Foster (M) Other and Embodied Contradictions of Motherhood in Mahashweta Devi’s “The Breast-Giver”

Sucharita Sharma
Dr Sucharita Sharma is currently working as an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at The IIS University, Jaipur, since 2010. She specializes in American Literature, Twentieth Century British Literature, Postcolonial Literature and Victorian Literature, with a Ph.D on the topic “Black Mother: Trauma and Transformation with Special Reference to the Select Works of Toni Morrison”. She has presented and published papers in several national and international conferences and journals. Along with her research experience, she has an exposure to teaching wide range of topics to graduate and post graduate classes and guided 13 student research projects till date. Her area of interests include Black Literature and Postcolonial Literature.

Mahashweta Devi’s short story “The Breast-Giver” in Breast Stories is the narrative of the life of a woman whose body is exploited as a site to satisfy sexual desires; who reproduces and suckles children throughout her life, epitomizing herself as an icon of selfless, caring and sacrificing Indian mother. Fraught with scars, she is left to perish in the end. The writer’s concerns and her Dalit feminist consciousness can be witnessed in the story of Jashoda, whose name is replete with the mythological connotations, echoing the life of Mother Yashoda. The Bengali writer and social activist Mahashweta Devi’s text is a treatise for the socio-cultural and human rights of the marginalized sections of the society, especially Dalits. Her sympathies with women and an aggressive portrayal of elite capitalists and patriarchal society bring her writings under the umbrella of feminist discourses. The present paper is an attempt to study the interface of subaltern history with literature, focusing on the deeper concerns under the texture of the story hidden between the lines. It will focus on the embodiment of the idea of motherhood as a dual institution that empowers as well as decentralizes the power of a woman as subject; that is, it aims to carve the tragic destiny of a woman, whose reproductive powers make her disposed to the value act of procreation, as a defenseless victim to veneration and therefore, interleaved to economic structure.

Keywords: Subaltern, Nation, Motherhood, Divine, Patriarchy, Capitalist society.

The cultural heritage of a nation like West Bengal is outweighed by images of goddesses in religion and culture, ensuring the literary and cinematic representations of maternal idols and the interface of cultural values with ideologies of motherhood. The two landmark narratives in such thematic areas are the famous short stories “The Goddess” by Prabhat Kumar Mukherjee and “The Breast-Giver” by Mahashweta Devi. Although written during different eras, these texts are replete with examples from lives of female characters whose stories prove that a woman’s body is viewed only as a site of productivity by the capitalist-patriarchal structure.  
On the surface reading, “The Breast-Giver” appears to be the parable of Jashoda, a Brahmin woman who completely forgets her existence as a human being. Her ‘self’ culminates within the defined parameters of a wife and mother. “It is as if she were Kanglicharan’s wife from birth, the mother of 20 children, living or dead, counted on her fingers” (Devi 38). She is called, a “professional mother”, whose body has turned into a reproductive machine under the forces of patriarchy, poverty and need for survival. Her deceased body wakes fainting in the morning, drilled in the darkness of each night by her husband, with no control and/or choice over her motherhood. Rachel Cusk, observes that
Being a woman reveals a woman’s capacity for numerous things: virtue, anger, self-sacrifice, foolishness, anger, love…..she ha slost the power of autonomy and free will in her own life. From the first moment of her pregnancy, a woman find herself subject to forces which she has no control, not least those of the body itself. This subjection applies equally to the known and the unknown: she is her body’s subject…., and in this biological work she has undertaken she has become society’s and history’s subject too. (36)
But the tragic irony of her life lies in the fact that although she finds no exit to the reproductive mechanism of her body, she discovers that these children have been the only strength to fuel some life in the corpse of her identity.
Jashoda is referred to as a “professional mother”, as opposed to any “amateur mother” who could be “daughters or wives from the master’s house”. Devi has very interestingly juxtaposed the weak position of the colonizer to the strength of the colonized through such bold and revered representation of Jashoda, who reminds of the mythic mother Yashoda of Lord Krishna, reincarnated with all her fostering powers in the character of the Brahmin woman protagonist. The story engages with the institution of motherhood that is subject to patriarchal ideologies by bringing to fore the narratives of tyranny and compulsion, by taking the readers on journey with Jashoda who is
..fully an Indian woman, whose unreasonable, unreasoning and unintelligent devotion to her husband and love for her children, whose unnatural renunciation and forgiveness, have been kept alive in the popular consciousness by all Indian women from Sati-Savitri-Sita through Nirupa Roy and Chand Osmani.(Devi 45)
Her unflinching dedication and her dutifulness towards her husband and children prove aphorisms like-“A female’s life hangs on like a turtle’s’. She is the repository of maternal warmth for both her husband and children.  Her thoughts and her stalwart psychological and physical devoutness to her husband and children stand as a testament to the psyche of an Indian woman whose mind and body are colonized by the consciousness of the patriarchal society and its dogmas which circumscribe her destiny, written with writs of subjugation and subservience as the reward for being the product of Indian soil.  
Jashoda is a woman who confirms to the patriarchal notions for others as an object, rather than being a subject. She becomes a signifier of various qualities that inspire striving and performing activities aimed towards greater socio-cultural responsibility.  Although she is the true representation of a traditional Indian woman, she is celebrated as a source of strength, freedom and agency for women, refuting the idea that a woman is trapped in the biological structure of her own body. Rather, she transforms the symbols of femininity into weapons to combat the hardships of her life.  
Jashoda is raised to the altar of the Divine Mother when she is portrayed by the writer as an object in the context of her maternal powers in Indian culture where, “Each man is the Holy Child and each woman the Divine Mother”(46). Interestingly, this status of divinity must not be seen as the suggestion of their ability to attain freedom. Sharon Jacob contributes to the similar idea and writes: “My assertion is that both Mary and India’s surrogate divinity lasts as long as their productivity…Unlike the “holy child” Jesus whose divinity comes with a lifetime warranty, the divinity of Mary and the Indian surrogate comes with expiration dates”(109).
Signifying an attribute, she sets herself up as a series of adjectives to be emulated by millions of Indian women aspiring to be good mothers-chaste, devoted, loving, charitable, nourishing, tolerant, malleable, self-denying, self-sacrificing, finding solace in family and maternal roles.(Aneja&Vidya 25)
 Jashoda’s miseries aggravate after the death of the Master. The children grieved for food and Kangali was furious at his own helplessness. Realizing her responsibility, she steps out of the threshold of her house and decides to be the bread-winner of her house. The image of the ‘Divine Mother’ is explicable when she “clasps Radharani to her bosom and went over to the big house” (47).
            In the story, the definition of a woman is that of a breeder, and their world is critically deployed as the world of “breeders”. Devi writes, “The Mistress has six daughters. They too breed every year and a half. So there is a constant epidemic of blanket-quilt-feeding spoon-bottle-oilcloth-Johnson’s baby powder-bathing basin”(48). Blessed with fostering powers and breasts full of milk, Jashoda brings an air of relief to the Mistress’ face by consenting to breast feed the grandchildren of the Mistress when she pleads, “You come like a god! Give her some milk dear, I beg you”(48).  Stanley Kurtz opines that “In worshipping the Goddess, Hindus recapitulate and reinforce their successful developmental journey through the world of women” (174). The series of ascribed adjectives continue to raise Jashoda to the pedestal of the “Cow of Fulfillment”(48) sent by the Lord. According to Hindu mythology, Kamdhenu is the divine cow who yields all enjoyments and fulfills all desires. But the Mistress’ conviction of Jashoda’s “mammal projections” and the “flood of milk” from her nipples are no indicators that motherhood in India is revered and liberated from patriarchal considerations.
Jashodra Bagchi comments upon the ‘simultaneous privatization and institutionalization of motherhood’ as the most ‘spectacular ploys’ of patriarchal society. “Patriarchy, whether in its most traditional or modern form, constantly tries to glorify motherhood as the most prized vocation for women” (159). A mother’s body is seen as bountiful, productive, blossoming and fruitful. Anju Aneja and Shubhangi Vaidya write in their book Embodying Motherhood that
A critical analysis of mothering in nations such as India reveals that the commodification of women’s bodies previously sustained by patriarchal forces may only be exaggerated under the more recent influences of capitalism, sustained by the increasingly contractual nature of motherhood. (135)
Jashoda’s story directs the reader’s attention to the fact that the predominance of patriarchal notions in the society constraint a woman’s liberty under the pact of defined gendered roles of motherhood. Further inflated by capitalism, they are witnessed in the motherwork beyond the boundaries of class and caste. According to a wide range of feminist discourses, it was easy to relate the dominating characteristics of motherhood to the private spheres where opposition is silenced and subjugation is relatively easier to be covered under the appropriation of gender roles. 
Capitalist societies concentrate on the productive value of human resources, which result in the condemnation of woman’s role as a mother. In the light of Judith Butler’s conception of ‘gender performativity’, the term ‘mother performance’ identifies with less independence to females, observance to socio-cultural norms and endorsement of patriarchal thoughts. Early Indian history documents the transition of a woman from an independent person to a lesser important character in their roles of wives and mothers. Jashoda is also one such woman who has become a puppet under the agency of willful submission to her husband in the private sphere, and in the hands of the Mistress in the Haldar house in the public sphere.
Mahashweta Devi employs the cult of goddess Yashoda to construct a sense of ironic tensions under the light of mythological idealizations of the maternal. Jashoda is proud of her recognition as a fruitful Brahmin woman and “thought of her breasts as most precious objects”(50).  They were not only the symbol of her womanhood and maternity, but an object of values within the premises of associations between capitalism, patriarchy and motherhood. Jashoda’s life is further complicated because pushed by economic exigencies, she is forced to sale her maternity and motherwork to the extended domestic economy. She is born to bear a child in her belly, and thus Kanglicharan understands his role as the ‘Purush’ or ‘Brahma, the creator’ to keep Jashoda’s breasts full of milk. He associates the fostering power of her breasts with the procreative powers of her womb. The discourse on relation is shifted to the discourse on capitalism.
You’ll have milk in your breasts only if you have a child in your belly. Now you’ll have to think of that and suffer. You are a faithful wife, a goddess. You will yourself be pregnant, be filled with the child, rear it at your breast, isn’t this why Mother came to you as a midwife? (50)
The four walls of the Haldar house are altered to a work space for Jashoda, providing more sexual and financial autonomy to her with regards to her feminine powers. The portrayal of Jashoda with her suckling power establishes the notion of the dual roles of a woman who is both a homemaker and a bread-winner, and simultaneously preserves her conventional subservience to her husband by giving birth to Kangli’s children every year.
            By suckling the children of the Haldar house, Jashoda becomes the domestic maid who is restrained within boundaries in imperceptible ways despite the class and caste difference. Jashoda’s body is doubly exploited by Kanglicharan and the Mistress. She is a victim to the capitalistic society and patriarchal ideology, fulfilling her duties obediently as a “professional mother” in harmony with Kanglicharan who was the “professional father” (50). She becomes the devoted wife and nurturing mother incarnate. Her existence confirms the essence of the song that questions: “Is a Mother so cheaply made? Not just by dropping a babe!”(50). She is revered, interestingly a little more than the “Mother Cows” in the Haldar house. The men there became the creators of progeny and Jashoda preserved them because she had to feed her own family by suckling the progeny of the Mistress’s house. In a mocking and ironic contrast to the mythic mother Yashoda of Lord Krishna, she embodied a subaltern’s self whose body was crushed and trampled by the pact of motherhood. But Jashoda’s mind is so blinded by the pride she feels in her motherhood that under the “electrifying influence” of her “goddess-glory”, she fails to see the capitalist concerns of the society and assumes her position as a subject and
constantly suckling the infants, she opined as she sat in the Mistress’s room, A woman breeds so here medicine, there blood-peshur, here doctor’s visits. Showoffs! Look at me! I’ve become a year breeder! So is my body-failing, or is my milk drying? Makes your skin crawl? (53)
            Jashoda’s world of power and financial autonomy comes to a disastrous end with the death of the Mistress when the doors of the Haldar house close on her fate. In pain and misery she turns to her husband, but is left alone to endure all ill- fate as her body is now no more productive, her breasts are no longer full of milk. The burden of empty womb and “ageing, milkless, capricious breasts breaking in pain” (57), redirected the course of the last phase of her life to unspeakable, unbearable physical and psychological pain as her female body was a depreciated object with no use value for the capitalist patriarchy. Now she was neither the breeder of Kanglicharan’s household, nor the suckler of the Mistress’s house. The narrative of Jashoda’s story compels the reader to question the significance of a woman’s body when it transforms to a barren land, void of its reproductive powers, further eliminating a woman’s existence as a subject that she had earlier acquired in her role of a mother.
            The blur created by her lactating powers between her identity and the lion-seated goddess eventually diminished when her body started failing with the breaking of prism created by the captivating seduction of maternal powers. Carrying the burden of her carcass and her demolished soul, she returned home as an epitome of the sexually oppressed subaltern who was objectified both in the hands of elite woman and patriarchy. Her barren womb and dry breasts created a psychological vacuum, gazing on the body as some old outdated entity with no one to love or embrace it with desire and/or affection. Jashoda is shaken to the horrific reality of life; left dejected by the world, her story unfolds the hypocrisy of the culture in which a woman who succumbs to an emulation of the patriarchal notions is finally left deserted in the end as her productive value is now exhausted. Her life seems purposeless when she realized that
Whether it suckled or not, it’s hard to sleep without a child at the breast. Motherhood is a great addiction. The addiction doesn’t break even when the milk is dry….Her breasts feel empty as if wasted. She never thought she wouldn’t have a child’s mouth at her nipple.(60,62)
The foster mother of the Haldar house is pushed to margins. No one respects her, no one reveres her. Her destiny disowns her, and she is given a corner to be shared with the Basini of the house whose community once used to wash her feet, but now orders Jashoda to wash her own dishes.
            Jashoda’s body betrayed her with breast cancer. Her breasts that once suckled 50 children were now painful, full of sores and smelling foul. When Kangli came to meet her, she ridiculed at her own body and “showed him her bare left breast, thick with running sores and said, See these sores? Do you know how these sores smell? What will you do with me now? Why did you come to take me?”(65). Jashoda’s question is simply about the productive value of her rotting and deceasing breasts and body. It can neither pacify the children of the Haldar house, nor satisfy the desires of her husband Kangli. Her weak body and foul smelling breasts with sores “kept mocking her with a hundred mouths, a hundred eyes” (66). In a strikingly ironic contrast with Yashoda, our Jashoda in the story deconstructs the myth of motherliness by her cancer affected body, defying the story of the milk of prosperity flowing through the breasts of Mother Yashoda.
            The deceased condition of her breasts shakes its readers to perceive and interrogate the contested limits of socio-cultural norms which have inscribed such tragic destiny. “Jashoda thought, after all, she had suckled the world, could she then die alone?...One must become Jashoda, if one suckles the world. One has to die friendless, with no one left to put a bit of water in the mouth”(73). The image of the Mother transformed from that of a strong woman who suckled the children of two houses to someone who was desensitized with medicated sleep. Even those, whom she had given birth, turned their faces from her because “Their mother had become a distant person for a long time. Mother meant hair in a huge topknot, blindingly white clothes, a strong personality. The person lying in the hospital is someone else, not Mother”(72). Then who is this person lying in bed, covered in white bed sheet with “the breast now looking like an open wound…covered by a piece of thin gauze soaked in antiseptic lotion” (70).  The question remains unanswered.
            The text resonates with the silence of suffering Jashoda who, with her silence, internalizes the pain of a woman whose maternity is inscribed with white milk flowing from her own body. Choosing its own path of resistance, her body responds to the engraved maternal identity beyond paradigms of female oppression. Nabin’s words towards the end echo the vanity of human desires, illuminating with the philosophy of life that facilitates to delve into the revised subjectivity of a woman in front of him. He interrogates his pleasure instincts: “I lusted after her? This is the end of that intoxicating bosom? Ho! Man’s body’s a zero. To be crazy for that is to be crazy”(71). The repulsive thoughts on seeing Jashoda, map the treachery played on her body by cancer, making it a symbol of gendered and marginalized Jashoda who desires to be liberated and alienates herself from her body and its stinking smell along with the unbearable pain of her breasts despite
Knowing these breasts to be the rice-winner, she had constantly conceived to keep them filled with milk. The breast’s job is to hold milk. She kept her breasts clean with perfumed soap, she never wore a top, even in youth, because her breasts were so heavy. (72)
Contrastingly, she universalizes the concept of ‘foster mother’ and thinks that “The doctor who sees her everyday, the person who will cover her face with a sheet, will pull her on cart, will lower her at the burning ghat, the untouchable who will put her in the furnace, are all her milk-sons”(74). The death of Jahoda is the death of the cult of ancient religious icons who die in the portrayal of strong woman like Jashoda. Mahashweta Devi concludes the story but laments the decline and death of motherhood in the deceased body of Jashoda.

Works Cited:
Aneja, Anu & Shubhangi Vaidya. Embodying Motherhood: Perspectives From Contemporary India. SAGE Press, 2016.
Bagchi, Jashodra. “Representing Nationalism. Ideologyof Motherhood in Colonial Bengal”.  Motherhood in India: Glorification Without Empowerment, edited by Maithreyi Krishnaraj, Routledge, 2010.
Cusk, Rachel. “From Liberty and Equality to the Maternal Grind”. Rev. of Shattered: Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality, by Rebecca Asher. The New Review, The Observer. 3 April 2011:36.
Jacob, Sharon. Reading Mary Alongside Indian Surrogate Mothers. Violent Love, Oppressive Liberation and Infancy Narratives. (The Bible and Cultural Studies). Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
Kurtz, Stanley. All the Mothers Are One: Hindu India and the Cultural Reshaping of Psychoanalysis. Columbia University Press,1992.
Murphy, D. Patrick. Literature, Nature and Culture. SUNY Press,1995.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravarty, translator. “The Breast- Giver”. Breast Stories. By Mahashweta Devi, Seagull Books, 2010. 

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