It's early evening when I arrive to meet with Bharat Mata. The lady is sitting in the veranda of a small cottage in Goa, sipping something that looks a little stronger than iced tea from a tall glass. I have no idea where we are exactly as I was brought here blindfolded. "It's necessary," the escort told me en route. "She is a national treasure."
Bharat Mata has been having a stressful time for the last three years. She hasn't rested a bit in this time and has been constantly harassed. Given her status as India's most desired fictional and politically salient figure, I was surprised when she agreed to my interview request. In this one-on-one, I am hoping she will speak her mind and take a position on some key issues.
When I was first created and asked to make regular appearances during the freedom struggle it was hectic but not this demanding.
However, I find that she ignores most of my questions—it's clear she has something specific to say. "It's not quite clear what certain people want from me. When I was first created and asked to make regular appearances during the freedom struggle it was hectic but not this demanding. I was mostly forgotten until the last decade. Now this new set of nationalistic Indians seem to be making demands for me to appear almost daily. Quite tiring and tedious really," Mata says, sounding quite fed up.
"I am also tired of how regressive my new role is. It's more backward than the 1940s. I am expected to stand mutely even in the internet age. People just attribute things to me," she says, commenting on her role in contemporary times. "I mean I am a fictional character but I have an opinion. I believe in equality, fraternity, secularism, minority and gay rights," she says. "Really?" I ask, somewhat taken back. "Of course, we were more progressive in those times than your lot. We did eat meat—of various kinds mind you," she says winking at me as she takes a deep sip of her more-than-iced-tea.
"And while we are at it, let me say a bit about the clothes. These were given to me in the 1900s and were the height of fashion then. How about a new wardrobe? Really I have always been given the ugliest and most poorly draped saris ever. I mean India has such a rich handloom tradition. Why am I given these mops to wear? Where is that Smriti Irani when you need her?"
Holidaying at an undisclosed destination in Goa and taking a break from recent controversies, Bharat Mata tells me she has had to move multiple times merely to maintain privacy. "Even fictional characters have a life and some rights. You can't just call us all-powerful and then jerk us around. We would like to have a say in the script and when we make an appearance. I mean its bloody 2017. You can't just keep timing my appearances to suit your political purposes, I could be on holiday with my fictional girlfriends, vegetating in the Vindhyas or just having a bad hair day!" she exclaimed.
A certain 'nationalistic' section is using me all the time while the others are ignoring me. I am not comfortable with this. I like to be everyone's Mata...
But that's not all. Bharat Mata also feels her contract to the nation has been abused and the terms must be renegotiated. "I think we should start with discussing whose copyright I am because currently a certain 'nationalistic' section is using me all the time while the others are ignoring me altogether. I am not comfortable with this. I like to be everyone's Mata—that was the point of my creation."
I keep listening— I can see that this interview is going to be mostly a monologue.
"They are also beating people on my behalf. Some cricketer and actor harassed a girl recently and it's been all linked to poor old me. I mean I am fictional but female and I don't condone this kind of harassment. Like I said, I believe in women's rights, trans rights and animal rights. Who are these jokers, anyway?"
Bharat Mata is also keen to point out that she is exhausted and keen to retire. "It's time India found a new character. Maybe someone gender neutral in keeping with the times. It's really not appropriate that people from various student organisations keep insisting on Bharat Mata being the issue of the year. I would like to rest and they can come up with someone else. It's not fair! I have been at work non-stop and that too at this age. "
How about a new wardrobe? I have always been given the ugliest and most poorly draped saris ever. Where is that Smriti Irani when you need her?
At this juncture, I gently warn Bharat Mata that some "nationalists" might not take kindly to this interview. "Talk about slave labour. These nationalistic folk really need to invent a new character. What happened to an eight-hour workday and weekends?" she responds angrily. However, she seems nervous just seconds later. "Wait can you not include these comments? These men threatened that poor girl and beat up college professors. I am scared they will beat me up next after they read this."
As Bharat Mata frets, I use the opportunity to slip in a question. What does she make of the campaign for Azadi? "How about someone campaigns for Azadi for me? I have been at work non-stop ever since I was invented. I dress badly, I look awful. Nobody even got me a chair for my old legs. Instead I get tossed around everywhere. Someone start a campaign for me please. I am female, I am slave labour. I want Azadi from being Bharat Mata!?" So much for my question.
Winding down the interview Bharat Mata reflects on her vast experience. "It's so sad to see where we've landed up. I was so excited when I was first conceptualised and they were so nice to me. They would consult me. We would take everyone's opinion into account on character changes. I was happy to be associated with the India project. We were about showing the world that we could be more than a caste-ridden, patriarchal, communal country. I particularly wanted to prove this to that fat, ugly Winston Churchill. Now we have become just that," she says angrily.
Old friends like Nehru, Gandhi and Rajaji can come visit in Goa. After all they are all fiction too in India today, aren't they?
And the future for Mata? "I'm hoping to extend my stay in Goa—in fact I'm scouting for houses now as there has been a lull in my work, what with Gau Mata in the limelight these days. Funny about that one—who owns her? No one I guess—that's why she is so frequently invoked. Anyhow, the sea for me. Always wondered why they always placed me with the mountains – I always hated the cold. I love the sea and the people here—so friendly. What's more, old friends like Nehru, Gandhi and Rajaji can come visit in Goa. After all they are all fiction too in India today, aren't they?" she says, smiling mischievously as she sips her more-than-iced-tea. With a few more sips she dismisses me and I am blindfolded again to be dropped off somewhere in the middle of touristy Goa, where nationalistic Indians are chasing cows.