SHOMA A.CHATTERJI | 17 AUGUST, 2017
In Cinema And Life: The Woman As a Wet Nurse
Not many Indian storytellers and filmmakers have ventured into the fragile area of breast-feeding by a surrogate, commonly known as wet-nursing. One of the first legendary stories along these lines is inherent in our own mythology where Krishna was delivered of Devaki but was brought up by Yashoda. Dhatri Panna, who wet-nursed Rana Uday Singh, spins another such story.
In one of her stories, Breast-Giver, Mahasweta Devi talks about Gangor, a woman who becomes a professional wet-nurse to support her family, dies of painful breast cancer, betrayed alike by the breasts that for years had been her chief identity, and the dozens of 'sons' she suckled. Another close comparison can be found in the classic film Parasuramer Kuthar directed by the late Nabyendu Chatterjee based on a story by Subodh Ghosh. Lokhhi’s fate is more tragic than Gangor’s because while Gangor is destined to die of breast cancer – a medical disaster she can do nothing about, Lokhhi is forced to give away the same body to the one she suckled as a child. She is not a medical victim like Gangor. She is a victim of the same society she has once served in her precious capacity of wet-nurse for ‘dry’ women.
Lokkhi’s name is a misnomer. She is named after the Goddess of Wealth in the Hindu pantheon. But she has no worldly affluence she can speak of and is so poor that her only means of survival is through her body and its natural juices. In a manner perhaps, within this tragic reality lies the truth of her name – she may not be wealthy in the material sense. But she is wealthy in the sense of her biological ability to generate milk for children conceived, borne and delivered by other women. She is wealthy in her richness as a human being. She is wealthy in her dignified exit from a society that no longer needs her – she departs quietly. But she is wealthiest in her revenge. The body she once used to ‘mother’ and suckle children she never bore, is now turned into an ‘invisible’ weapon of revenge that can neither be ‘seen’, nor ‘heard’, nor ‘touched’ and therefore, invincible in its power and in its force. Her anger is not directed at the boy she once suckled. It is directed collectively rather, at the social structure that created this boy and created the situation where he comes to seek the loss of his virginity at the door of the woman who once suckled him at her breast. This blurs the clear lines of division between the mother and the whore – something classicists would still balk at but something Chatterjee decided to immortalize on film.
Parasuramer Kuthar is layered with different meanings that lend to its interpretation in Marxist terms, in feministic terms and also, in terms of pure human and humane values so significant in the light of the moral decay that has set into our lives and in our inter-personal relationships today.
Parasurame-r Kuthar (The Axe of Parasuram) is borrowed from the mythical tale of Parasuram and his axe – considered to be a ‘male’ weapon. Parasuram, as the mythological story goes, was the son of sage Jamadagni and his consort, Renuka. Renuka was so pure a woman that she could carry water in a freshly moulded earthen pot. She moulded a pot everyday on the banks of a river where she went to fetch water. On one of her trips to the river, she saw a Gandharva couple bathing in the river. The reflection of the male partner in the water bewitched her. She was struck by his handsomeness though she saw just the reflection. But as a result, the pot broke and Jamadagni construed this as a sign of her having ‘sinned’ by coveting a man who was not her husband. He was so angry that he at once ordered his 12-year-old son Parasuram to behead his own mother. Parasuram did as told.
Happy with his son’s blind loyalty to him, Jamadagni asked Parasuram to pray for a boon. The clever son at once asked his father to bring his mother back to life. The sage saw a matangi (low-caste) woman passing by. He beheaded this woman and attached her head to Renuka’s body. Renuka was resurrected but she no longer regained her original form. Her head belonged to a low-caste woman while her body was that of a high-caste woman. When Renuka was thus resurrected, her husband blessed her saying that unmarried girls who would worship her as a goddess, would be dedicated to her for the rest of their lives, by ‘marrying’ her for the physical fulfillment of her son Parasuram, through her. This created the tragic generation of devadasis in Maharashtra, in Karnataka, in Orissa and in other parts of India. The word devadasi is derived from two words, deva, meaning God, implying Parasuram, and dasi, meaning ‘slave woman.’
Parasurame-r Kuthar uses the incestuous suggestions implicit in the mythological story and carries it forward to complete an argument. It is the argument of the versatile manifestations of power inherent in a woman who can manipulate her own body for varied uses, sometimes, for the same man. This is something a man cannot equal on any terms. Lokkhi while she functions as wet-nurse as a young woman, also supports her crippled husband financially.
This offers the film a Marxist reading where Lokkhi creates labour, sustains labour and supports unproductive human labour represented by her crippled husband who is economically non-productive. She sustains ‘labour’ for the future by breast-feeding infants their own mothers will not or cannot suckle. She does this for a price, which she uses to feed and clothe herself and her husband with. Yet, she breaks every rule in the book that defines the femme fatale.
She is a dark, plain-looking, unkempt and unlettered woman who is meek, submissive and timid by virtue of her poverty and her handicapped social status. Her persona is completely bereft of feminine wiles. Chatterjee, by designed intent, makes no attempt to use his narrative or the character of Lokkhi to titillate his audience. Yet, in the final analysis, Lokkhi turns out to be the strongest character in the film, emasculating the men with her political strategy of revenge.
There is nothing archetypal or worship-worthy in the character and cinematic image of Lokkhi in Parasurame-r Kuthar. She is not iconised in close-ups or frontal images by the camera to invest her with a ‘divine’ look that sends out even remote resonances of the Mother Goddess in all her glory. Lokhhi is grounded, vulnerable in her abject poverty to be forced to sell the use of her body to the same infant she breast-fed when he was a baby. Lokkhi does not lend herself to any reading pertaining to “the cultural semiotics of the Mother-images. These images have often been described as the ‘Great Mother’ archetypes, visually recalling the Mother-goddess iconography of Bengali culture.
As a working woman, Lokhhi does not have the strength to fight back but uses her body to surrender to the demands of a patriarchal system where women from upper strata of society are subject to the same patriarchy that conditions them to maintain their physical forms in positions of sexual attraction for the males that Lokkhi is albeit in a different way. They refrained from breast-feeding their babies so that their figures (breasts?) are not disfigured by the breast-feeding that might make their husbands seek pleasure from other women. These women are mothers too. But they subsume their motherhood under the physicality of their wifehood. So deep and intense is the psycho-social conditioning that this does not disturb them in any way. But in this very vulnerability and weakness of Lokkhi lies her innate strength to reverse the roles she has been made to perform – from the breast-feeding surrogate wet-mother, she becomes a whore the uniqueness lying in that her customer is the same – the infant who sucked her milk is now her customer.
Sreelekha Mukherjee gives one of the most subtle and low-key performances ever, of a marginal Indian woman that fetched her the National Award! Lokhhi, in this sense is both Parasuram’s mother as well as his renowned ‘axe.’ She bears Parasuram within her, and also entertains him with the ‘axe’ her body turns to when he arrives at her door as ‘customer.’ Was this the interpretation the mythological story offered? Or, placed against a contemporary setting and ambience, is it the anticipation of the mythical tale? One does not know and one does not care because, in case of Lokkhi, the lines of difference between ‘interpretation’ and ‘anticipation’ are rather blurred.