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Psychological Displacement of Identity

What does it mean to be displaced? The word literally means moving something from its place or position. Displacement can be physical, however, it may also be psychological. The short story ‘Breast Giver’ by Mahasweta Devi, published in 1997, displays the psychological impact of the displacement of personal identity.

“She stopped eating.”

“You didn’t take her to a doctor?”


“Didn’t he tell you?”


“What did he say?”

“That it might be cancer. Asked us to take her to hospital. She didn’t agree.”

“Why wouldn't she? She’d die!”

The short story Breast Giver by Mahasweta Devi, originally written in Bengali and translated into English by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, explores the displacement of identity from a feminist perspective. The story follows Jashoda, who acts as the ‘mother of her village,’ breastfeeding newborns of several women and rearing several children of her own. Throughout her life, Jashoda’s identity revolves around her breasts. As her main purpose was to nourish upper-caste children in the village, that became a part of Jashoda’s identity that was placed upon her by others and was inseparable from her own identity. Ironically, Jashoda develops cancer in her breasts, which forcefully displaces her identity as her identity is linked to her job in the village, which is breastfeeding. The short story shows how this displacement causes significant psychological trauma, using metaphorical imagery, comparison, and situational irony. Jashoda’s feelings of betrayal towards her breasts, her lack of self-care, and her denial towards her illness explained through the stages of grief are some of the psychological impacts of losing one’s identity. Furthermore, the story depicts how when societal structures dictate identity, the psychological ramifications include the fear of losing one’s social standing. Breast Giver hence exhibits the psychological impact of the displacement of identity.

In the short story, Jashoda develops breast cancer and thus loses her main role in her society. As a woman of a lower class in the village, she garners respect and maintains her position in the village by acting as a ‘professional mother’ and breastfeeding upper-class children. This identity is what allows her to fight against traditonal class structures, however, due to the cancer she loses this identity. The psychological repercussions following this, of blaming and punishing oneself, are presented in the story. Subsequently, Jashoda’s feelings of betrayal towards her breasts are explored by the author using comparison, and subversion of traditional beliefs. As detailed in the story, Jashoda had always kept her breasts pristine and treated them with the utmost respect. Upper-caste children suckled on them for nourishment, thus Jashoda was required to keep her breasts unsoiled. This included a routine of washing herself with soap rigorously, however, due to her cancer, this action caused Jashoda pain. Implicitly, Jashoda may be punishing herself and causing herself pain due to her anger towards herself. As the story mentions, she had been taking care of her breasts for years, thus she was appalled that they would betray her in this manner. To some extent, she blames herself for her illness and may feel that she deserves the pain. In the story, the rancid smell of the sores on her breasts is compared to the smell of rotting animals in the garbage. This comparison, firstly, shows the economic context of the story, as it is placed in a poverty-ridden locality where sanitation could be uncommon. The poor economic state could also explain many of Jashoda’s problems, such as a lack of awareness about breast cancer and fewer medical and psychological resources. Secondly, the comparison also subverts the traditional depiction of breasts are desirable, alluring, and seductive. Breasts are considered providers of nourishment for children and objects of attraction for suitors, however, the description of Jashoda’s breasts as ‘rotting’ creates a feeling of disgust and discomfort. This subversion both questions the role of women in society as objects of desire, and shows Jashoda’s internalised feelings of repugnance and anger at her own body for betraying her. Consequently, she hurts herself as a form of punishment, which shows the distressing psychological impact of the decaying of her breasts over time due to cancer.

The act of self-punishment is further reiterated in the extract through Jashoda’s lack of self-care. This disregard for her own needs – personal and medical – also show the extent of the psychological impact of displacement of identity. The short story describes Jashoda’s immense pain, as she felt like she had a ‘fire in her body and in her head.’ Both her physical pain and mental pain are thus shown, as she physically battled cancer but mentally also could not accept her predicament. Before Jashoda lost consciousness due to fever in the passage, she was forced to lie down, as her body ‘could not bear the weight of her breast standing up.’ Upon cursory reading, this may signify the literal weight of her breasts being too much in her weakened condition, thus she would have felt the need to lie down. However, on close inspection, the metaphorical weight on her chest of losing a key part of her identity could also be weakening her further. Throughout the story, Jashoda continually refuses to acknowledge her illness, which is why she was weakened to the point that she could no longer stand up. Her name, Jashoda, could be an allusion to Yashoda, the foster mother of Krishna in Hindu mythology, to show the idealization of motherhood and explain why Jashoda could not accept herself as weak. Due to her lack of self-care, Jashoda refused to be admitted to a hospital or treated for cancer. Multiple exclamatory sentences are used by the doctor to express his shock at Jashoda not being admitted to a hospital despite such a late stage of cancer. This further reinforces the absurdity and irrationality of Jashoda not being admitted to a hospital. Notwithstanding her pain, Jashoda could not accept the displacement of her identity, leading to an absolute disregard for her mental and physical health, and a lack of self-care.

The writer further showcases Jashoda’s grief as a psychological response to the loss of her identity by developing cancer in her breasts. Although grief is primarily emotional, it also has physical, cultural, and psychological manifestations. The various stages of grief, including denial and anger, are explored from Jashoda’s lens. The extract mentions how Jashoda ‘forever’ washed her breasts with soap, and despite her pain, she ‘still’ washed herself. The words ‘forever’ and ‘still’ indicate denial on Jashoda’s part, as she refuses to accept her condition and yearns to carry on the way she always has. A lexical field of the passage of time is also created as a result of this diction, which presents the theme of how time ceases to exist and make sense when experiencing grief and hardships. The first stage of grief, denial, manifests in Jashoda, as a result of which she refuses to seek help or visit a doctor. However, anger as the second stage of grief is what we can infer in Jashoda’s case. Due to her frustration, she blames herself in anger and causes herself pain, as explored previously. However, her anger could also be subjected towards society. As a lower-caste woman living in a small village, Jashoda was forced to make her identity by sacrificing parts of herself. By breastfeeding the sons of upper-caste people in the village, she was able to gain an identity and have some sort of security in her uncertain setting. As a breast ‘giver’, Jashoda acts as a professional mother, providing other people with her maternal gifts. As a woman, her identity is reduced to having breasts as that is her only asset, thus in ‘Breast Giver’, she is exploited due to the class structure. One of the facets of displacement is exploring psychological trauma caused by structures of power, which the author does in this short story. Therefore, Jashoda’s displacement of identity caused by getting diagnosed with cancer may fit into a larger picture of displacement due to society and its structures, which cause psychological trauma for those who do not have power in these settings. Thus, using the stages of grief, the writer portrays the psychological consequences when an identity is forced upon an individual.

To conclude, the societal structures and systems that placed an identity forcefully upon Jashoda are, in the end, responsible for the displacement of her identity. Although ostensibly it was breast cancer that caused Jashoda’s psychological trauma, without certain power structures in place, she may not have had to be a ‘breast giver’ in the first place. The displacement of her identity caused Jashoda to experience denial and anger, the first two stages of grief, however, due to the serious nature of her cancer, she was unable to process the rest of the stages, which included acceptance. Arguably, it is her psychological state that eventually caused Jashoda’s death in the short story.

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