May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons:
a Journey Among the Women of India.
306 pages. $19.95.
In January 1985, Elisabeth Bumiller accompanied her husband, a New York Times correspondent, to his new posting in New Delhi. Over the next 3 1/2 years, Ms. Bumiller, a Washington Post reporter, tried to fathom how women, from Indira Gandhi to destitutes in Calcutta, lived in India.
She encountered victims of "bride burning" and investigated newspaper reports of female infanticide and sex-selective abortion. College students -- reflecting Indians' "powerful sense of fatalism" -- told of their enthusiasm for arranged marriages. At Delhi University, a 20-year-old economics student reflected, "This whole concept of love is very alien to us. We're more practical. I don't see stars, I don't hear little bells. ... Is that love?"
Although friends suggested that Ms. Bumiller write a book about Indian women, she "resisted the idea because it seemed a marginal concern compared with the more important problems -- poverty, overpopulation, threats to national unity and religious violence -- facing India."
But women, Ms. Bumiller gradually discovered, "were my window into the Indian interior world." In "May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons," Ms. Bumiller lived with peasants and profiled poets, actresses, trash collectors, feminist activists and labor organizers. The result is a thought-provoking and sobering portrait of India and an account of the plight of Third World women, landless and mired in poverty despite backbreaking work to produce food.
Ms. Bumiller writes: "No American woman who struggles with family and career can completely imagine [the] chain of drudgery" involved in making a single chapati (Indian flat bread), gathering water, rearing children, working in the fields and collecting dung for fuel. "I am like an animal," says Phula, 40, the wife of a farmer.
Despite the gloom of her subject, Ms. Bumiller lightens "A Hundred Sons" with lively, personalized writing, open-mindedness and an appreciation of India's beauty. India's Monty Pythonesque courts, its film industry's nonsensical musicals and the hysteria and melodrama of a typical wedding provide welcome comic relief.
"May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons" -- the title is a Hindu blessing tinged with irony for Western readers -- reveals how most people of the world live. It is certain to become a classic.