Do we over idealise the concepts of family and motherhood?
Sagarika Bhattacharya approaches National Commission for Women and National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights for assistance in gaining access to her children
By Shalini Grover
For over a year now Anurup and Sagarika Bhattacharya have been in the media spotlight after their children—Abhigyan (3) and Aishwarya (1) were placed in a foster home in Stavanger, Norway. Their case manifested into a national outcry fuelling discussions about motherhood and parenting. While a Norwegian district court ratified the children’s return to India this April, the custody of the children was granted to Anurup’s younger brother. Sagarika, who lives in the outskirts of Kolkata, has been denied access to her children who remain with their uncle and grandparents in Asansol, Bardhaman district. She has approached the West Bengal Women's Commission, the district Child Welfare Committees, the National Commission for Women and the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights for assistance in gaining access to her children. As this story takes another turn, what is predominantly salient is how most of the print media delineated Sagarika.
Several newspapers depicted the Bhattacharya couple as dysfunctional and portrayed Sagarika as someone with psychological problems. Newspapers employed the term ‘psychological’ with both certainty and casualness. As a mother and a sociologist, I am still constantly being asked whether “the mother is completely mad”. Does Sagarika deserve to be caricatured as a ‘monster mother’ and on what grounds did the newspapers conclude that she was unfit to look after her children?
Much of what has been written about the mother was extrapolated from statements made by the Norwegian Child Welfare Services (NCWS) and from her estranged husband Anurup. The NCWS ruled that Abhigyan, a child with special needs, was suffering from ‘attachment disorder’ and ‘emotional detachment’ (i.e. disassociation from the mother).
The negative assessment of Sagarika can be challenged on three substantial grounds. First, not a single publication, with the exception of the online portal Pravasi Today interviewed Sagarika or represented her side of the story. Sagarika’s voice has not been heard or given any credence, despite her being at the centre of the storm. As Anurup is the vocal bread-winner and a scientist who speaks English (unlike Sagarika who is less fluent in the language) and has been the one communicating with the media, his statements were given prominence. Yet, Anurup had consistently changed his statements about his wife.
Second, Sagarika refused to undergo psychiatric evaluations in Norway and so the NCWS’ portrayal of her is speculative and biased. She has now come out in the open having undergone psychiatric tests in Kolkata that testify that she has no psychological abnormalities.
Third, let us critically question the cultural context in which Sagarika was evaluated by the NCWS. While she was lambasted for extreme parental neglect, the authorities did little to gauge her difficulties as a young immigrant mother of two small children in a new country, where she was exhausted and fragile without the help of her extended family. However, let’s not forget that it was this very mother who put up a fight for her children’s return. It was this very mother who continued to feed her infant daughter Aishwarya, by sending pumped breastmilk to the NCWS office every day. Far from being a ‘monster parent,’ Sagarika comes across as a mother who is concerned about her children’s welfare.
Anurup too seemed to be missing from newspaper narratives, but in a different way. As he was working long hours in Norway, he is ‘exempted’ from any judgement regarding the wellbeing of his children. Typically, it is always the mother who is blamed if children cultivate behavioral problems. Once again newspapers have been highlighted the couple’s marital rows. It would have been best for this couple to sort out their domestic arrangements and custody issues, without the public judging them.
What comes across conspicuously in the light of this case, is how we as a society, idealise the family and motherhood in particular. To counter myths about perfect families, we just have to shift the gaze to our own families and the hoards of domestic disputes that appear at the family courts, crimes against women’s cell, and police stations. Only then will we realise that the Bhattacharyas are not atypical and not the only ones going through a marital dispute.
Grover is a sociologist at the Institute of Economic Growth, University of Delhi , who works in the area of marriage and family. She is author of Marriage, Love, Caste, and Kinship Support: Lived Experiences of the Urban Poor in India.