‘You, Shiva and My Mum’ by Ruth Padel is a poem which is inspired by Padel’s personal experience visiting India with her mother for her brother’s wedding, in which they were immersed in traditional wedding rituals.  Padel was born in 1946 and is best known for her non fiction and poetry, and she has a particular interest pieces related to Greece and the natural world. She has also been part of poetry broadcasts on BBC Radio 3 and 4, teaches creative writing at King’s College London, and has even written a book which contains her own analysis of a range of British poetry.

This poem is no longer part of the set of prescribed poems that could be included in the Edexcel English Literature exam, however it is still useful for practice as an unseen poem.  Click here to see a full list of revision notes for the examined poems.

You, Shiva and My Mum - Poem Analysis

Interpreture gives ‘You, Shiva and My Mum’ a difficulty rating of 3, meaning that it is deemed to be of average difficulty. The meaning and themes become relatively clear, however the specific choice of language that is in keeping with the culture being described may be difficult for some students if they have no prior knowledge. In addition, some significant aspects may be overlooked as a result, particularly with the structure of the poem.

‘You, Shiva and My Mum’

The inclusion of ‘You’ in the title of the poem is an interesting choice because it directly draws a reader in and helps to make them feel included in the experiences being described. While this may not have a large immediate effect on a reader, the sense of inclusion becomes more important as the diverse mix of cultures and experiences are described, helping a reader to build a positive sense of connection. Similarly, the inclusion of “My Mum” shows the personal side to this poem, which is seemingly one of the most personal within the Poems of the Decade anthology. Finally, “Shiva” is one of the principal deities of Hinduism (a God of the religion), who creates, protects and transforms the universe. This reference to a key part of Hinduism helps to make clear to a reader that the poem has religious and spiritual connections, while also indicating that it could be unfamiliar for some, just as it was for her mother.

You, Shiva and My Mum - Poem Analysis

Poem Structure

One of the most important aspects of the structure in ‘You, Shiva and My Mum’ is the 12 stanza layout, with each stanza having three relatively short lines. The twelve stanzas could be seen as symbolic of the twelve Jyotirlinga in Hinduism, which are various shrines around India that are dedicated to Shiva. As such, this very strong link to Hinduism and complete immersion in the faith can be seen as showing the way in which the narrator’s family are wanting to integrate fully with the bride’s religion. However, many readers may not be aware of the significance of the twelve stanzas, and as such this would be far less effective. Instead, these readers may find another association to this number, such as the idea of twelve months in a year to symbolise the eternal nature of an ideal marriage.

A personal and conversational tone is able to be created throughout the structure too, with the short lines in each stanza creating a quick rhythm, but also one which changes and breaks in the poem due to the mix of end stopped and run on lines. Similarly, the overall irregular rhyme scheme and rhythm along with those breaks helps to further emphasise the idea of conversation, but some readers may also interpret this as demonstrating how the different situations are surprising or even discomfort experienced. A reader could also begin to feel a sense of the same surprise because it would be very difficult for them to predict or anticipate the next line of the poem.

Another key aspect of this poem, and one that sets it apart from others, is the widespread use of questions. In fact, the entire poem is made up of questions up until the very last line and conclusion of the poem. This would be very effective at further continuing the idea of conversation, but it is important to note how this tone is continued despite the one-sided nature of these questions. The build up towards the final line of the poem also encourages a reader to consciously reply to the poem, therefore making it much more memorable.

Poetic Techniques

The semantic field of words and references to Hinduism is a very important aspect of ‘You, Shiva and My Mum’ because it forms the basis for the entire poem. Without these references there would be no true appreciation or link to the culture that the narrator and their mother have been experiencing. As a result, there are many examples to ensure that this remains a key part of the poem, with references to various shrines, key locations, and traditional practices. However, there are some inaccuracies which a reader may feel helps to make the poem feel more ‘authentic’ through its imperfect knowledge, such as the reference to Shiva as “navy blue” when Shiva is typically depicted as light blue or white.

There are also continued ideas of movement and journeys within the poem due to various verbs, such as “went” “rode” and “climbed”. This helps to make the poem feel transitional, with some readers perhaps linking this to the idea of transfer in marriages or in the beliefs and culture of an individual. Similarly, it demonstrates how the mother became fully immersed in these various rituals (despite being eighty years old), and most importantly these verbs show her being an active, rather than reluctant, participant.

The use of pronouns also help to emphasise the personal connection in the poem, with extensive use of “she” and “her” in reference to the narrator’s mother. A reader could interpret this use of language to be less possessive, demonstrating the mother’s independence and own ability, with “mother of mine” only used once. Similarly, the narrator’s personal experience is shown through the use of “I” so as to demonstrate that this has been a shared experience, therefore making it feel more personal to a reader.

Important Lines

“How this mother of mine rode a motorbike”

This possessive reference of the narrator’s mother is one of the few examples in the play when there is a direct link made, showing the way in which there is mutual independence between the two. There is also the presence of alliteration of the ‘m’ sound which helps give this line an added feeling of rhythm, in turn emphasising the unusual depiction of a mother riding a motorbike.

“And backwards swastikas at heel”

It is important to note that the swastika design has been used for centuries as a good fortunate symbol, before it became synonymous with fascism due to the use of the symbol by the Nazi Party. As explored in this BBC article, it has a long history of use throughout the world which is often overlooked, particularly in Western society. As such, this initially confusing and worrying description in fact helps to educate a reader about other cultures, effectively encouraging them to look into the use of this symbol, and the other religious ideas within the poem.

“The eyes of the valley on her”

The humanisation of the valley in order to emphasise the huge array of onlookers demonstrates the importance of this wedding to the local community for so many people to be there, and helps to add a sense of nature and the supernatural, which a reader could interpret as being representative the power and significance of the wedding itself.

‘You, Shiva and My Mum’ Key Themes

  • Family: ‘You, Shiva and My Mum’ is based around the idea of family, both in the actual sense of family relations, but arguably in the way that an entire community and mix of different faiths have come together for this wedding and have been respectful of traditional customs. The mother can also be seen to have power in her ability to participate so much despite her age.
  • Identity: There is a strong sense of identity communicated in the poem through the frequent links to Hinduism, although it could be argued that the mother is perhaps overlooking her own identity in order to take part in another. That said, this could be expected and is likely to be seen as respectful considering she is visiting a new and unfamiliar country.
  • Society and Culture: Traditional culture of weddings in this part of India is critical to the poem and the way that it explores the sense of collective society, celebrating the way that it is possible to come together despite different faiths and customs, in order to enjoy an experience.

Quick Focus Questions

  1. Why are a series of rhetorical questions used in ‘You, Shiva and My Mum’ rather than regular sentences?
  2. Alternating stanzas are slightly indented on the page as part of the layout of this poem. What possible interpretations could this encourage a reader to have?
  3. To what extent may a reading of ‘You, Shiva and My Mum’ differ for someone who is unaware of Hinduism? Would this make the poem more or less effective for the reader?

‘You, Shiva and My Mum’ is a really interesting poem for its depth of exploration of Hinduism, helping to make the poem very memorable even on first reading. While other poems in the collection are less focussed on religion, with only brief references such as in ‘The Lammas Hireling’, a variety of comparisons can still be made due to universal themes such as family, identity and culture. For example, the poem could be compared with ‘Look We Have Coming to Dover!’ or ‘Ode on a Grayson Perry Urn’ for the strong links to cultural identity. Padel describes on her website how she sees the poem as linking to the idea of making connections across countries, time zones and cultures, which is also a great starting point for any comparison with other poems.

Poems of the Decade Revision