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Opinion I Mothers, daughters and rocky roads

'Masaba Masaba' is the latest in a growing movement in film and fiction to cast the spotlight on the many contours of the complex mother-daughter dynamic

Neena Gupta and daughter, Masaba Gupta, in a still from the Netflix show based on their lives.
Neena Gupta and daughter, Masaba Gupta, in a still from the Netflix show based on their lives.

I am not revealing too much when I say that the thread running through the first episode of Masaba Masaba is a mother’s anxious calls—unanswered, ignored—to her daughter. The “can’t live with them-can’t live without them" mother-daughter dynamic at the heart of Netflix’s new show about designer Masaba Gupta and her mother, actor Neena Gupta, is compelling precisely because we have seen so little of it.

To be fair, the trope has been sparingly explored even globally. Which is why British novelist Deborah Levy’s 2016 novel, Hot Milk, about a daughter unwittingly caught up in her mother’s suffering, was a literary sensation. In Levy’s book, the mother-daughter roles are reversed when Sofia, 25, moves with her mother, Rose, to southern Spain, and ends up being cast in a caregiving role.

The trope hasn’t fared much better historically. My 443-page copy of Mineke Schipper’s Never Marry A Woman With Big Feet, a formidable compilation of “women in proverbs" from around the world, has merely one and a half pages on mothers and daughters. As Schipper writes, proverbs on mothers and daughters from around the world usually only have the message that they inevitably resemble each other. Versions of “Like mother, like daughter" can be found in many languages, from Danish to Estonian, Dutch to Hebrew. Their supposed similarity is also expressed by means of metaphors like “The worth of the bread depends on the flour" (Telugu) or “The goodness of butter depends on the quality of the cow" (Bengali). In Schipper’s analysis, whether a daughter will be “good" or “bad" also depends exclusively on the mother: She is to be credited/blamed if the girl turns out fastidious/lazy. These, she observes, are useful from the perspective of a man who wants to marry. Proverbs are important cultural vessels, so what does it say then that there are astonishingly few proverbs about the relationship between mothers and daughters, as women in their own right? A rare one is “Mother and daughter are like nail and flesh"— but you are unlikely to hear it in use, since it’s in Ladino, a near- extinct language. “Mutual understanding between the mother and daughter is significantly less elaborated upon than the mother-son relationship. It is apparently not much of an issue from a male perspective," Schipper concludes.

But now, a growing trend in literature, TV and cinema worldwide seems keen on casting the spotlight on this overlooked but commonplace equation: the many contours of the mother-daughter dynamic.

Avni Doshi’s debut novel, Girl In White Cotton, long-listed for the Booker this year, sets up dysfunctionality with its first sentence: “I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure." For a book by an Indian-origin author, this feels particularly radical because South Asians are prone to glorify familial ties. The mother is always sacred. But Indian film and fiction are stepping up. Madhuri Vijay’s acclaimed debut novel, The Far Field, unfolds around the narrator Shalini’s troubled relationship with her late mother.

Dharini Bhaskar’s debut novel, These, Our Bodies, Possessed By Light—long-listed for the JCB Prize for Literature this week—explores multigenerational mother-daughter equations. In each coupling, the daughter wishes to be as different from her mother as possible. I was surprised that Shakuntala Devi, a recent film based on the life of the mathematical genius by Anu Menon, starring Vidya Balan, was largely hinged on Devi’s vexed relationship with her daughter (Devi died in 2013; the film is based on her daughter’s account).

Going beyond Carl Jung’s theory of the Electra Complex—about girls in psychosexual competition with their mothers— psychology writer Peg Streep slots problematic mother-daughter equations under broad labels such as dismissive, controlling, unavailable, self-involved and role-reversed. Can a relationship this primal be reduced to buckets? We look to fiction for nuanced and fluid explorations of this complex dynamic.

Mothers don’t always know best, and daughters don’t always spark joy.

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