Why do some books affect you in a way others don’t? Disturb you so deeply that despite conscious effort to distance yourself from them, they continue to haunt? Linger as a vague disquiet that you can’t seem to shed – long after you have read the last line, long after you have put them away with a sigh…?
Growing up in Kerala in the 1970s in a family with politically opinionated members in the academia, ‘Naxalites’ was a term one came across quite frequently. Emergency had been declared across India, and the strain was felt even in largely apolitical communities such as ours. Naxalites, Emergency, curfews… these were much discussed topics among elders, listened to in passing by us, the children. Topics that were vaguely menacing, yet outside the periphery of our own immediate reality.
Then in 1976, ‘Rajan Kolacase’ happened. I remember how the ripples of the gruesome murder of a young engineering student at the hands of the police rocked even my eight-year-old conscience. A young man slaughtered by those very people that you had so naively looked up to as protectors! The incident had tainted a lot of perceptions. In my mind, the association went like this: Naxalites – Emergency – curfew – university students – police atrocities – Rajan Case. It remained that way there for a long time, but, like much else, was eventually all but forgotten over the years.
Reading Mother of 1084 (Seagull Books), the English translation of Mahasweta Devi’s Hazar Churashir Ma by Samik Bandyopadhyay, was akin to walking back in time, but with an intensity one was hardly prepared for. The cover design by Sunandini Banerjee using a painting by Arunima Chowdhary is a fair indicator of the brooding narrative contained in the 187 pages of the book.
Set in the Calcutta of the 1970s, the ‘Decade for Liberation’, the novel is a visceral depiction of a mother’s trauma in the wake of her young son’s violent and untimely death. Two years after the fateful morning when a ’faceless, disembodied voice’ over the telephone asked fifty-one-year-old Sujata to come to the morgue to identify her son, she is still trying to come to grips with her loss. A loss compounded by what she feels was her failure to comprehend her son, or his commitment to a cause that was not immediately personal.
In an anguished effort to understand her son Brati, the ’fair, thin, Brati, silky hair, eyes full of warmth’, who ended up as body number 1084 in Kantapukur morgue, Sujata visits the people who had shared his ‘other’ world, a world she had not been a part of. She meets with Brati’s girlfriend Nandini and his friend Somu’s mother – two radically different women who had known Brati in a way Sujata never would. As she tries to piece together fragments from her conversations with them, she recognises that her bereavement is hers alone – silent and incapable of being shared.
Why Brati had left that evening in his blue shirt, how he had turned into a number, 1084 – all day long Sujata had been finding bits and pieces of the explanation. She would spend the rest of her life piecing them together.
In trying to make sense of her unspeakable loss, Sujata finds herself becoming increasingly alienated from her family and society – an isolation precipitated by emotional exhaustion, and a lifetime of acquired passivity and acceptance.
I find the rather jerky movement from the past to the present and back a powerful aspect of the narrative, just as hard-hitting as the unrelenting repetition of words, phrases and sentences.
Bini, where’s the picture?
In the room on the second floor.
In the room on the second floor?
There is also the allusion to Sujata’s persistent physical pain due to appendicitis that appears as a thread throughout the story, reaching its culmination at the very end of the book.
With a rare economy of words, Mahasweta Devi brings out the vagaries of the society that Sujata belongs to, through the various other characters in the story. From Brati’s father Dibyanath and his ‘ideal’ elder son Jyoti to the police officer Saroj Pal and the elusive Anindya, each character adds facets to a system that hides its brutality under a shroud of normalcy.
Do you know what hurt me the most when I came out of prison?
When I saw how everything looked normal, wonderful, and there was this feeling that the dark days were over, that everything had quietened down. That broke my heart.
But haven’t things quietened down?
No! Nandini screamed, leaving Sujata stunned.
Above all else, it is Mahasweta Devi’s strong portrayal of female characters that, to me, defines the novel. Apart from Sujata, Somu’s mother and Nandini, there is Hem, who came into the family to look after Brati when he was a baby, Brati’s sisters Tuli and Neepa, sister-in-law Bini, and Mrs Kapadia, Tuli’s future mother-in-law, among others – each one integral to the unfolding of the story. Even her late mother-in-law stands out as a central figure in shaping the events that lead Sujata from impassiveness to an emphatic rejection of the system that her son had lost his life to.
They say the reason a piece of art or literature moves us is empathy. We view them as ourselves, about ourselves, and bring our experiences into them. If this book continues to haunt me three days after I finished it, it could be that I read it as a mother of sons with strong political views, as a woman standing at the crossroads of life, confused, as an individual often rendered incapable of reacting to what is happening around her… Or perhaps the book brought back to life the shadows of a childhood. I don’t really know.
All I know is that the author has touched a nerve. One I did not know was still raw.
Books have always been my favourite form of escape. Escape from the real and the immediate, from the here and the now. And then, every once in a while, I come across a book there is no escaping from. Like Mother of 1084.
*Images courtesy Google