When Indian-American economist Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in October, the achievement was widely celebrated in his native India. The judges conferred the award on Banerjee, his MIT colleague and wife Esther Duflo, and Harvard University’s Michael Kremer for their “experimental approach to alleviating global poverty”. On his return to India , Banerjee received a “rousing welcome” at the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose airport, where masses of people gathered to congratulate him with posters, pictures and slogans of “Bharater Gorbo” (Pride of India), local media reported. But even as the nation revelled in his accomplishment, it wasn’t quite Banerjee people wanted to hear from – they seemed more interested to learn about the economist through the eyes of his affectionate mother. Nirmala Banerjee, 83, a retired economics professor herself, made headlines for welcoming her elder son home with his favourite dishes of fish curry and mutton kebab, sharing what he was like as a boy, praising his cooking skills, and defending his criticism of the government. Other anecdotes by Nirmala focus on her son’s personality – “friendly, but not outgoing” – and her hope for Banerjee to remain grounded after his Nobel Prize win. “I don’t think that is something one should go on dancing about,” she told NDTV. “OK. He’s got some good work, he has got some recognition. We’re all happy about it. That’s it.” To non-Indian audiences, the media’s extensive spotlight on Nirmala might seem perplexing, if amusing. Banerjee had spent over two decades studying poverty with Duflo across the globe, from China to Tunisia, and was only the second Indian-born person to win a Nobel Prize in Economics. Others might also balk at the portrayal of Nirmala, an established economist in her own right, as merely a successful man’s proud mother. But the phenomenon highlights the cultural forces at play in much of India, where family is central to all aspects of life and the boundaries between professional and personal lives are not just blurred, they are deeply intertwined. Too many men: China and India battle with the consequences of gender imbalance India’s traditional preference for having sons is well-documented, especially in the country’s Hindu majority. Boys continue the family name, carry out religious roles, and are expected to provide financial and emotional support to their parents, especially in their old age, in a way girls are not – due to their likelihood of being married into another family. In fact, son worship is so widespread in the country that determining the sex of unborn babies is illegal. In most parts of India, motherhood is also strongly idealised, with many stories of maternal figures existing in religion, folklore and literature. According to women’s studies expert Maithreyi Krishnaraj, an Indian woman is traditionally seen as a “procreator and a nurturer”, but her role is especially glorified in terms of the mother-son relationship. “Indian mothers are revered only as mothers of sons,” Krishnaraj writes in the book Motherhood in India . But ask any Indian woman about the mother-son relationship and she is likely to say it is anything but straightforward. On the one hand, mothers in India tend to conform to a strict handbook of raising dutiful and ambitious children. On the other, the same mothers are known to spoil their sons. It is not uncommon for Indian mothers to brag about their sons’ achievements to friends, or lavish them with love by preparing elaborate meals. In fact, the latter is a culturally accepted trope. The coverage of Nirmala’s comments on Banerjee exemplify these conflicting narratives. She depicts her Harvard-educated son as a loving father and a person who is calm under pressure, and while Banerjee’s undergraduate grades “were a mess”, Nirmala “had a hunch” he would one day win the Nobel Prize. But the former professor also issued stern remarks through the media, vowing to admonish Banerjee, 58, for not mentioning the news when he called her a day before the award was announced. “I haven’t spoken to my son [since the award was announced] but I did speak to him last night. He did not mention this then. I will tell him off,” she told NDTV. In India, the coddling of sons often does not stop even when they reach adulthood. In many parts of the country, including in metropolitan areas, it is common to see grown men living with their parents, and some research suggests that men enjoy living with their mums long after they are married. A study by Indian matrimonial site Shaadi.com found that out of 3,952 single men who were surveyed, 54.3 per cent said they would like to stay with their parents after marriage. Meanwhile, of the 4,617 women surveyed, 64.1 per cent said they would like to live alone with their husbands. American trio win Nobel Economics Prize for work on poverty It is arguable that since Nirmala is a highly-educated and self-described “progressive” mum, old-fashioned patriarchal values aren’t the case here. Perhaps she is simply reacting how any proud parent would when their child has just won one of the most respected awards in the world. And which supportive parent would not come to their child’s defence if they were attacked in public? After members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party slammed Banerjee for his views on the government’s economic policies, Nirmala said: “My son’s critics should be able to respect counter views.” Regardless of whether Nirmala is viewed as a respected academic who raised a globally esteemed economist, or simply as the mother of a Nobel Prize-winner, one thing is evident: for India, her role as a mother comes first. And as attitudes in the nation continue to evolve, perhaps many are still happy to indulge in the familiar narrative of the nurturing Indian mother – Nirmala is not just Banerjee’s mum, she is everyone’s mum.