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Body and Deity: Motherhood in Mahasweta Devi’s Breast Giver

Translated from Bengali to English by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Breast Giver” is the second story from Mahasweta Devi’s collection of short stories “Breast Stories.” Mahasweta Devi’s literary works provide a critical commentary on the social and political environment, with a focus on marginalized segments of Indian society, particularly women, as well as the peasant and tribal communities residing in the Indian forests. “Breast Giver,” seemingly straightforward and realistic, weaves seamlessly with a subtle yet stinging satire, a story of ‘motherhood,’ and its connotations in a caste-driven patriarchal society.

Mahasweta Devi’s “Breast Giver” is a story with many layers, an intersection of different subalterns — of caste, class, and gender. Her stories generallyopen a window into the lives of the most vulnerable sections of our society and cast a limelight on issues that plague our society that not many care to talk about. Through “Breast Giver,” Mahasweta narrates a tale that makes one ponder about motherhood, its idealization in Indian society, as well as the exploitative aspect of commodifying a woman’s body in the name of that idealization.

Credits: Outlook

Set roughly between the fifties and eighties in Harisal, a pilgrimage center inWest Bengal, “Breast Giver” chronicles the story of Jashoda, a Brahmin woman who takes up ‘motherhood’ as a profession. She lived a life of domesticity with her husband Kangalicharan, bearing and taking care of their children, as well as looking after the household duties before the son of a wealthy neighbor, Haldarbabu, ran his Studebaker over Kangali, and he had to be amputated. As they run out of options to keep the household running, Jashoda takes it upon herself to take up a job in the Haldar house. She helps her own house the only way she can, by offering up her body and its resources to nurse the Haldar clan’s children. She becomes a wet nurse for the family, for as long as her body allows, in exchange for financial compensation and the basic requirements to keep her house running.

The Haldar house doesn’t want its women to breastfeed, to “keep their figures”. Jashoda believes that this duty was ordained to her, through a dream, by the “Lionseated Goddess” and so she takes pride in doing what the other women won’t. Even though she feels pride in using her body to carry out god’s deed, one does wonder, did she ever have a choice? Even though she took up nursing professionally, she had never known a life where she wasn’t already pregnant or nursing. It was all she had ever given the space to do, and it was all she knew how to do.

It is as if she were Kangalicharan’s wife from birth, the mother of twenty children, living or dead, counted on her fingers. Jashoda doesn’t remember at all when there was no child in her womb when she didn’t feel faint in the morning, when Kangali’s body didn’t drill her body like a geologist in a darkness lit only by an oil- lamp. She never had the time to calculate if she could or could not bear motherhood.”

Over thirty years, Jashoda birthed twenty children and nursed almost a total of fifty children, including the “milk children” of the Haldar household. In West Bengal, the cult of mother-goddess worship has an enormous significance, and hence, Jashoda, whose name also alludes to Yashoda, the foster mother of Lord Krishna, gains respect, not just as a wet nurse, but people begin to see her as an incarnation of the Mother goddess herself. She is dubbed as “the Mother of World”, “Cow Mother”, “Divine Mother”, “Cow of Fulfillment” and so on. She receives otherworldly respect, and admiration, and is invited to all the important functions as the “chief fruitful woman”.

This mirrors Indian society at large, where women’s identity is made to be centered around and celebrated for motherhood. Some groups also worship the “mother goddess”, the chief nourisher, and expect to sacrifice every comfort for the sake of ‘her family’.

Such is the power of the Indian soil that all women turn into mothers here and all men remain immersed in the spirit of holy childhood. Each man the Holy Child and each woman the Divine Mother”

On the other hand, this overexploitation of Jashoda’s body culminates with the development of a tumor in her breast, the very part of her body that she took so much pride in. She suffers unimaginable agony in her last days. In commodifying her body and deifying her role, the human beneath it all is never considered. Mahsweta Devi makes sure we realize this as she highlights the hypocrisy behind the divine idea of motherhood when Jashoda’s children and milk children refuse to take care of her. When this “Mother of the World” dies, she is all alone on the journey to the funeral ghat — no one is there to light her funeral pyre to give back or even bid goodbye to the mother.

Jashoda was the receiver of ostensible glory in her lifetime, for possessing the faculty to nurture. To be able to provide a breast to feed on. She is representative of countless women, hailed for being mothers — their bodies likened to holy sanctuaries — but never treated or respected as individual human beings. Jashoda was a body, a source of capital. Jashoda was a god, the holy mother. She was more than human, she was less than human. But never human.

Jashoda’s death was also the death of God. When a mortal masquerades as God here below, she is forsaken by all and she must always die alone.”

Mukaram Shakeel is a student pursuing English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Edited by: Sania Parween

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Written by Mukaram Shakeel

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