The Dalit mothers who were forced to become wet nurses

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On a sunny afternoon in February 2021, I sat with my great aunt Yellamma under the shade of a neem tree.

We were in Ramavaram, a small town in the southern Indian state of Telangana, and the early summer heat was already in the air.

I had not seen my father’s aunt since I was 14, but now, a decade later, she welcomed me into her arms.

Growing up, my family moved frequently due to my father’s government job. I would see my relatives only once a year when we visited our hometown of Dornakal in eastern Telangana and at weddings or funerals. But whenever I saw my relatives, I would pester them with questions about their lives, trying to understand my roots.

That day was no different, and Yellamma and I chatted for hours near the house where our family had gathered for the memorial of a distant relative.

Yellamma, who was 75, wore a dark green sari and her hair wound into a tight bun. She answered my questions in her stern voice, her gaze intense as she recalled her younger years and cursed the hardships she had endured.

We are Madigas – a Dalit community concentrated in the southern states of India, considered “untouchable” by India’s caste system. The four-tier Chatur Varna system consists of Brahmins (priests), followed by Kshatriyas (warriors and rulers), Vaishyas (traders) and Shudras (labourers). Dalits exist as a fifth category, outside of caste society.

In India, caste, a status dictated by birth, often remains at the root of the class divide. While education has allowed some Dalits to lead comfortable lives, many communities like Madigas – traditionally tasked with making and repairing shoes, tanning leather and clearing away dead animals – still face the brunt of forced labour, poverty and discrimination across the country.

Yellamma, like many Madiga women of her time, worked as a farm labourer. It was a hard life of toiling in the fields, sweeping and doing other menial jobs for a daily wage.

But there was another job I was curious about, a practice I heard of in passing in which so-called “lower-caste” women were required to be wet nurses for “upper-caste” children. How far back did this practice go, I wondered. And did I know someone who was once a wet nurse?

“Nanamma [grandmother], do you know anyone from our family or community who used to breast-feed ‘upper-caste’ children?” I asked her.

Yellamma straightened her back and looked at me. “I know many, beta [child],” she replied. “But why would an educated kid like you want to dig up the misery of the past? I thought kids your age only bury their faces into their phones.”

But she furrowed her eyebrows and began to tell me about Akkamma*, a Madiga woman she knew in her village of Gundrathimadugu when she was in her early teens.

Summoned by the landlord

It was sometime in the 1960s when Akkamma, who was in her early 20s, gave birth to her first child, a daughter. Akkamma lived with her husband and her in-laws across the street from Yellamma, whose mother worked with Akkamma’s mother-in-law in the same field.

About five months after she gave birth, Akkamma was summoned by the village “dora”, which means landlord in colloquial Telegu, the language spoken in Telangana. In the Telangana region, landlords belonged predominantly to the Shudra community.

Traditionally, these feudal landlords wielded immense power, and each village could have several or more dora families. They owned huge houses and lands that less privileged castes depended on for an income.

The dora’s wife, who was also in her 20s, had given birth to a boy a few weeks earlier but could not produce enough breast milk. So Akkamma was fetched to feed her son.

Akkamma would have to leave her baby for at least seven or eight hours a day. Even after returning home, she could be called back if “the baby refused to latch on to the mother’s breast, if the mother could not lactate or if she simply did not want to nurse the child”, Yellamma explained.

Yellamma often heard her mother and other women from the neighbourhood talking about Akkamma. What stayed with Yellamma was how, because Akkamma was expected to prioritise the dora’s child over her own, her own baby went hungry.

Wet nursing within the community

The English language gives me the comfort of having a word to describe what happened to Akkamma. I can call it wet nursing.

But that’s not the case in Telugu. In a conversation with Dr KN Malleswari, a Telugu writer and academic, I learned that the word “paladai”, which translates to a metal feeding cup used by mothers to feed or wean their children, has been used to refer to wet nurses in some Telugu literature. But elders from the Madiga community tell me they had no word for wet nursing.

It is impossible to know how widespread Dalit wet nursing was. There is no significant research on the topic and almost no information online, although wet nurses have appeared in stories and poems mainly written by Dalit writers and likely influenced by real-life stories relayed in their families or villages.

In conversations with my cousins and other Dalits, I realised that younger generations have hardly heard about Dalit wet nursing while older Madiga women I spoke to didn’t see the practice as unique – just one among other forms of forced labour normalised by more powerful communities.

But not all wet nursing was forced. Women in my gudem (a Telugu word meaning a Dalit neighbourhood) in Dornakal said it was not uncommon for nursing mothers to voluntarily breast-feed nonbiological infants within the community.

“This was mostly when children lost their mothers during childbirth,” Yellamma said.

My late ammamma, or maternal grandmother, used to tell me how many women of her generation died in childbirth, including teenage girls giving birth for the first time or mothers who faced complications after multiple deliveries starting from a young age.

Madiga women, Yellamma wanted to make clear, were never obliged to nurse other children in the gudem and only did so out of a sense of responsibility and affection.

“That wasn’t the case with the doras. That was ghulamgiri [slavery],” she said firmly, clenching her saree.

‘I left my baby starving’

Two months after my conversation with Yellamma, I visited Dornakal. Late one afternoon, a group of women in my gudem gathered as they did most days outside someone’s home to chat and laugh over chai. The sky was streaked with orange as I left home to visit them.

I had grown up with these women and saw them every year when we returned to Dornakal for holidays.

The eldest was 80. The others were in their 40s to 60s. Some stood while the others sat on the ground or on plastic chairs. I sat on the earth, listening to them gossip before I decided to interrupt. “I wanted to ask you all something,” I began.

“Ask, beta. What is it?” one of the women replied.

“Do you know about women from our community or other ‘lower castes’ who nursed landlord children?”

They chuckled. One woman reached over to caress my hair, asking why I was asking about the past. So I told them about Akkamma and what I had learned.

Narsamma*, a slight 80-year-old with glistening silver hair and a strident voice, thrust her walking stick into the dirt. “They only saw us as commodities they could use for their needs,” she said. “Untouchability didn’t bother them when they wanted to milk us for their children or when their men wanted to rape us.”

For more than 45 years, Narsamma worked in red chilli fields owned by doras and occasionally in their cattle shed, cleaning the animals and the premises.

When she was in her mid-20s, she became a wet nurse for a dora’s child.

“They forbade us from feeding our own before we went to feed their children. They never prohibited us physically,” she said, her jaw clenched, adding that the fear they inculcated was enough for them to obey. “They didn’t want their children nursing from the breast of a woman who had just fed an untouchable child.”

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Driving her stick farther into the ground, she added: “Sons of b******.”

“I was distressed about starving my child, but I always went along with it because that is how it worked,” Narsamma said. She would be compensated sporadically. “I was paid with a sack of grains or 10 or 20 paise [less than 1 cent].”

She looked around, before adding: “Soon as I reached their premises, I was provided with a piece of soap and was asked to take a bath near the cattle shed. Which human being would want to be treated that way? I left my baby starving in the house to feed their child. And while we slaved away our bodies for them, they saw it as nothing less than their birthright to treat us like that.”

‘They should know the pain’

Back then, women like Narsamma didn’t have a choice, but today, they said, they feel humiliated when they think about how they were treated.

Sowjanya Tamalapakula, assistant professor at the School of Gender Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Science in Hyderabad, the capital of Telangana, researches Dalit women in Indian society. She says India’s patriarchal society and caste system have long characterised dominant-caste women as “pure and chaste” while sanctioning the exploitation of Dalit women as a “legitimate right”.

Women across Indian society are victims of patriarchy, but the caste hierarchy in India has ensured certain privileges for women from dominant castes. “Lower-caste” women were responsible for easing the burden of motherhood and of household responsibilities for these privileged women, according to Dalit feminists and academics.

Narsamma and the other women saw dominant women as being their oppressors alongside men. “Aren’t they women?” Narsamma asked. “Being mothers themselves, they should know the pain for us to not be able to take care of our families.”

While wet nursing, Dalit women were still expected to be equal participants in earning for their families. In many households, women also had to contend with abuse from their husbands.

‘Distressing for everybody’

Sirisha*, 50, sat on the ground listening as she sewed together orange kanakambaram (firecracker) flowers to wear in her hair.

Once Narsamma had finished speaking, she turned to me and said, “Beta, my late mother also breast-fed a dominant-caste infant. And the impact of her disappearance, just a few days after the birth of my younger sibling, was distressing for everybody in our home.”

Although Sirisha’s mother wanted to look after her newborn, she had to spend hours outside the dora’s residence and be available whenever his baby needed feeding. “My amma [mother] was tired every day,” Sirisha recalled, adding that she was mostly absent.

The wet nurses’ babies, unwelcome in the dora’s house, would often be left at home, usually in the care of female siblings barely old enough to look after themselves.

“Most elders in the neighbourhood went off to work in the fields during the day, and only the children were left behind,” she explained. Although people within the community supported one another, neighbours or family members could not take time off work to look after children. Sometimes, a woman who could no longer work in the fields could be relied upon for childcare, but the task usually fell to girls. Nursing mothers took their babies with them to the fields, and after the babies were weaned, older sisters or cousins took care of them.

So Sirisha, who was six years old when her sibling was born in the late 1970s, had to look after her newborn sister.

“It still astonishes me to date how I took care of an infant at that tender age,” she said. “Taking care of younger siblings while the elders have gone away for work was not uncommon for us, but the responsibility of taking care of a newborn infant was too much.”

Even now, she pointed out, children in the gudem, mostly girls, start taking care of their younger siblings from as young as the age of five when their parents go to work.

As girls played nearby, small garlands made by Sirisha pinned to their plaits, she commented, “Back in the day, a popular notion amongst all the castes was that a Madiga woman produces good quality milk.”

Her words made me think of dairy advertisements endorsing the quality of cattle and their milk. These are real people. How, I thought, could the quality of their milk be a consideration?

Sirisha put down her work and looked at me. “Why are you quiet? Ask all these women why they thought so!”

Eating beef

The women began to speak about Madiga food habits and, in particular, eating beef.

Most Hindus who are not Dalits do not eat beef because cattle are considered sacred animals, but it is a staple food for many Dalit communities like mine.

For Madigas, meat from the dead cattle our community disposed of was often our only source of food, and we became associated with consuming beef. Non-Dalits have long humiliated people who eat beef by saying they are impure. But beef was not only an easy, protein-rich source of food for my community, it also played a significant role in our nutritional customs.

Such customs have faded as our community has tried to dissociate itself from a cultural practice that we were shamed for. The marginalisation of those who eat beef has only grown since 2014 after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government came to power and banned the slaughter of cattle in many states, fuelling the rise of violent vigilantism against beef-eating minorities.

Beef played a particular postpartum role for Madigas. “For about 12 days following childbirth, our elders made sure we ate a nutritious diet of a different assortment of beef parts every day,” Narsamma said. “The elders carefully chalked out every day’s diet to make sure we had the strength to sustain ourselves after giving birth and to produce sufficient nutritious milk for our babies. All the castes knew about this custom and hence had a popular opinion that our women produce nutritious milk.”

The sun had nearly set, and the women fanned themselves to keep the mosquitoes away. They would soon return home to tend to their families and the evening chores.

“They humiliated us as impure and dirty every day for eating beef, but they wanted the milk of the beef eaters,” Narsamma said. “They say we polluted the air they breathed, but they wanted our bodies to feed their children.”

The role of dominant-caste women

A few months later, I was travelling by bus to Hyderabad, where I live, from a village near Dornakal. I sat in the same row as two women who were gossiping loudly.

I figured they were from the Reddy community, a Shudra landlord community. One woman looked to be in her mid-50s and the other around 70, and I thought she must know something about Dalit wet nurses. I wanted to ask her, but I didn’t know how to approach her. I was apprehensive, worried that they might deny the practice or say something hurtful about wet nurses.

I couldn’t speak to “upper-caste” landlord communities in my hometown about wet nursing because I didn’t want to make life difficult for people in my community or disrupt any understanding they might have with the landowning families, so it seemed like an opportune moment to ask strangers on a bus.

I mustered up the courage to make some small talk and then asked them if they were Reddys. They looked confused but proudly replied yes.

“Akka [sister], don’t mind me asking – do you have any memories of Dalit or ‘lower-caste’ Shudra women breast-feeding Reddy babies?” I asked the older woman.

She was taken aback. “I don’t know. Why would we bring them into our houses?” she replied with irritation. “Nothing like that happened.” They turned their faces away from me and continued their conversation.

‘Burdened your heart’

Sindhu Madhuri, 49, a writer from coastal Andhra Pradesh, a state neighbouring Telangana to the south, was more willing to talk.

Growing up in a village in the state of Karnataka, she said Madigas worked in households belonging to her Kamma caste, a landlord community. “They belonged to us and only worked for us,” she said in a phone interview. “They worked in our cattle sheds, were at our beck and call and knew everything that was happening in our household.” While there was no wet nurse in her home, she remembered many in others.

Madhuri emphasised that the women in her house and the Madiga women got along well and that any exploitation came from men. “When the women denied these [assigned] duties or rejected their sexual advances, they lost work under the landlord and no other landlords would hire her. It would go on to be a systematic boycott,” she explained. In this way, Madiga women were blackmailed into doing chores, including wet nursing. Occasionally, some did the job out of love towards the landlord’s family, Madhuri believes.

When asked if saying that men were wholly responsible for the abuse of Madiga women excused dominant-caste women from any role they may have played, she stressed that all women suffer under India’s patriarchal system. “’Upper-caste’ women were also victims of these men,” Madhuri explained.

Back in Dornakal, a day or two after our conversation, Narsamma visited me at home. I offered her some tea, but she seemed troubled. “I shouldn’t have told you all those things, bidda. I couldn’t stop worrying after going back home. It felt like we unlocked our misery upon you and burdened your heart,” she said. “I’m worried that people might call you names if you tell stories like these.”

*Names have been changed to protect the women’s identities and prevent further humiliation.

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