“His mother’s breasts had become a serious problem for him.”
This is how Perumal Murugan opens his stirring short story, “The Blouse” , describing the fundamental problem faced by one of his protagonists. A grown man is ashamed of his “amma’s breasts” and his mother’s “dugs”, because all her life, she has chosen to not cover her breasts. His prospective in-laws are coming to visit, and this ‘blouseless’ problem has blown up in his village.
Translated from Tamil by N. Kalyan Raman, the story presents itself as a mirror to a society obsessed with a woman’s breasts. A society that thinks it has a fundamental right over how a woman chooses to clothe (or not clothe) herself, and more importantly, cover herself. So much so that one woman’s breasts become an entire village’s concern.
Think about it – we are used to seeing (and feeling) breasts for two key purposes: pleasure and nurturing. And even then, when breasts are shown in a way that makes us uncomfortable, we’re quick to label it as shameful or indecent. Case in point: Malayalam magazine Grihalakshmi is currently facing a legal case for featuring a breastfeeding model on its cover. It has been alleged that the picture is “lascivious in nature, appealing to prurient interests and tends to degrade the dignity of womanhood”.
The disgust- and shock-filled reactions to this cover prove how it shakes the very foundation of what we understand and define as ‘motherly’ and ‘pure’. Ergo, the uncovered breast and the model staring confidently into the camera is “lascivious”. But would it have been labelled so if the cover showed a woman looking away, feeding a baby with her breast covered? Maybe not.
The reactions to the cover also manifest in real-life situations. “Breastfeeding is a natural act, but there is so much stigma attached to it that the mother is automatically put on a guilt trip. ‘How can you flash it in public?’” writes Pooja Kochar on Youth Ki Awaaz, a millennial parent, who says she does not have “the confidence to fight the stares” if she decides to breastfeed in open.
Similar stares meet the ‘bigdi hui ladkis’ (spoilt young women) with exposed cleavages or exposed bra straps. Thousands of women are and have been members of the ‘your bra strap if showing’ club. All it takes are the familiar stares in metros and local trains, and in crowded streets – and we’re rightfully put in our place.
A woman’s breasts in India carry the weight of having to be sensual, to be nurturers, to be ‘decent’, and well, to be covered, all at once. There is no space for a woman’s breasts to just… exist. Books and cinema too have made this burden heavier, with analogies and metaphors that depict breasts in a certain way — as mangoes (succulent/suckable) heaving tight blouses underneath; as ‘hills and mountains’ to be ‘conquered’; as small fruits and big fruits; as ‘luscious’ and ‘ripe’ and ‘tender’ – all words and feelings that depict a sense of consumption, pleasure, and satisfaction. For far too long, the breast has been so sexualised that a depiction of the same as just an organ is something beyond imagination for most of us today.
“The Blouse”, Murugan’s short story, delivers a perfect example of this patriarchal discomfort by depicting a woman just going about her daily life and chores with her breasts uncovered. It’s a provocative 12- to 15-minute read that’s perfect for the society that’s grown up around the male gaze, wondering “Choli ke peeche kya hai? (What’s underneath the blouse?)”
PS: It would be interesting to know how you’ve read about women’s bodies and breasts in books and magazines. I am crowdsourcing excerpts. Email me your picks at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Tweet to me @lipi_meh. I’ll be sure to circle back with the complete list.