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The Holy Mother

rchauhan's picture
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Breast-Giver intrigues me because I am Indian and the story involves the Indian culture. I feel I had a better understanding of the story than some of my peers because I could identify and relate to the culture. Even though I grew up in America, my parents have taught me the values and traditions of the Indian culture and religion, and they make sure to take my siblings and me to India almost every two years to visit our relatives. I have witnessed both the traditional and modern lifestyles of the culture, and I believe I have a good understanding of the gender roles. Traditionally, the daughters of a family marry and move into their husband’s house, which includes his entire family. Daughter-in-laws help their new family by managing the household and providing heirs to the family. The story says, “Each man the Holy Child and each woman the Divine Mother” (Devi 226). The women are mothers and extend their husband’s family lineage. In the families I know, in India, the wives are mostly housewives who take care of their children, elder relatives, and parents. Even with the Indian families I grew up with in my hometown, the wives graduated with college degrees and held jobs for a few years, but when they had children many of them quit their jobs and became stay at home mothers.

            The class believed that Jashoda was exploited through her profession because she was a woman, and that the Haldar family was using Jashoda’s body for their benefit. I, however, believe that Jashoda was exploited because of the class structure. To a certain extent, the Haldar household was using Jashoda’s body, but religion and culture also helped others realize that her new profession is a positive milestone in her life. The female body has the reproductive system to nurture and rear children, and Indian women are seen mostly as mothers, by profession. Jashoda is not exploited because she is a woman; instead, she is exploited because of the class structure and the change of time and the circumstances lead to her puzzling fate.

The culture and religion help represent Jashoda’s profession positively. Jashoda has a dream where the Lionseated comes to her as a midwife. At first, the interpretation of the dream is confusing; however, when Jashoda accepts her profession at the Haldar household, people in the neighborhood, including Nabin, the pilgrim guide, realize that her dream was a prophesy of her future. Astrology, dreams, and spiritual connections with the gods and goddesses are taken very seriously in the Indian culture; therefore, the Lionseated entering Jashoda’s dream as a midwife helped legitimize and highlight the importance of Jashoda’s new profession. It is described in the story, “Thus even the skeptics were persuaded that the Lionseated had appeared to Jashoda as a midwife for this very reason” (Devi 229). The Lionseated coming into her dream is a very important sign that shows she is not being subjugated or used by others because she is a woman who can rear children, but that it was her fate chosen by God. The story also mentions that “Faith in the greatness of the Lionseated was rekindled in the area and in the air of the neighborhood blew the electrifying influence of goddess-glory” (Devi 229). Jashoda helped revive the faith in the Lionseated. She represented a living form and the glory of the Lionseated, and because of that “everyone’s devotion to Jashoda became so strong that at weddings, showers, namings, and sacred-threadings they invited her and gave her the position of chief fruitful woman” (Devi 229). Her connection with the Lionseated elevated her status and made her important in the neighborhood. Inviting Jashoda is similar to inviting the Lionseated. The maids praised her by saying, “Joshi! You came as The Goddess! You made the air of this house change” (Devi 229). Even the children who were reared on Jashoda’s milk were called the Holy Children. This helped the status of the Haldar children and her own because they were seen as the ones who suckled from the Holy Mother.

Despite all the praises and attention she received, Jashoda is exploited because of the class structure. The women of the Haldar household have the same gender role as Jashoda. The Haldar women give birth to children. Nowhere in the text is it mentioned that they have jobs. The gender role for females in the entire story is that women are mothers. In addition to women becoming mothers, all the women’s bodies in the story are for their husband’s pleasure. Jashoda’s breasts are used for her husband’s pleasure, and the husbands of the Haldar women want their wives to keep their figures. Another similarity is the women in the story are inferior to the men. The second son of the Haldar household thinks of the idea of Jashoda suckling the children. He says to his wife, “I’ve got a divine engine in my hands! You’ll breed yearly and keep your body” (Devi 227). He makes it clear that he thought of the idea and assumes his wife will automatically follow by authoritatively telling her what she has to do. Likewise, Jashoda has continuously been described as a faithful wife to Kangali, and she tells her husband, “You are husband, you are guru” (Devi 228). By referring to him as her guru, she instantly reveals that he is superior. The difference between the Haldar women and Jashoda is that the Haldar women have more privileges than Jashoda because of their higher-class ranking; for example, these women have the choice of not rearing their children. Therefore, the Haldar women use their status and privileges to exploit Jashoda. Jashoda is a poor woman even though she is a Brahmin. She is exploited by the class structure because the Haldar household is using a poor woman, who needs money and food, to breast feed the children so that the Haldar daughter-in-laws do not have to ruin their figures. They take advantage of the fact that she is poor and that God chose motherhood as a profession for Jashoda; therefore, they make it seem like it was not forced onto her by them, but it was predestined by God. Only after they tell her about the job of rearing the children, does the realization of the Lionseated appearing in her dream become apparent.

In addition to the class structure exploiting her, the shift in time leads her to her fate of loneliness. Jashoda was busy in the Haldar house rearing the children, and her husband was only involved in her life when he was impregnating her. Both their gender roles switched because Jashoda became the husband by working and bringing in the food and money, and Kangali became the wife by cooking and taking care of their children at home, which is an abnormal circumstance in an Indian household. When Jashoda comes back to Kangali, after her profession of motherhood ends, they argue about their situation and Jashoda says, “The man brings, the woman cooks and serves. My lot is inside out…Who’s the cunt, you or me? Living off a wife’s carcass, you call that a man” (Devi 232). Kangali tries to defend himself as a man by saying, “Their door opened for you because my legs were cut off” (Devi 232). Jashoda diminishes Kangali’s superiority of being the male in the household, which is uncommon in the Indian culture; therefore, this leads to Kangali abandoning her because Jashoda humiliates his authority. Yet, in the Haldar household, the times were changing. The eldest daughter-in-law tells Jashoda, after the Mistress’s death, “Brahmin sister! The family is breaking up. Second and Third are moving to the house in Beleghata” (Devi 231). In a traditional lifestyle the entire family lives together in one house like when the Mistress was alive. The idea of sons leaving their parents’ house is a more modern lifestyle. Since the sons and their wives are now in charge and they prefer a more modern lifestyle, they do not have the same appreciation for Jashoda as the Mistress had because the eldest daughter-in-law says, “The last child was weaned, still Mother sent you food for eight years. She did what pleased her. Her children said nothing. But it’s no longer possible” (Devi 231). Even though the daughter-in-law offers Jashoda a job as a maid, Jashoda’s new profession does not have the same importance or receive the same amount of respect as her previous profession. Her fate is puzzling because one would think the children she reared would be more sympathetic towards her, especially when Jashoda begins to have symptoms of cancer. Jashoda was practically a mother for these children. The importance of class structure is apparent because the sons and their wives see Jashoda as inferior to them; however, they know she is a Brahmin and are scared of the possibility of a Brahmin dying in their house. Therefore, the horror of a Brahmin death and the fact that Jashoda reared them as children should have lead to a different outcome.

I believe the culture and religion highlighting the importance of Jashoda’s profession, because of the appearance of the Lionseated in her dream, made her profession more acceptable in society. The class structure exploited her because the wealthier family was using a poor woman to their advantage. Her fate, however, is ironic because she was the reincarnation of God on Earth and nobody cared for her after her profession came to an end. The Haldar family and her family forgot about her connection with the Lionseated when they no longer needed her. It is interesting because in the mythological story of Lord Ram, he too was abandoned by some of his family members by being exiled from his kingdom. Both Lord Ram and Jashoda have similar experiences of loneliness, and they both were reincarnations of God.


Works Cited


Mahasweta Devi. “Breast-Giver.” Trans. Gayatri Spivak. In Other Worlds. New York:

Routledge, 1988. 222-240.


skumar's picture

South Asian feminism

In your paper, you write: "...the Indian families... the wives graduated with college degrees...but when they had children many of them quit their jobs and became stay at home mothers."

"Breast Giver" resonated with me, too, due to my identity as an Indian-American. While reading Devi's short story, I thought how--if at all--my identity as a woman changed as a result of the gender binary of the south asian culture. Thus, I am interested to know how your identity has changed given your family background AND given the issues we have been exploring this semester--issues that are, simply put, much too revolutionary, much too liberal for our Indian culture.

Anne Dalke's picture

Unholy reading

you've provided here an analysis of the salience of a particular cultural location--geographic as well as class-based--and you've located yourself in relation to that site. What you've added to the interpretation we explored together in class is an insistence on the significance of class in Devi's short story. (Given this focus, you might well be interested in the exploration, made by another of your classmates, of proletarian feminism.)

What you've omitted, however, is the relation of your interpretation to the one, articulated by Spivak, which we've been pursuing in class over the past week. You read (to mention just one incidence) the final line of Devi's "straight"--i.e. you say that Jashoda "was the reincarnation of God on Earth." But Spivak argued (quite convincingly?) that that final sentence is deeply ambivalent, its value undecidable: it points to the paradox of knowledge, to its limits. The "solemn judgement of the end," she claims, "makes us unsure of the truth frames" throughout; "the text" itself finally "upstages" both writer and reader.

Do you see how this gets confused, and needs untangling? Your analysis gives full credence to the reader--to yourself, authorized to read the story, as an Indian-American reviewing an Indian-authored tale; in choosing to do so, you need to take on explicitly the framing interpretation of the class, which actually refuses you the privilege of such a position.

You also look @ the importance of the passage of time (i.e. Jashoda's arrangements work fine until she ages, and the modern world arrives). That point might also be more fully elaborated: are we (as human beings) "exploited" by time, or is that a more existential dilemma that the Marxist langauge of exploitation doesn't quite touch, isn't able to fully articulate?

ceida's picture

Ommitted Arguments

Maybe adding the more important an aspect of national allegory and the voice of subaltern would've been lit up more owing to the fact you understand the traditional values of superstitions and Gods (or beasts) with a dozen hands.
And the elite dominance of the post colonialistic nationalism and inhumanity drives the savagery forget own mothers should be lit up too.
And the divine feminism which is also a conflicted child not yet a feminist. All the more summarizing.
Well light!!