I have many poems with breasts in them. I sometimes think of these poems as journeys from shame to recognition. All my antagonists are present. The girl at the Madras Gymkhana Club, staring at my chest in the pool saying how lucky I am to be so flat. Crater-faced boy in school calling me ironing board. Dance critic making the shape of an hourglass with his swan-like hands, telling me how much more beautiful I’d be if only I had bigger breasts.
Boo, I want to tell them. I found a lover who is devoted to the coat hanger of my body, who marvels at my swimmer’s shoulders, tosses away my padded bras and holds the coppettas of my breasts as though they were brim-full of the finest Barolo. Through his adoration, I came to adore them too. Found icons for the kind of body I had. Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, hovering over each other like two naked golden planks in Don’t Look Now. Jane Birkin, braless in white singlet, hair tousled. Even in India, where the dominant ideal is heaving Chola apsaras, I managed to find smaller-statured models. Women in Rajasthani and Pahari paintings with bee-stung breasts, squeezing water from their hair to feed a thirsty crane; venturing out into the night with heads covered to meet their lovers, bodies curved like delicate sickles.
The breast in India is one of the most eroticized and policed body parts. From 8,000-year-old Harappan terracotta mothers with their suckling infants to Bollywood starlets cavorting under waterfalls with wet saris, the breast has been central to the idea of sex, maternity, nourishment and power. And as in many countries where mother-worship is practiced, the dichotomy between adoration and abuse is significant. The idea of a neutral breast in India? A breast just casually hanging around, being a functional exocrine gland, enjoying the sun? Impossible.
In January 2021, the Bombay High Court ruled that the groping of a minor’s breast without ‘skin to skin’ contact could not be considered sexual assault under the Protection of Children From Sexual Offences (POSCO) Act. The case in question involved a man called Satish Ragde from Nagpur, who in 2013 enticed a 12-year-old girl into his home on the pretext of giving her a guava and then proceeded to rub her breasts. The judge ruled that because the minor’s top was not removed, because the accused didn’t slide his hand into the child’s garment, because he did not touch the private parts of the child nor make the child touch his private organ, because actual skin was not touched, the crime would fall under section 354 (outraging a woman’s modesty), which carries a minimum sentence of just one year. This ruling has since been stayed by the Supreme Court, but the judge, Justice Pushpa Ganediwala, went on to make another controversial ruling shortly after, acquitting a man of rape, saying that it was unlikely a single man could gag a victim and remove her clothing without a scuffle. Justice Pushpa is a woman.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged to make safety for women an integral part of his government’s agenda. Several schemes have been initiated to improve the lives of rural women: microfinancing, providing free gas cylinders and sanitary pads. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) landmark campaign, ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’ (Save the girl child, educate the girl child), aims to ensure the survival and protection of girls, however, statistics still point to India being the most dangerous country in the world for a woman to live in, and members of the BJP continue to make comments and actions that work decidedly against women’s empowerment.
In Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has launched several programmes to secure the safety of women, cows, rivers – all ‘mother’ figures that feed into the rhetoric of Mother India. Adityanath believes strongly in the matrishakti of women, their divine feminine power. He wrote an entire essay about how their urja (energy) was so strong it needed to be protected, otherwise it would go to waste. He says that the shastras outline the greatness of women, but also stress the importance of protecting women so that they may continue to rear great men. Earlier this year, in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan proposed that every woman stepping out of her house register herself with the local police station so that she can be tracked for safety; a request many women found patronising, suggesting that it might be more useful for men with a history of criminal behaviour to register themselves instead. Although he did not belong to the BJP, one former member of the legislative assembly, Kodela Siva Prasad, gave a speech about women’s empowerment suggesting that women wouldn’t get raped if they were parked at home like cars, saying, ‘When it is parked in the garage at home, accidents can be avoided, right?’
This ‘protection’ rationale has long been a way for men to assert control over women’s bodies and their sexuality. In our narratives, women’s bodies are symbols, receptacles of honour for family, caste, religion and nation. With all this protection you’d imagine women’s bodies would be sacrosanct and inviolable. In fact, their bodies are war zones. They show up with tongues slit, earlobes ripped, breasts disfigured, bruised in every imaginable way, as if to ensure that the dead will not hear, will not see, will not remember, and most importantly, will not speak.
The irony is that it is in the very spheres of supposed safety – the house and the police station – where so many crimes against women continue to occur: it is the agents of protection that are the perpetrators. Domestic violence affects more than a third of women in India, although this is a conservative estimate as one report suggests 86 per cent of women who experience violence at home never report it. Fathers and brothers kill for ‘honour’. Government forms in India still require women to identify themselves as daughter of / wife of – so despite our unrivalled urja, a woman’s identity is still chained to a man’s. Our members of parliament, people who are meant to be passing laws to ensure women’s safety, have dizzying charge sheets against them. According to a recent report, nearly half the newly elected members of the Legislative Assembly have criminal charges against them. The BJP has the most number of MPs and MLAs with cases of crimes against women. Thirty per cent of them face charges related to rape, murder and kidnapping.
Cases of police and judicial custodial torture are on the rise, often targeting Dalits, Muslims and women. Recently, 24-year-old Dalit labour rights activist, Nodeep Kaur, who was arrested during the farmer’s protests and jailed for over a month on dubious charges of murder and torture, revealed in an interview with Outlook that she’d been assaulted while in police custody. She was slapped, sat on, beaten with sticks on her private parts, hit with shoes, suffering multiple injuries. ‘While torturing me, the police kept saying that I am a Dalit and I should behave like one. “Your job is to clean the gutters. Who gave you the right to organize protests against big people?”’
India is one of only five countries that has not ratified the UN convention against torture. It has draconian laws like the Unlawful Activities Protection Act (UAPA), which has been used to arrest and jail poets, journalists and activists for ‘seditious’ activities. Meanwhile, agents of protection have iron-clad laws that safeguard them. The most pernicious of these is the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). In regions of long-standing conflict like Kashmir and the north-east, where there is a heavy army presence, AFSPA gives the Indian army and paramilitary forces immunity to shoot, kill, arrest and search on the slightest suspicion.
Those who are most vulnerable are Dalit and Adivasi women, who have little recourse to justice, power and education. In the mineral-rich jungles of West Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha, where a decades-long war has been fought between Maoist rebels and security forces over land rights, Adivasi women have been routinely raped and traumatised, large numbers of them have been rounded up by security forces and arrested, some of their corpses sent home to their families with hands and breasts cut off. In a report for The Caravan, Aritra Bhattacharya writes how village men are also frequently beaten and humiliated by security forces, but it’s the women who are called out of their homes, touched and squeezed: ‘Some have had jawans forcefully suckle at their breasts.’
Mythologically and historically there has been much mutilation of breasts – it’s hardly new. In the Ramayana, the demoness Surpanakha has her nose, ears and tongue cut off by the valiant Prince Lakshman. In one version of the story, he cuts off her breasts for good measure. Lord Vishnu, as a baby, kills the demoness Putana by sucking the life out of her breasts. Some of the most powerful temples in India are the shakti peeths – fifty-one places where the dismembered body parts of the goddess Shakti fell to earth making sacred sites from her heart, navel, tongue, hand, yoni, eye, breast, tooth. How did she get to this chopped-up state? Oh, the usual. A competition between father and husband. Remember those government forms – daughter of / wife of ?
The great dismemberment in our history, the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan, where over 2 million people died and 25 million more were displaced, was marked with extreme communal violence, much of it directed towards the bodies of women. Books like Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence and Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice Candy Man, confirm how thousands of women and girls were raped, mutilated, forcibly impregnated or starved. Trains crossed the new border with sacks of severed breasts and corpses. In the many camps alongside the tracks, people testified to seeing the bodies of women disfigured by tooth-marks or tattooed with religious symbols and political slogans like Jai Hind or Pakistan Zindabad. For the tormentor to imprint the body in such a way is considered a mark of manhood, a trophy, much the same way rape videos are circulated today. This territorial violence repeats itself whenever there is communal or caste conflict in India, like the Gujarat riots of 2002, where Muslim girls and women were raped by Hindu mobs, in some instances, their breasts were cut, stomachs slit, foetuses torn out, bodies burned.
If the breast has been a site of violation, it has also been a site of resistance. In the nineteenth century, a woman called Nangeli in Kerala sliced off her breasts and offered them to the tax collectors on a plaintain leaf as protest against having to pay the breast tax. Privileged high-caste women in Kerala at the time were part of a matrilineal system where women could own property and were polyandrous. Nangeli however, was part of the labouring class, forced to pay a variety of taxes on body and profession (fishing tax, head tax, moustache tax, etc.) The historian Manu S. Pillai explains that at the time, men and women in Kerala were used to baring their upper bodies. Nangeli didn’t cut off her breasts to preserve her modesty. Her action was not one of shame, but against caste and poverty.
In literature too, there have been heroines of the breast. The fifth century Tamil lyric narrative, Silappadikaram, the tale of the anklet, is a poem whose female protagonist Kannagi destroys a king by tearing off her breast and flinging it on the city of Madurai as a curse because her lover (who was unfaithful, but that’s another story), was wrongly accused and killed. Kannagi’s potent breast burns the city to the ground, and in Tamil culture she is still celebrated in statues and shrines, held up as a model of wifely righteousness.
A fiercer model comes to us in the form of Bengali writer, Mahasweta Devi. Her collection, Breast Stories, translated and introduced by Gayatri Spivak, focuses on the breast and all its contradictions: life-giving, desirable, violated, cancered, endangered, defiant, destroyed. In her story ‘Draupadi’ published in 1978, a tribal revolutionary, Dopdi Mejhen, is captured by the police after a long chase. The high-caste Bengali police inspector, Senanayak, instructs his men to ‘make her’, before going home to eat dinner. The gang rape of Dopdi is bookended between the civility of meals. After breakfast the next morning, the orders are to bring her to the burra sahib. Dopdi refuses to clean herself up. Instead, she strides out naked into the sunlight, ‘pubic hair matted with dry blood. Two breasts, two wounds.’ The inspector cannot understand. He is terrified. Dopdi hocks a gob of spit on his shirt and says, ‘You can strip me, but how can you clothe me again? Are you a man? . . . What more can you do? Come on, kounter me – come on, kounter me – ?’ ‘Kounter’ is code for encounter, namely fatal police violence.
One of the most powerful protests against these police ‘kounters’ took place in 2004, when a group of Manipuri women stripped naked outside the Assam Rifle Army Head Quarters in Imphal with a sign across their chests that read: INDIAN ARMY RAPE US. The night before, a young woman, Thangjam Manorama Devi, had been picked up by members of the Assam Rifles paramilitary forces from her house on the pretext of being a militant. Hours later, she was found dead on the road. She had been raped and there were multiple bullet wounds on her breasts and genitals. The Mothers of Manipur had for years been protesting to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. It was no longer enough to hold candlelight vigils. They wanted to used their bodies as weapons, much in the way that women of the Niger Delta mobilized against ChevronTexaco in the early 2000s by stripping naked, demanding restitution of their lands and livelihoods, a mode of protest that continues with groups like FEMEN and Pussy Riot. By inviting the gaze onto the body, there is a magical reversal of shame and power. The Mothers of Manipur, many of them over sixty years old, knew this as they stood naked, chanting: ‘Rape us, kill us! Rape us, Kill us. We are all Manorama’s mothers. Come, rape us, you bastards.’
In December 2012, after Jyoti Singh was brutally raped on a bus in Delhi, the international spotlight was turned to gender violence in India. Laws around sexual assault were tightened, cases were fast-tracked, and rape became part of mainstream conversation. I wrote a poem ‘Girls are Coming Out of the Woods’, imagining all the mutilated girls and women coming out of the forests, crawling out of attics and river beds, clearing a ground to scatter their stories, making so much noise the world would have to listen. The poem was written as a battle cry, clarion. An act of reclamation for our past, present, future. A way of shifting horror back to the perpetrators in the way those naked protestors shifted the gaze back onto those who mete out the broken spine, broken tongue, broken body.
Seven years later, a 26-year-old veterinarian, Priyanka Reddy was gang-raped and murdered on the side of a highway, her body then set alight with kerosene. The Twittersphere erupted with rage and finality: ‘NO WOMAN WANTS TO BE INDIA’S FUCKING DAUGHTER’ wrote Saloni Chopra.
Eighty-eight women are raped in India every day. And these are the ones who report it. The system is broken. The system repeats itself.
The great Indian polyglot, poet and translator, AK Ramanujan, in an essay, ‘Two Realms of Kannada Folklore’, distinguishes between the two kinds of mother figures in the Hindu imagination – Sanskritic goddesses versus village Mother goddesses. Breast Mothers versus Tooth Mothers. While noting that none of these goddesses are actually mothers – all their children are thanks to ‘extrauterine miracles’, they represent a gamut of feminine benevolence and terror.
The breast mothers, he writes, are related to auspicious life cycle rituals. They are subordinate to their male consorts, chaste, benevolent-unless-offended, vegetarian, Brahman, with well-sculpted faces, worshipped as household deities and in temples within villages. The Tooth mothers are crisis deities, invoked when life-cycles are disrupted, during epidemics or famines. They are rough-hewn, of the earth, lustful, angry, brought into the village only on special occasions. Insubordinate to any male counterpart, they demand blood sacrifices and are non-Brahman. To leave you alone is part of their grace, and dread is an intimate part of the devotion.
Ramanujan invokes the idea of vagina dentata in folklore, reminding us that in puranic mythology the energy of every god is feminine, which is why psychoanalytically the male is terrified of the ‘fierce castrating omnivorous female….the ambivalence of the Goddess is seen as the ambivalence of mothers. They are both loving and terrible.’
A recent UN report revealed that India accounts for 45.8 million of the world’s 142.6 million ‘missing females’ over the past fifty years. These statistics are solely for female foeticide and infanticide, but there are many ways to disappear a woman. In 2019 there was a news report that 21 million Indian women had been denied the right to vote because their names weren’t registered on voting lists. Add to this rape. Add to this bride burning. Add to this domestic violence, trafficking, acid attacks.
The warnings are clear: If you are a woman in India, no matter what size your breasts, you better make sure they have teeth.
Artwork: Asavari Ragini, Murshidabad, circa 1780, courtesy William and Olivia Dalrymple Collection