Accepting the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1997, Bengali writer and activist Mahasweta Devi (1926-2016) said her India still lived behind a curtain of darkness — one that separated mainstream society from the poor and the deprived. In her stories, she ensured that the voice of the marginalised and dispossessed was heard.
Many of the bestselling author’s works (Rudali, Breast Stories, Titu Mir, Five Plays, Chotti Munda and his Arrow, etc.) have been translated into several languages. In Women in Translation Month, we turn to one of her landmark novels — the widely-acclaimed Hajar Churashir Ma translated into English (Mother of 1084), by Samik Bandyopadhyay (Seagull, 2010).
Set in Calcutta in the throes of the Naxalite movement, it’s the story of a mother who wakes up one day to the devastating news that her son has been killed and reduced to a number at the morgue: corpse no. 1084. Written in 1973-74, when the Naxalite movement was on the wane, though pockets of resistance remained, Mahasweta weaves the political in a personal story about a woman trying to understand why her son rebelled, what he was protesting against, and why he had to pay for it with his life.
Questioning the world
In the process, Sujata Chatterjee, who belongs to the largely apolitical upper echelons of society, also undergoes a journey of self-discovery and begins to question her place in a patriarchal world. Sujata was once the perfect wife, she had a shadowy existence: “She was subservient, silent, faithful and without an existence of her own.” But when her favourite son, Brati, is killed, coincidentally on the eve of his birthday, she implodes.
The novel, adapted to the screen by Govind Nihalani in 1998, begins with Sujata waking up to severe pain. Appendicitis. It triggers memories of other pains she has had to endure — Brati’s difficult birth. And death. She finds everyone’s response to his death hypocritical. On the day of Brati’s demise, his father, Dibyanath, who owns a chartered accountancy firm, is more concerned about how to hush up the circumstances of his son’s death. He doesn’t even allow Sujata to take his car to the morgue for fear of being identified. After hours of string-pulling, Dibyanath ensures newspapers omit his son’s name in reports. Sujata slowly realises that the corruption of power at home mirrors the one outside — call it the state, police, a deputy commissioner no less, the people who betrayed Brati and his friends or the ones who stayed silent.
Like in all her works, Mahasweta enriches the narrative with voices from all sections of society. In Mother of 1084 in particular, “the language of the graffiti on the walls, the political slogans [are] in sharp and ironic contrast to the language of the fashionable set”, notes Bandyopadhyay in his brilliantly-layered introduction to the translation.
Narrated in three parts, ‘Morning’, ‘Late Afternoon’ and ‘Evening’, the story follows Sujata’s self-discovery as she gets the devastating news and immediately recoils in denial. Her quest to find out more about her son leads her to Brati’s friend Somu’s mother and to his girlfriend, the fiery Nandini. There are three homes, cultures/ locations/ economies, writes Bandyopadhyay, enabling Mahasweta to set up a “hierarchy of self-assertion/ independence: from Somu’s mother at the lowest rung to Nandini at the highest, with Sujata at an intermediate level”. Only after her interaction with them does Sujata come to know her son better. Emboldened, she finally stands up to Dibyanath, something Brati had wanted her to do all along.
In Mahasweta’s own words, “…as Sujata reaches towards an explanation of the death of her son, she too finds the entire social system cadaverous, and as she takes a closer look at the society, she finds no legitimacy for his death”.
The novel must first be placed in the context of tumultuous Bengal, particularly the Naxalite movement in its urban phase in 1971-74, as it documents the politics behind the killings and the “traitors” who betrayed the cause. The past it documents so viscerally allows it to be transposed to the present when we conclude that the questions Nandini raises have still not been answered: “Why did they die? What has changed? Are men now all happy? Have the political games ended? Is it a better world?”
The writer looks back at one classic every month.