Specters of Mother India

The Global Restructuring of an Empire

Specters of Mother India

Radical Perspectives

More about this series

Book Pages: 392 Illustrations: 8 illus. Published: July 2006

Author: Mrinalini Sinha

Asian Studies > South Asia, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies

Specters of Mother India tells the complex story of one episode that became the tipping point for an important historical transformation. The event at the center of the book is the massive international controversy that followed the 1927 publication of Mother India, an exposé written by the American journalist Katherine Mayo. Mother India provided graphic details of a variety of social ills in India, especially those related to the status of women and to the particular plight of the country’s child wives. According to Mayo, the roots of the social problems she chronicled lay in an irredeemable Hindu culture that rendered India unfit for political self-government. Mother India was reprinted many times in the United States, Great Britain, and India; it was translated into more than a dozen languages; and it was reviewed in virtually every major publication on five continents.

Sinha provides a rich historical narrative of the controversy surrounding Mother India, from the book’s publication through the passage in India of the Child Marriage Restraint Act in the closing months of 1929. She traces the unexpected trajectory of the controversy as critics acknowledged many of the book’s facts only to overturn its central premise. Where Mayo located blame for India’s social backwardness within the beliefs and practices of Hinduism, the critics laid it at the feet of the colonial state, which they charged with impeding necessary social reforms. As Sinha shows, the controversy became a catalyst for some far-reaching changes, including a reconfiguration of the relationship between the political and social spheres in colonial India and the coalescence of a collective identity for women.


Specters of Mother India delivers what one has come to expect of Mrinalini Sinha’s work. The book is at once theoretically sophisticated and empirically grounded. The monograph, in its introduction, five chapters, and epilogue, not only traverses many sub-fields within the discipline of history, but also comfortably deploys analytical tools from other disciplines, such as literary criticism and feminist theories. . . . In artfully quilting together multiple historical scenarios and actors, Sinha allows readers to appreciate the labour involved in practicing the historian’s craft.” — Sanjam Ahluwalia, Women's History Review

“[Sinha] considers women’s collective agency in the early twentieth century [and] challenges what has become conventional historiographic wisdom. . . . Groundbreaking.” — American Historical Review

“Although the focus of Mrinalini Sinha's book is narrow—the controversy surrounding the publication of Mother India and its effect on the future of British policy in India—its conception is titanic encapsulating the forces of imperialism, nationalism and social reform in its ambit, evinced through much scholarship emerging out of some 80 pages of endnotes. Her concerns are noteworthy . . . and her research painstaking. . . .” — Rumina Sethi, The Hindu

“Finally a scholar has successfully theorized the relationship of gender and nationalism that accommodates the historical specificities of women and twentieth century nationalism in India. With this example of transnational history, Sinha’s Specters of Mother India has finally put to rest the claim of an earlier generation, who questioned the relevance of gender as a subject of South Asian studies.” — Lisa Trivedi,, Journal of Colonialism & Colonial History

“In Specters of Mother India, Mrinalini Sinha achieves an amazing feat: relating the publication of a single book to the ‘global restructuring of an empire,’ arguing that this was actually a moment when Indian women articulated their demands as universal liberal citizens.” — Jinee Lokaneeta, Signs

“Mrinalini Sinha’s new book is a very welcome addition to not only feminist history, but to those looking at the nation at the seams. The book also breaks new ground in studying the international ramifications of an event normally not viewed as having any relevance beyond India’s borders.” — Anshu Malhotra, Economic and Political Weekly

“Sinha closes this impressive history of a text with a short epilogue that addresses the broader issue of connections between history, memory, and event . . . . Indeed, her study is all the more welcome at a time when history writing itself generates high levels of political controversy in India . . . . Sinha continues to break new ground in the study of gender in South Asia’s past.” — Sarah Ansari, International History Review

“Sinha makes the case that the Mother India turmoil profoundly altered India as a society. . . .” — Foreign Affairs

“Sinha’s important and wide-ranging book weaves together an account of major significance for the fields of gender history, global and imperial studies, and modern Indian history, as well as for current debates in historiography. . . . [T]his book newly illuminates the political rupture that marked the inter-war era, and in its analytical depth, clarity and complexity, it offers a real model for the writing of both gender and global histories.” — Rachel Sturman, Gender & History

“This is an extremely well-crafted and tightly argued book about the importance of situating events historically, examining the process of contingency, and following the different iterations and reception of a single event in a range of geographical, cultural, and political domains. A dense historical narrative substantiates ambitious and innovative theoretical claims, and that will make this book an important model of scholarship for years to come.” — Durba Ghosh, Journal of British Studies

“This study will be especially welcomed by post-modernists and feminists. Summing Up: Recommended.” — R. D. Long, Choice

“This work offers a rigourous and refreshing reading of history that will set the standard for feminist and transnational studies of the interwar period, especially in the South Asian context . . . . Sinha’s work is an achievement that will undoubtedly push forward the field of transnational feminist history.” — Rachel Berger, Itinerario

“It is rarely that one can say of an academic book that it is unputdownable, but Specters of Mother India is just that. Not only is it written with a narrative skill not always to be found in historical studies, but it offers a fresh and compelling argument about a short but crucial period (1925–1935) in pre-Independence India, as a historical turning point. Mrinalini Sinha’s reading of Katherine Mayo’s Mother India as symptom and catalyst of the radical shifts that occurred in this period will impact on a number of fields well beyond South Asian history. The monumental scholarship and stupendous historical reach of this book are breathtaking.” — Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, author of The Scandal of the State: Women, Law, and Citizenship in Postcolonial India

“This is no ordinary history of a text; with impressive scholarship and historical imagination, Mrinalini Sinha reads the controversy surrounding the publication of Katherine Mayo’s book as a fascinating chapter in the interwar history of colonialism. Placing the ‘legend of Mother India’ in its appropriate global context, she offers a probing analysis of the social transformations that it drew upon and shaped. Questions of the empire and imperial legitimacy, the nation and its others, and feminism and citizenship emerge as issues thrown open by the historical location and reception of Mayo’s book. This is a work of vital importance to the study of the colonial genealogy of the modern world.” — Gyan Prakash, author of Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India

“This is one of the most important books I’ve read in a long time, a brilliant and unusual accomplishment. It’s full of insights backed by new evidence—from archives around the world—that will change the ways we think about colonialism and decolonization, the role of women in global and national politics, and the theories that can be mobilized to help rethink issues in twentieth-century global history.” — Bonnie G. Smith, author of The Gender of History: Men, Women, and Historical Practice


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Mrinalini Sinha is Associate Professor of History and Women’s Studies at Pennsylvania State University. She is the author of Colonial Masculinity: The “Manly Englishman” and the “Effeminate Bengali” in the Late Nineteenth Century and the editor of Mother India: Selections from the Controversial 1927 Text.

Table of Contents Back to Top
About the Series ix

Acknowledgements xi

Note on Nomenclature and Transliteration xv

Introduction: The Anatomy of an Event 1

1. A Transitional Moment: The Dynamics of an Interwar Imperial Social Formation 23

2. Unpredictable Outcome: The Trajectory of a Transatlantic Intervention 66

3. Ironic Reversal: The Rhetoric of “Facts” in the Controversy over Mother India 109

4. Refashioning Mother India: The Sarda Act and Women’s Collective Agency 152

5. Ambiguous Aftermath: Political Consolidation on the Eve of the Second World War 197

Epilogue: History, Memory, Event 248

Notes 255

Bibliography 336

Index 361
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Winner, 2007 Albion Book Prize, North American Conference on British Studies

Winner, 2007 Joan Kelly Memorial Prize in Women's History (American Historical Association)

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3795-9 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3782-9
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