Discovering Mahasweta Devi – Mother of 1084

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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.

1084

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?

Father said…

Father said?

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?

What?

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.

Mahasweta Devi Bangla Books

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

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*Images courtesy Google 

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8 thoughts on “Discovering Mahasweta Devi – Mother of 1084

  1. Well written, Mini. I haven’t read the book but saw the movie ten years back. I saw the Hindi version “Hazar chaurasi ki maa” directed by Govind Nihalani and it has remained with me even today, after 10 years. Such was the power of the story. Many years later, when i heard murukan Kattakada’s poem “Rakthasaakshi”, I thought of this movie, as the poem had a line “ammakku kannuneer maathram koduthavan” when talking about the rakthasaakshi.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Watched the movie too, in a frenzy. Jaya Bachan’s Sujata left me speechless. Others were good too. But I have my reservations about the addition of the ‘cinematic closure’.

      You might like the book more – I did. But then, to me hardly any movie matches up to its book… Prejudiced, I guess. 🙂

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  2. Beautiful read, Mini! Touched a nerve, as you say.
    Mini, the peripheral elements of society have always fascinated me. They bring to life those beautiful facets of character that are otherwise lost upon us. They are stories that bind the most conflicting of traits- vulnerability and strength, tranquility and violence, love and hatred.
    I particularly loved that line- ‘A system that hides its brutality under a shroud of normalcy’, and the subsequent paragraph that illustrates this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Vidya. Some books leave their mark on you, and this was one such. Having discovered Mahasweta Devi, now I have to read the rest of her books too. Seagull has published most (if not all) of the English translations of her works, and I’m planning to slowly acquire a collection. All in good time, though.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It is artistic license,perhaps.
    Why do we see empathy for the underdog frequently segues towards the individual victim or to become a saga of a failed generation,perhaps.The grief limits itself to this part of the tragedy and cruelly forgets the movement, the cause and the frailty of man to struggle for selfless sacrifices en masse.Is that just to be another history archived and remembered by some curious or conscientious researcher?Is this the ordinariness that is a fact? Is it the normal to accept defeat? Are we fated to this truth of an unequal world forever?In the end does it help us with new found courage to continue the fight.Or am I being judgemental?Apocalypse Now,Platoon,Born on the fourth of July,Deer Hunter pitilessly paints the after life of the War.Vietnam and the people,their victories are left to uncomfortable silences similar to the story of Brati !Do we have so much to hide?

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