tells vividly of her own investigations during some months of feverish activity in India, and makes some startling general assertions, which, if true, would go far to establish her claim.

A perplexed Western public is naturally asking, ‘Are Miss Mayo’s charges true?’ I shall attempt in this article to prove, beyond any reasonable doubt, that her basic assertions are not true, that she has leaped with magnificent agility from one-sided and limited evidence to her general conclusions, and that India remains the same land of mingled sorrow and hope, darkness and vision, weakness and strength, that she was before Miss Mayo made her very American, whirlwind tour. Above all I hope to show that India is on the upward road, with her face toward the morning.

Miss Mayo’s chief sin against India was her almost complete blindness to every evidence of health and progress and her morbid overemphasis on every evidence of sickness and decay. The pity is that she has gathered material which, used discriminatingly, might have stung India to the speeding up of reform. It seems to me that she had a fresh and very powerful message on the baleful effects of sex exaggeration and on other prominent abuses, if only she had been able to present it in a balanced and friendly way. If she had pictured the encouraging aspect of things with the same emotional effect which was given to the evils that still exist, we, who have been working for decades for India’s physical and social progress, would have welcomed the book as an ally. As it is, Mother India has struck a blow both against truth and against interracial understanding and good will. By its extreme attack on Indian life it has stirred Indians to bitter defense and has opened the door for similar muckraking attacks on America and Europe. Indian writers smarting under this ‘Drain Inspector’s Report,’ as Mr. Gandhi well calls it, are opening before the eager eyes and noses of the Indian public the noisome drains of our own divorce statistics and night life. It is only human if, profiting by Miss Mayo’s example, they draw unwarranted generalizations from specific instances and do all in their power to cheapen Western civilization in Indian eyes. The influence of this book is, indeed, calculated to lower the tone of civilization by stimulating people in both East and West to interpret each other by whatever is indecent and beastly.


Now let us go to the facts. In so doing we shall emphasize those that form the first third of the book and the heart of its argument — those regarding sex and motherhood. Still, in passing, one cannot forbear to point out that the latter part of Mother India is marred by the same emphasis on everything negative and neglect of everything positive that make the first part an offense. Omissions, misstatements, and misunderstandings that everyone who has lived in India must recognize bob up so frequently that if one were to hit them all he would have to be a ten-armed Irishman with a shillalah in every hand. Take, for example, the problem of food for cattle, dealt with at some length in Chapter XVII. Miss Mayo speaks of grazing lands and the feeding of rice stalks, which have little food value, and clearly implies that, aside from some green fodder in some districts, this is all that the cattle have to live upon. ‘By January,’ she declares, in regard to India’s cattle, ‘starvation begins in earnest.’ This statement entirely ignores the millets which are reaped in October and February and which, as the Indian Year Book for 1924, page 265, rightly says, ‘constitute one of the most important groups of crops in the country, supplying food for the poorer classes and fodder for the cattle.’ Sorghum, which is the principal millet, has large, thick stalks that make splendid fodder. In the farmers’ eyes the fact that this is a fodder crop is as important as the fact that it is a food crop. It seems impossible that a traveler in India could avoid seeing mile on mile of fields full of waving millet. In the villages no one could fail to note the great stacks of this fodder. In good seasons farmers sell much to the towns and store enough for two years’ use by their cattle. That many Indian cattle are sadly neglected is a fact. That many more are well fed is also a fact.

It seems to me in keeping with the accuracy of other parts of the book that, in speaking of the food of cattle, it wholly neglects to notice that Indian farmers devote about forty million acres to good fodder crops and that the chapter in question closes with the assertion, ‘They will not raise food for their mother, the cow.’ In Western India, to my personal knowledge, the farmer and his family have an affection for their cattle, each one of which is named. In times of scarcity the family deprives itself in order that the cattle may be fed. The concluding chapter avers that this book states living facts and that ‘these can easily be denied, but they cannot be disproved or shaken.’ But it must be plain that the general assertion that ‘they will not raise food for their mother, the cow’ has been very easily disproved. Nor do I recollect a single one of the twenty-nine descriptive chapters which does not create its sombre impression by a similar method. In one the author presents a quotation from Rabindranath Tagore as though in it Tagore expressed his approval of child marriage. To give this impression she suppresses the two all-important words, ‘said India.’ Tagore was, as these words clearly indicate, presenting not his own, but the orthodox Hindu view. Later in the same essay he gave his own exalted conception of marriage, in which he accorded to woman a position of absolute equality with man. Again, Miss Mayo tells the story of the mixing of filtered and unfiltered water in Madras, as a clear indication of what can be expected from Indian control of affairs. How could she have heard this story without learning the striking fact that this water was universally known as ‘Molony’s Mixture,’ that Mr. J. C. Molony, the Municipal Commissioner of Madras, was primarily responsible for it, and that he was backed in this war measure, which was so carefully managed that it had no bad effect, by the Europeans of the municipality? These facts Mr. Molony himself has made public. The case against Indian political control is indeed in a desperate state when the prosecution is driven to use ‘Molony’s Mixture’ to bolster it up! In this manner throughout the book Miss Mayo has ignored and minimized the great mass of favorable evidence that lay ready to a writer’s hand, and the ugly and the noisome have been made to dominate the picture.

Let me turn now to the general presentation of the questions of sex and motherhood. The kernel of the matter is found in the ‘Argument,’ when the author declares: —

Take a girl child twelve years old, a pitiful physical specimen in bone and blood, illiterate, ignorant, without any sort of training in habits of health. Force motherhood upon her at the earliest possible moment. Rear her weakling son in intensive vicious practices that drain his small vitality day by day. Give him no outlet in sports. Give him habits that make him, by the time he is thirty years of age, a decrepit and querulous old wreck — and will you ask what has sapped the energy of his manhood?

It is clear that this is intended as the typical picture of Indian sex life and as the source of most of the ills of ‘Mother India.’ Let us look at a few of the statements in detail.

Take a girl child twelve years old, a pitiful physical specimen in bone and blood.

I have traveled in North India and South India, but know best the villages and towns of Western India. I remember vividly the first impressions of the village women of Western India, formed by my wife and myself in 1904. We were surprised by the fine physical development and carriage of most of them. Many of our American visitors have expressed the same idea. The frontispiece of Mother India shows an untouchable woman, probably of North India. So far as one can judge by the picture, she is a perfect physical specimen, with the light of health on her face and in her eyes. Indeed, it is singular that the illustrations throughout the book fail to indicate a weakly race. Risley and Gait, the joint authors of the census of 1901, say: —

No one who has watched the sturdy Jat women lift their heavy water jars at the village well is likely to have any misgiving as to the effect of their marriage system on the physique of the race. . . . Among the Rajputs both sexes are of slighter build than the Jats, but here again there are no signs of degeneration.

The vigorous work engaged in by a large proportion of Indian women, grinding grain, bringing water, working in the fields, helps to offset their great, but decreasing, physical handicaps. That there are in India millions of weak girls is an awful fact. That there are also millions of strong, healthy girls is also a fact, testified by the census officials and by many observers. Characteristically this second fact is ignored in the sweeping generalization that the Indian girl is a ‘pitiful physical specimen in bone and blood.’

But let us go on to the succeeding sentence in the charge: —

Force motherhood upon her at the earliest possible moment.

This is a theme much emphasized and reiterated in Mother India. Indeed it seems to be the heart of the indictment. On page 22, for example, are the words: —

The Indian girl, in common practice, looks for motherhood nine months after reaching puberty, or anywhere between the ages of fourteen and eight. The latter age is extreme, though in some sections not exceptional; the former is well above the average.

The statement that motherhood at eight is in some sections not exceptional is simply fantastic. No proof or even evidence for such an assertion is offered. The earliest case of motherhood that the author either saw or gives any record of is of a girl twelve years old. If a child mother of eight years was to be found it is very clear that Miss Mayo would have gone a long way to see her and describe her condition. Even the credulity of the most uncritical readers will scarcely swallow this sheer, unbuttressed assertion.

Probably it has been made on the basis of stories which have arisen because, as the Census of 1921 states on page 127, ‘There is a strong inclination (in giving ages) to favor certain numbers, such as 2, 8, and 12. . . . Owing to the obloquy incurred by Hindu parents who have failed to marry their girls before puberty, there is a strong inclination to understate the age of unmarried girls who have reached this age.’ In this matter the author may well have been the victim of parents who blandly stated to some troublesome inquisitor that their daughter was eight years old.

To prove the general charge of very early motherhood the book recounts a number of interviews with unnamed medical witnesses, quotes from speeches in the Legislative Assembly, describes a few cases seen by the author herself, and, most important of all, quotes from an essay forming Appendix VII of the 1921 Census, which contains the sentence: —

It can be assumed, for all practical purposes, that every woman is in the married state at or immediately after puberty and that cohabitation, therefore, begins in every case with puberty.

With this material before her it is not altogether strange that Miss Mayo should have come to the conclusion that fourteen is well above the average age of first motherhood. Yet here, as elsewhere, her generalization goes beyond the reliable evidence. The author of Appendix VII says only that cohabitation begins with puberty. Later, on the same page, she might have found that his Punjab investigator discovered that ‘in the majority of cases the first child is born in the third year of effective marriage.’ Apparently he is the only census investigator who studied this question, but there is no reason to suppose that his finding would not be true of other parts of India. This would bring motherhood in most cases to the fifteenth year at the lowest. Indeed I myself have examined the record of the Maternity Hospital of the Seva Sadan in Ahmednagar, in the Bombay Presidency, for the years 1923—27. Early marriage is more prevalent in this presidency than in any other part of India, and is the rule in Ahmednagar; yet of ninety cases of first motherhood of Hindus treated by the staff of this hospital, both in the hospital and in the homes of the people, none was younger than fourteen, only one was fourteen, and the average age of first motherhood was 18.3 years. Seventy-eight per cent of the cases were classed as ‘normal.’ These facts go beyond those of the Punjab investigator in indicating that, even in cases of child marriage, first motherhood comes at an age when it can generally be normal.

Miss Mayo and the author of this Appendix would have done well to study more carefully the tables of statistics that form the body of the census report, which, of course, take precedence over a simple statement by a census officer in a supplementary essay. In Volume I, pages 164-5, are figures that show that only 399 out of every 1000 Indian girls are yet married at the end of their fifteenth year. About 60 per cent of Indian girls are thus almost seventeen before motherhood is possible for them. They are seventeen or eighteen before it is probable. Mrs. Margaret E. Cousins, Honorary Secretary of the Women’s Indian Association, enumerates the different classes and castes in India among whom marriage later than the age of sixteen is the rule, and estimates that the total is 200,000,000. This corresponds roughly with the census figures of 60 per cent not married till the completion of their fifteenth year.

These census figures confirm the only scientific investigation into the age of first motherhood that has yet been made public in India. Dr. M. I. Balfour, M.B., of Bombay has been gathering data on this subject for two years. She herself kept a record of 304 Hindu mothers of Bombay delivered of their first babies, and has gathered the regular reports of the Madras Maternity Hospital for 1922-24 and of several hospitals in other parts of India. She gives figures in the Times of India for October 10, 1927, of which the following form a brief abstract. Of 6580 cases of mothers with first babies from many parts of India covered by these statistics, none was under thirteen years old, 7 were recorded as thirteen, and 35 as under fifteen. The average age for first motherhood in Bombay was 18.7 years and in Madras 19.4 years. Both in Bombay and in Madras, between 85 and 86 per cent, were over seventeen years old. This is exactly what the census figures would lead us to expect. I have consulted an American woman doctor of twenty-four years of Indian experience in regard to the applicability of these statistics to India as a whole. She thinks that the average age of mothers with first babies in such maternity hospitals would be at least as low as that of those in the ordinary Indian home. Maternity cases are brought to hospitals only in extreme need.

Of Dr. Balfour’s attested cases from many parts of India less than one per cent were mothers before they were fifteen and none before they were thirteen. The last census shows over 60 per cent of the girls of India not even married till they are sixteen or older. In the face of these facts the assertion that in some sections eight years is not an exceptional age for motherhood, while fourteen is well above the average, does not warrant much confidence. It must be admitted, I am sure, that first motherhood at eighteen years or even sixteen years has an absolutely different complexion from motherhood at an average of under fourteen years. It is too young, but the entire physical vitality of the race is not menaced by it. Thus the investigations of Dr. Balfour and the census figures of 1921 disprove the contention on which the main argument of Mother India largely rests. And this disproof should make clear what Miss Mayo declares to be a mystery to her — namely, how the Indian race survives at all. It survives in part because first motherhood below fifteen is unusual, and first motherhood at seventeen, eighteen, and nineteen is the rule.

And bear in mind the fact, pointed out in the Census of 1921, that the age of marriage is steadily rising. The figures show that in 1911 there were 555 girls per thousand unmarried at the end of their fifteenth year, while in 1921 there were 601. The movement for still further progress is constantly gaining strength. Here is what Mrs. Cousins has to say on the subject: —

The awakened women of India have for the past ten years, through their organizations, been asking the Government to raise the age of consent; the Social Reform Conferences have been doing the same since Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s day. Ten thousand women for one district alone have sent a petition to Government to raise the age of consent. The representatives of over seven thousand more women, who had assembled to discuss educational reform, also asked Government to enact legislation making marriage before sixteen years old for a girl a penal offense. All these facts Miss Mayo fails to note. . . . She says, ‘The bill for raising the age of consent to fourteen was finally thrown out, buried under an avalanche of popular disapproval.’ There was not a meeting held all over India to express disapproval of the raising of the age of consent. The facts of the matter were that on the first voting on the bill the section referring specifically to the raised age was passed by a majority of two, even against government opposition, and it was disagreement regarding the amount of punishment and Assembly tactics that broke the majority for the bill as a whole.


Again let me turn to a sentence in the ‘Argument’: —

Give him no outlet in sports.

What traveler could fail to see the little children all over India with their tops and marbles, their kites and their various ball games? Did no one give Miss Mayo an opportunity to witness the wild excitement aroused by a wrestling match in village or city? Wrestling is India’s favorite sport, in which the children and youth of every class but the highest freely participate. Did Miss Mayo nowhere come upon some town at the hour when schools close in the afternoon and see every available open space crowded with children and young men at play at football, cricket, and other games? Was she not taken to see the fine, enthusiastic Scout troops of boys and even of girls and groups of ‘Cubs’ that increasingly flourish in almost every town? Did she not visit any of the supervised playgrounds maintained by the Indian Municipalities of Bombay, Lucknow, and Madras? I opened a little playground in a thickly peopled portion of Bombay into which an average of a hundred children a day crowded. Within two blocks of us were two other much larger playgrounds which were well used, and even then the streets around us contained their swarms of playing children. It is doubtless true that Indian children play less than Western children, but they practically all do play, and millions of them play hard. It is as difficult for me to believe that any observant person could go through India without coming into contact with the great and fast-growing athletic development of her youth as it is to think that an interested traveler saw none of the forty million acres of fodder crops. Yet, in a book supposed to deal primarily with the health of India, the only reference to this subject is this statement in the Argument: ‘Give him no outlet in sports.’ Such a statement requires no denial; it falls by its own weight.

Give him habits that make him, by the time he is thirty years of age, a decrepit and querulous old wreck — and will you ask what has sapped the energy of his manhood?

Every summer I play in tennis matches against two South Indian princes. As Miss Mayo rightly says, rajas are unusually tempted to exaggerated sex life. These men are fifty-two and fifty-six years old respectively, yet they play well through all the matches and tournaments of the season and have the ruddy look of health on their faces. In my own town of Ahmednagar I belong to the principal tennis club in the city. Here we have a pair of Brahmins, — a class among whom early marriage prevails, — one forty-eight years old and the other fifty-five, who can beat any pair from among the British military officers and civilians of the town, young or old. Up to the time when he was forty-five, I have never had a partner to equal the older of these men for steel-nerved play when the score was badly against us. There are plenty of active players among the Brahmins in our club who are over forty years old. I have to do with an Indian who is still hale and hearty, an active force in the community, who goes daily about his business. He was reared in an ignorant Indian home and has always lived in the common atmosphere of India, but, at eighty-two years old, he to-day gives no signs of physical break-up.

Almost anyone with experience in India could indefinitely multiply such facts as I have here given. That in India old age often comes on too soon and that sex exaggeration probably plays a part in this I freely admit. But I personally have never met any ‘decrepit and querulous old wreck’ of thirty, unless there were some definite disease like tuberculosis to account for his condition. The Census of 1921, Volume I, page 128, shows that out of every 1000 of the Indian population 114 men and women in almost equal numbers were over fifty years old. The corresponding figure for the United States is 141. The number of Indians in this group is increasing, but even now is about 80 per cent of that of Americans and is an indication of fair vitality. It must be plain from these facts that the charge that the Indian man of thirty is a decrepit and querulous old wreck is grotesque.

Thus the paragraph which is the key of Miss Mayo’s ‘Argument’ falls to the ground. Its main contention is definitely disproved by statistics. Its most offensive statement the author has wisely made no serious attempt to prove. Its sentence about ‘no outlet in sport’ is obviously untrue. I have offered strong evidence that every other sentence is greatly exaggerated. With this key paragraph naturally fall similar reckless statements of the book, such as the astonishing assertion about the early sexual impotence of a large proportion of the Indian people. If Miss Mayo has been so wide of the truth in matters that are easy to verify, such as the age of first motherhood, what claim has she to credence when she makes similar extreme statements about matters wherein either proof or disproof is impossible? The pity is that such charges, however unsupportable, tend to remain in the mind of the reader, and, almost in spite of him, to poison his thought.


Should I now add to my argument the weight of the most reliable opinion? Miss Mayo has guarded herself against any effect of expert opinion in India by disposing summarily of us all. We missionaries are looking to our support at home and to the effects of our statements upon Indians, and so cannot tell the truth. The position of the official imposes ‘the policy of the gentle word.’ Indians see the problem only partially. India is a dying man with ‘no one, anywhere, enough his friend to hold the mirror up and show him plainly what is killing him.’ Miss Mayo regards herself as the only one left to do this, and so, single-handed, she shouldered the task. Yet let me venture to call attention to what a few, who know their India well, think of her effort. Mrs. Cousins, who is neither a government servant nor connected with official or missionary circles, and who for twelve years has lived in intimate friendship with the women of India, says, in an article in the October Young Men of India:

While my experience corroborated a large number of her facts and illustrations regarding sex, health, untouchability, and the treatment of animals, I aver that the total impression she conveys to any reader, either inside or outside India, is cruelly and wickedly untrue. Unless read in conjunction with supplementary books on other aspects of India’s life and culture ... it will create nothing but race-resentment. . . . All the sins of India which Miss Mayo marshals with such weight of depression are balanced by her own sins of omission.

Next turn to one of the ablest of India’s missionaries, Miss M. M. Underhill. In the International Review of Missions for October, 1927, she says:

The book shows throughout a lack of any background knowledge of India; and, what is more serious, it shows a lack of appreciation — one might almost say of power to appreciate — in face of a civilization foreign to previous experience. For example, Miss Mayo quotes freely from Mahatma Gandhi, but has completely failed to understand either the man or what he stands for in India. One cannot help asking, ‘Does Miss Mayo know even now much more of India than she did before going?’ We doubt it.

The Executive Committee of the National Christian Council of India, including leading men and women, Indian, British, American, with one of India’s ablest woman doctors as a member, has issued a statement on Mother India over the signatures of the Reverend Dr. Macnicol, well-known writer and authority on India, Mr. P. O. Philip, an honored Indian leader, and Miss A. B. Van Doren, who has spent over twenty years in close association with Indian girls and women. Here are a few extracts from this statement:

Yet we, representing a body of men and women who are in close touch with the people and are conversant with their everyday life, unhesitatingly assert that the picture of India which emerges from Miss Mayo’s book is untrue to the facts and unjust to the people of India. . . . Beauty and culture, kindness and charm, religion and piety are to be found alike among the highest and the humblest. Miss Mayo leaves no room for these in her picture. ... If this unsympathetic recital of evils, which are deep-seated enough, but not universal, as the book seems to imply, leads to despair of any progress or to embitterment of the relationship between the Indians and Europeans or to any weakening of the joint efforts being made for the betterment of the people of India, the result will be disastrous to both India and the West. We have faith in India and India’s future. We have faith that she will be able, strengthened by the spirit of God, to obtain deliverance from these evils. We earnestly desire that East and W est should coöperate to this end in a spirit of love and understanding. Our fear is that this book may, by its lack of understanding, its exaggeration, and its unfairness, make such coöperation more difficult for both sides.

I will cite only one more opinion. It is that of the acknowledged leader of the Social Reform Movement in India, Mr. K. Natarajan, editor of the Indian Social Reformer. Those of us who have worked with him or followed his work for a generation know him as a strong fighter for truth and progress, a man of great understanding and balance, and a consistent promoter of the cause of Indian womanhood. That an author should think of studying the condition of Indian women without consulting Mr. Natarajan is itself a remarkable fact. In spite of Miss Mayo’s generalizations about the Indian disregard for truth, I scarcely think that Mr. Natarajan’s integrity will be questioned. It is the effect of Mother India on this man that is to me most interesting. Because he thought that it was calculated to injure the cause of social progress in India he devoted a long series of careful articles to it. In these articles he points out such errors as the inexexcusable misrepresentation of the position of Rabindranath Tagore, the misquotation of Gandhi and Miss Bose, and the general unreliability of certain evidence and stories; but most of all he controverts by figures and facts the picture of India as dying of sexual corruption.

This man, whose great life purpose Miss Mayo professes the desire to serve, is stirred by the book to such feeling as I have never known him to show before. In his eyes Miss Mayo reveals ‘mortal aversion to things Indian.’ In the ‘palpable fiction’ of her story of the narrow-chested students and fly-blown Russian leaflets he sees a purpose ‘to excite prejudice as much as possible in order to make her readers receptive to her horrors.’ Her statement about the rearing of children in intensive vicious practices he denies with impressive vehemence, He says, ‘Not only has Miss Katherine Mayo grossly exaggerated the extent and nature of actual evils, but she has, as we shall show, freely indulged in half-truths and untruths, without any attempt to verify them.'

I cannot see how, if the testimony even of this brief paper is read with an open mind, it is possible to resist the conclusion that Mr. Natarajan and the other friends of Indian progress who have resented Miss Mayo’s attack are substantially right. Her assertions about the average age of motherhood are proved to be inaccurate both by census figures of marriage and by carefully gathered medical data. Her statement about the absence of sport from child life is only a glaring instance of what pervades the book. India is not a human beast dying of her indulgences and her corruptions; she is a great people whose remarkable vitality has carried her through many evil customs and mistaken ideals to a new day of hope and renewed vigor of life, in which she is beginning to purify herself for her great part in future world service.

Interracial understanding is of all things to be cultivated at this juncture of Indian progress. Those of us who know India can give assurance that her response to open-mindedness and good faith is as immediate, as warm and whole-hearted, as her present bitterness is deep.