Tag Archives: motherhood

The Venus Flytrap: Breastfeeding – In Public, In India

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We had just ordered lunch at the 5-star hotel when Shamala Hinrichsen’s 8-month old got hungry too, so his lovely mom reached right into her dress and started to feed him. Our conversation continued as she rocked him gently. That was the first time I’d seen a woman breastfeed publicly in Chennai, without hiding her body. A foreigner of Tamil origin who’s been travelling extensively around India on work, she says, “I’ve seen women in rural areas do it with unapologetic authority. It’s a perfectly natural act.”

The Indian railways announced recently that 100 of their stations will have segregated nursing areas. In a letter to the Ministry of Women and Child Development, these areas were specified as “[a corner] provided with a small table and a chair with appropriate partition/screen around it.” But is that enough? Dentist Dr. Deepa V., whose child was recently weaned, never nursed openly owing to shyness. She says, “In public facilities, people still turn to the wall to hide themselves. I remember the looks my relatives gave me whenever I lifted my salwar to feed while travelling with them. I think this discomfort is the main reason why we train babies to accept formula milk earlier.”

Another mother, now nursing her 7.5 month old, related how she sat at an eatery in a Chennai mall and started to nurse, unable to do so in the stuffy public toilets. Immediately, the staff directed all the male customers to sit away from her. She was appreciative of the concern for privacy and comfort. “I think the horror stories we read about breastfeeding moms being fined, shamed or trolled are really a US problem,” she says. “There’s a solid sisterhood solidarity everywhere for the nursing mom. No judgement if I’m in a salwar kameez or saree or tank top or shorts and I want to feed the baby – that’s it, the sisterhood comes into force.”

Theatre director Samyuktha PC returned to work 3 months after childbirth, bringing her daughter to rehearsals, and openly nursed when required. “At first, I did cover myself, but the cloth over me just made Yazhini and I sweat so badly. And it felt cruel to do that.” From then on, she simply asked if others were comfortable, and carried on – anywhere. “But outside of home and work, bad experiences happened quite often – men staring, women thinking it was their right to drape me. But I was also supported and told I was courageous. I would rather it be normalised.”

While it comes down to personal preference, there’s no doubt that these preferences can be inhibited by societal norms. Which is why Shamala’s unapologetic public nursing seemed especially triumphant to me. In Mumbai recently, when she began to breastfeed on the ground floor of a café, men on the balcony level took their phones out and started to photograph her. She kept feeding. “Would I be gawked at or judged if I were feeding someone with a spoon? I think not. Possibly because it is from an appendage. My breasts. I would like to think people would be as judgemental if I were feeding from, say, my nose.”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 13th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

TOI iDiva: Supermomhood

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Sometimes institutions get torn down only to be replaced by ones that look a little better, but work just like the old thing. This is why, theoretically and superficially, it’s very easy to say that the average Indian woman of the urban middle class is emancipated. She probably works, and certainly has tertiary education. But the bondage continues: she is expected to bear children, that too specifically in the context of wedlock. Worse, she is expected to want to.

The idea of motherhood is replete with myths. “Mothers are inherently compassionate”. “Mother knows best”. “Womanhood is unfulfilled until one becomes a mother”. In Tamil, there is this frankly shocking proverb: “No chick ever dies from a hen stepping on it”. Oedipus would be put to shame by the extent to which we elevate the mother figure. Like all deeply chauvinistic disguises, it reduces through its elevations, stripping the individual of personal traits, making choices for her and blindly forgiving her personal failings. Children suffer for this, as do their makers.

If we are truly to support or celebrate mothers, it is not in glorifying them but in humanizing them that we can best do this. The Supermom idea is dangerous and must be retired: it is a human body that nourishes a child and gives it life, it is a human heart that loves it. All Supermomhood means, in actual terms, is that women must not only work outside the home, bringing back a salary that subsidizes its management, but must also maintain their traditional responsibilities. The question to ask is: if women have adapted to the pressures of earning wages, have their partners also adapted to the pressures of running a household?

Who makes the meals? Who makes the beds? Who does the laundry? Who monitors the homework? Who does the grocery shopping? Who cleans the dishes? If a child falls ill, who takes the day off from work? How many of these questions were answered with “the mother”?

Some will cheerfully dismiss this maintaining of two parallel careers (only one of which is paid for) as evidence of incredible fortitude. Or more condescendingly yet, that “it’s all for the children”.

Maybe it is. In some cases, surely it is. But not enough to justify such an unequal distribution of responsibility.

Until fatherhood is understood to be co-parenting – and not just a contribution by way of sperm, legitimacy, school fees, a certain kind of love (but not as hallowed as maternal love) and the occasional humiliating consent letter because society does not trust the single woman – the lot of the mother will not change. She will remain both sacred cow and beast of burden.

And for the lot of the mother to change, so must the lot of the woman. Imagine how different things might be if motherhood was not a default expectation, but a conscientious and deliberate decision. Not everyone is cut out for caregiving. Not everyone would, if truly left to their own choices, desire it. Social acceptance of the choice not to have offspring, irrespective of whether or not one is in a relationship (and irrespective of whether or not that relationship is marriage), might be the first step in minimizing family dysfunction. Unhappy people raise unhappy people. And children, who do not choose the roles they are born into, deserve better than that.

An edited version appeared in iDiva (Chennai), The Times of India on Friday.

Book Review: Rebirth by Jahnavi Barua

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There are books that blow one’s mind open. There are books that leave one shaken, altered, destabilized. Those books are easy to talk about, their effects easy to describe in superlatives. And then there are books that wander in without bells on, as quiet as the comfort that fills the heart while watching the day’s first or last light from one’s own window, alone but for the succor of a cup of tea. Perhaps that is the analogy that comes closest to expressing the peace that Jahnavi Barua’s Rebirth brings. This profoundly intimate novel is one of the most beautiful books seen in Indian fiction in many years.

We are held for a time and then we are released imprinted, as though from within a womb – a testament to Barua’s impeccably crafted narrative voice, for this is exactly what the novel is about. Kaberi is a homemaker in Bangalore, pregnant with a longed-for baby about whom no one – not her estranged husband, not her parents in Guwahati, not her few friends in her adopted city, not her domestic help – knows, except for her gynecologist. Her second trimester has begun, and before long she will not be able to conceal her expectant state. Rebirth is her monologue to that child who begins as a secret and an uncertainty, then turns into the pivot on which she will renew her life itself.

Of all the psychic locales that writers over millennia have explored, there are none as complex as a woman’s interior landscape, a landscape so fascinating that long before feminism put pens into women’s own hands, male bards sought to emulate their voices. There is no dearth of the first-person female voice in the genre of the contemporary novel today, but Barua’s contains an unusual timelessness – it has a curious but highly successful lack of urbanity and modern neuroses, thus delivering the sense that, as with some of Kamala Markandaya’s work, it could be set anywhere within a span of decades. This is one of the book’s strengths: chiseling Kaberi’s experience down to her most private sphere, influenced solely by her own emotionality.

What emerges is delicate: we are not subjected, for example, to melodramatic outrage about her husband’s infidelity, or unmitigated grief about the deaths of loved ones, or even self-consciousness about Kaberi’s own promising work as a writer. It is only much later into the novel, when the pregnancy is no longer a secret and a salvaging of the marriage is being negotiated, that Kaberi begins to regard the unborn baby as an entity to whom stories must be told, and a sort of rhetorical distance emerges. Until that point, the baby is but an extension of her psyche, and her single source of solace. Over the course of her pregnancy, she acquires the strength to support both her child and the needs of her own evolution. Barua traces this journey with a fine sense of nuance.

Rebirth is a deeply compassionate novel, consoling the reader the way Kaberi’s baby consoles her for many months – gently, with tenderness, and with neither demand nor plea. The tranquility it offers lingers similarly: this is not a novel in which characters haunt, petitioning us to find absolution for their unexplained futures and unanswered questions. Instead, one is content to leave them where they leave us, carrying forward the perfection of the brief time we have spent with them. With extraordinary intimacy and understanding, Barua has found a way to echo gestation itself: holding the reader safely, but just long enough so that they reenter the world calmed, soothed, deeply moved.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Hindu Literary Review.