Two Motivating Mothers

A journey into the lives of the mothers of two major poets of the sub-continent.

By Nadya Chishty-Mujahid | March 2021


Allama Muhammad Iqbal and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore are, respectively, the most important of Pakistani and Bengali poets. Tagore was the first non-European to receive a prize for literary distinction. Both hailed from the subcontinent in the nineteenth century and were instrumental in shaping the collective cultural and political consciousness of their homelands. Although there is no arguing that the corpus of writing of either poet is formidable in its impact, it is surprisingly difficult to find a major commonality between their varying styles and diverse works. However, this brief essay focuses on how both were strongly moved by one of the most primal and sacred of familial bonds — that between mother and son.

Tagore was the youngest of his mother’s surviving children; she had well over a dozen pregnancies, and passed away when the boy was just fourteen. It can be argued that children in South Asia during the 1800s could be considered lucky to have had their mothers with them until their teens, especially given the high rates of maternal illness and mortality at the time. Nevertheless, the loss of a mother figure (and primary caregiver) is often irreplaceable in the minds and hearts of children, and Tagore was no exception. Indeed, by a cruel twist of fate, his own son Rahindranath Tagore lost his mother similarly at precisely the age of fourteen—a fact with which his father could empathize especially strongly, given that he had been through a similar heartache himself as a child.

One would have expected Rabindranath Tagore to have some fairly clear memories of his mother, Sarada Devi. After all, at fourteen one distinctly recalls many things that took place in one’s early childhood. Yet one of his most famous poems is wistfully titled ‘I Cannot Remember My Mother.’ To add to the irony, the only physical ‘memory’ Tagore recounts in this poem is that of his mother rocking him in his cradle. Obviously, this is entirely a moment of imaginary thinking because children are generally rocked in the cradle before the age of four, a point at which no child has developed firm or lasting memories. Instead, one can surmise that Tagore simply wishes to honour what he believes his mother did for him (like countless mothers across the sub-continent would for their children). He goes on to create a fleeting impression of a gentle, sweet woman who can be ‘recalled’ through the scent of ‘shiuli’ flowers during the morning’s holy services in the temple. The ‘shiuli’ is a cousin of the jasmine flower and has a pleasing light fragrance. Tagore’s image evokes his broader relationship with nature (of which he was as deeply enamoured as the great William Wordsworth) as well as the more personal, intimate association between mother and son.

Read More


The writer teaches English at the Institute of Business Administration in Karachi. She is a widely published author and reviews books regularly for Dawn and SouthAsia. She can be reached at

Cover Story
News Buzz

Leave a Reply