I’m penning this Chapter on Day 27 of an India-wide lockdown to battle Covid-19. For me, it’s actually Day 40 of my jaappa (transliterated as japa) – a forty-day period of self-confinement, voluntarily undertaken by new mothers right after giving birth. So yes, I’d essentially committed to social distancing and self-isolation before these became the trending norms of 2020!
In reality, the practice of japa is by no means limited to Indian customs. Similar traditions are observed across the world, from Japan – where it’s known as “Sango no hidach” – to Latin American countries, where ‘la cuarentena’ (forty days) is actually the source of the English word ‘quarantine.’ The motivation underlying these long weeks of rest being manifold – to allow the mother to heal, to protect the babe as it adjusts to a new world and most importantly, to strengthen the bonds between both as they perfect the art of nursing.
Instrumental during this time, is the japabai, or as I like to call mine (an all-knowing lady from Bikaner, Rajasthan), the baby whisperer. I say baby whisperer, as Junior magically quietens the moment she holds him, whilst making R.R.M. and I dance a merry tune to his newborn whims and machinations!
Japabais come armed with age-old ancient wisdom, faithfully passed down through generations. Their old way of doing things often goes against the modern grain, but there’s a method to their madness – from their application of uptan (a mix of raw milk and gram flour) to rub baby hair off the baby’s face and body, to forcing piping hot mugs of kadha (a potent Ayurvedic tonic) down mummy’s throat first thing in the morning, in a bid to boost immunity, alleviate the pain and inflammation caused by childbirth and to strengthen digestion (among several other benefits that I’ve borne witness to firsthand!).
Truth be told, one of the loveliest aspects of these 40 days is that my japabai has been as concerned about my health, wellbeing and recovery, as she is about Junior’s development. It’s something I’m particularly grateful for during this lockdown, given the palpable absence of both my mother and mother-in-law at a time when a daughter perhaps needs them the most.
We’ve settled into a welcome routine, where a gentle massage and morning bath for Junior is swiftly followed by my massage, a blissful hour that is both soothing and medicinal (provided Jr doesn’t wake up halfway through!), helping with blood circulation and slowly releasing months of built-up tension in the body. The restorative boost is both physical and emotional.
Postnatal diet is of course pivotal in these early 40 days, with the mother’s recovery and ability to nurse and nourish her child intricately linked to what she eats.
Warming or heaty foods are particularly essential in re-equilibrating the mother’s body, which is believed to have entered a “cold stage” due to the significant loss of blood. Gondh (edible gum) is one such key ingredient, manifesting in the most delicious ladoos (a traditional Indian sweet) which feature other key superfoods from almonds to ghee (clarified butter).
Speaking of ghee – it’s gleefully heaped on anything and everything, promising a long-term payoff by lubricating joints and mitigating back pain. Ajwain (carom seeds) crop up with abandon too, peppered in rotis and in sabzis (cooked vegetables) for their anti-inflammatory powers and as a natural cure for constipation, helping to regulate and improve digestion.
Then there are the galactagogues. Everything from poppy seeds and dry coconuts (also added to those glorious gondh ladoos) to oats, ragi (finger millet) and gourd vegetables (think lauki and tori), to name a few of the many foods religiously added to a mother’s diet to amp up her milk supply.
The list of ‘have-nots’ has been just as exhaustive – I’ve religiously avoided acidic tomatoes and citrus, not to mention veggies such as cauliflower and cabbage, or pulses such as chickpeas and kidney beans, which are all prone to causing gas in babies through mother’s milk. 40 days in, it’s slowly time to start introducing these foods back in my diet, but needless to say I’m still incredibly conscious and particular about everything I eat and with the best reason too! So yes, you can expect an upcoming feature around this Foodie’s Guide To A Postnatal Diet, coming soon.
In fact, there’s a lot that I do want to share from my experience – both during pregnancy and as a new mother, and more broadly beyond just pre and post-natal diets. I suppose it seems like as good a time as any to launch a new chapter, The Baby Diaries. Do watch this space and/or subscribe to my newsletter for more!