In a previous post I mentioned that my internship is at a youth detention center. The youth started voicing that they wanted to learn about “my culture” and I figured they didn’t want to learn about England so I took it straight back to the motherland. I spent time telling them about India and joked with the other staff in the room that I should show them a Bollywood movie. Well, I ended up realizing that at least some of them were actually interested, so I took in… Bunty aur Babli. Hey, it’s about con artists.
To get to the point of this post, I want to talk about a specific scene in the movie (spoiler alert). When Bunty, Babli and their baby are sitting in the train being grilled by Dashrath Singh, the police officer, Babli mentions that her baby is hungry. Dashrath and Bunty are talking (ie. Bunty getting lectured by the police officer) and smoking outside. They then hear Babli say from inside the carriage, “you can come in now.” I was confused and it wasn’t until I watched it a second time with the second group of kids that I understood. I was wondering how Babli had the power to tell a police officer when he could come and go! Then I realized that “hungry” meant “hungry for milk” and they went outside so she could breastfeed. For some reason, when she said the baby was hungry, I expected the baby to starve because there was no baby formula.
In the U.S., I know many straight and queer (cis)women that gave birth to babies and then breastfed proudly. For some reason I always separated this group of breastfeeding women in the U.S. from ALL of the women in India I know that breastfeed. Every woman I can think of in my family has breastfed their babies, so needing to do it “proudly” isn’t really on the agenda. Another trend I have noticed amongst women who breastfeed in the U.S. is the demand to breastfeed in public. In India, from my observations, women don’t want to breastfeed in public places. Even within the household, men go into a different room.
Whenever breastfeeding has come up in conversation with feminists, hippies, and neo-religious people I have backed out, worried that my opinion will be deemed incorrect and unfeminist. I think breastfeeding is much more complex than western women wanting a bond with their baby and feeding their baby healthier milk.
To begin with, women’s breasts have often become a very personal part of the body. To assume that a “good mother” should feel comfortable putting that part of their body out there is insensitive. What I liked, when I saw Bunty aur Babli is it reminded me of India where men leave spaces when they want women to and know women will feel safe. Not to assume that India is a safe haven, but after growing up in countries (England and the U.S.) where I have been forced to share spaces with men more than I felt necessary, when I think of childbirth or breastfeeding I feel uncomfortable. I feel uncomfortable because I assume that the experience will not be private enough. I think of my certain body parts, the thought of being in public, and I think of feeling violated. I feel violated physically and in terms of my privacy and space. Having privacy and choice is important, otherwise healing can come between a baby and its mother.
What also bothers me about the assumption that “good mothers” breastfeed is the assumption that all mothers have the ability to. Being able to breastfeed usually entails that one gave birth to the child. As a queer desi, I think about queer desis that can’t or don’t want to give birth because of their sexual or gender identity. This is something that I’m not sure was covered in Bunty aur Babli (!) but for one perspective you can read a beautiful fiction piece by Tejas Pande on Gaysi, called The Learning Curve.