‘The Breast Giver’ Brings Mahsweta Devi’s Book to Searing Life

WNN Reviews – Review by Allison Baker – Tuesday, 15 June, 2010

India author Mahasweta Devi
Acclaimed India author, Mahasweta Devi

In her book, “Breast Stories,” Mahasweta Devi, as an Indian intellectual known for her feminist, deconstructionist, and subaltern criticisms in cultural texts, literature and her own radical writings, tells the stories of the women of India who are caught endlessly in the cycles of holiness and self-abnegation.

In her story, “The Breast Giver,” from her collection of short stories called, “Breast Stories,” Mahasweta Devi outlines women’s identity as body, worker and object. In a tale of a Bengali wet-nurse, Devi shows female protagonist, Jashoda, living in a 1960’s India as she is compelled to take up ‘professional motherhood’ when her Brahman husband loses both his feet.

With her only ability held in her ‘always full’ breasts and her desperate economic destitution — she is swiftly utilized and praised for her expert weaning of wealthy offspring, which she does for 25 years, before losing her usefulness and consequentially dying from breast cancer.

Lacanian and Freudian psychoanalytic criticisms could be used to support the claim that the central theme of this story involves a conversation between the spiritual significance of woman and her place in the imaginary order.  The desires of man as they become dominant in the symbolic order and the law of the father originate in a foreign language, setting and cultural context given to maintain a clarity and relevance of symbolism.

The Decisive Moment: Male Desire and Castration

The confrontation, which serves to alter Jashoda’s life, comes when the youngest son of the wealthy landowner Haldar takes a Studebaker for a drive and proceeds to roll over the her husband, marring his feet. The ‘incident’ is first built up with a divulging of what lead the young son to, in essence, castrate the man, Kangali — a Brahman and priest of the highest caste who’s feet act as totem, or phallus, for his sacred livelihood.

Even before this destructive act, with the driving force of lust untempered by a mature man’s ego, the Haldar boy attacks the house cook, and then fearing his mother learning of his behavior, arranges to have the boy’s victim fired. This fear, perhaps of having his maternal object of love become privy to his betrayal of her — goes unchecked because the boy is not caught.

Without a sufficient amount of guilt to keep him within society’s regulations, his offenses escalate to stealing and then joyriding over Jashoda and her husband’s fortune.

Jashoda’s role of professional motherhood, and consequent life and death, turn in the pages of her book to a pivotal moment, “…the responsibility was the Haldar’s new son-in-laws Studebaker and the sudden desire of the youngest son…” Here male desire takes on greater significance throughout the story, as Jashoda’s narrative fills in the liminal space on the needs and actions of men; as her body and her fate acts like a site for the rippling aftermath.

The Role of Woman: a Gynocentric Perspective on the Meaning of Maternal Plenitude

When Kangali is rushed to the hospital, the elder Haldar is mortified at the thought of having a Brahmin killed from his namesake’s hand. Haldar assures his victim “Don’t worry, son! You won’t suffer as long as I’m around.”

Though this promise comes as a relief to the now mangled priest, it is not him whose survival is truly threatened — he is after all of the highest caste in what Devi calls in her story, “…independent India, the India that makes no distinctions among people… varieties of Brahmins…” Even though Haldarbabu makes his fortune in the British era of “divide and rule” he exclaims, “There’s no East or West for a Brahmin.”

Without his feet Kengali’s security is mostly assured by his spiritual standing. Though times become desperate after his wealthy benefactor dies, he could just as easily move on to another temple were he is unencumbered by his family, as he goes on to do so later in the story.

It is Jashoda whose survival is seriously jeopardized by the castration of her husband’s feet and then the death of their patron, lacking as she is of anything monetarily or spiritually relevant to a patriarchical culture — save for her prophetic lactation, her ever flowing supply of breast milk.

The curious usefulness of the service of wet-nurse to Haldar’s daughter-in-laws reveals a great deal about the state of life for Bengali women in relation to their ‘privileged’ male partners. What this entails for the wives of the Haldar sons’ is constant procreation at the expense of their well-being. Wives’ husbands strive to, “create a progeny as soon as the almanac gave a good day, with love or lack of love…” as one wife states, “I’ll be out of pain when you burn me. Can a year breeder’s health ever mend?”

In producing heirs, husbands of the house wish to preserve their brides beauty — and this becomes the ‘deal-sealing’ point for Jashoda’s induction into professional motherhood.

The mistress of the house decides that this proposal of employment is “worth a million rupees” because daughter-in-laws will be mothers. And, most importantly, will be mothers for as long as possible. even though progressive suckling will “ruin a mother’s shape.”

If sons look outside there is no voice to object. “Going outside because they can’t ‘get it’ at home, this is just,” the mistresses proclaim.

As the wife, through her gift of reproduction becomes objectified in the market as commodities, and her husband as consumer expects an endless supply to satisfy his insatiable almost childlike desire for both ‘trophy and tool,’ the wife knows, as a woman she must take on the subordinate role of simultaneously pleasing and producing for her masters.

“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,” writes Devi.  This theme of oppressive hegemony, built into both spiritual practice and economic belief, resonates in all of the narratives of the women in, “Breast Stories.”

In the “Breast Giver,” as Jashoda becomes more and more revered for her body’s otherworldly tolerance ,it seems as though the binary is moving towards freeplay — from man/woman to a hierarchy closer to woman/man. Both Brahmans in their own right, Kangali shares home tasks as he takes on the cooking at home and cares for their three children as Jashoda is heralded as wet-nurse and, “the mother of the world.”

Jashoda’s only usefulness in the male dominated cultural setting is her maternal plenitude, her duty of raising children out of an imaginary order as she dives into the symbolic law of the father. This ‘usefulness’ is the responsibility of all mothers of patriarchy.  As she extends her task to countless children, other than her own, Jashoda becomes ‘Martyr’ — a role that suggests both significance and sub-ordinance, and even worship, while she simultaneously secures her ‘never ending’ lack of milk and nourishment.

That she willingly keeps emptying herself for the ‘good of man’ makes it possible to revere her without ultimately revising her underprivileged charge.

Living in the Liminal Space between the Imaginary and Symbolic Order

The story that plays out on Jashoda’s body, from prophetic ‘nourisher’ of the world to, at last, a cancer ridden and abandoned ’server’ of  those who once exalted her as holy, is essentially the conversation and struggle between the imaginary order and the symbolic law of the father.

An imaginary order, symbolized by the spiritual image of the lion-seated goddess, comes to Jashoda in a dream when she, as midwife, whose presence encourages all members of her dream to at once revere her as sacred wet-nurse and then to cast her aside. Jashoda dreams she is caste aside once the spiritual image of the lion-seated goddess’ will has changed.

Though the characters in, ”The Breast Giver,” would have you believe that the divine will is always done, Devi suggests the divine is in many ways just another phallus for the ‘law of the father.’ Jashoda is not seen as inherently sacred as Kangali. She only becomes so when she has a service to offer or when the last child is weaned and her supporting mistress dead. In the end she is left to weep at the lion-seated feet with a pained and cracked bosom.

In the end, no prophetic dream comes to guide her, no benefactor gasps at her state and runs to aid her sacred grace. Her body is revealed as a mere vessel that man through his religious symbols spurs on. Once used for her will and now left empty and lacking, Jashoda suffers a painful and sickened death. Her plentiful breasts now become a gaping wound.

Jashoda thinks and asks in her delirium how she suckled the world; only to die alone? With “meaning in the process at an end” she leaves a life of sacrifices for all, forsaken by all.

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Reviewer Allison (Ali) Baker, uses language as a tool for empowering and bearing witness to global women’s experience. Her goal is to raise the level of awareness for women’s issues worldwide using media as an instrument of trans-formative representation for all those daughters, mothers, sisters, wives — whose plights and contributions have gone unheralded.

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Works Cited in this Review

Bressler, Charles E. Literary Criticism: an Introduction to Theory and Practice. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007. Print.

Devi, Mahasweta. “The Breast-Giver.” In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. By Gayatri Chakravorty. Spivak. New York: Routledge, 2006. 305-31. Print.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 1975. Print.
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