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Latest Review: "Mother of 1084," "Old Women," and "Breast Stories" by Mahasweta Devi

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Christopher Iacono on three works by Mahasweta Devi, and published by Seagull Books: Mother of 1084 (trans. by Samik Bandyopadhyay), Old Women (trans. by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak), and Breast Stories (trans. by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak).

Is everyone back on two feet after the AWP 2015 conference in Minneapolis? We’re just back in the groove of things ourselves over at Open Letter, and getting ready for our two Jón Gnarr events later this week!

In honor of and in no subject-matter-relation to that (as these books are pretty weighted), I wanted to post this longer review by Chris (who is a regular reviewer for Three Percent), which highlights three works by Bengali author Mahasweta Devi. The books seemed to come as a set, and I’m glad Chris undertook the task of reading this little trio of Devi’s. His review is comprehensive, and the respective ISBN and other information on the books themselves is listed in the following order: Mother of 1084, Old Women, and Breast Stories. Here’s the beginning of Chris’s review:

Mahasweta Devi is not only one of the most prolific Bengali authors, but she’s also an important activist. In fact, for Devi, the two seem to go together. As you can probably tell from the titles, she writes about women and their place in Indian society. Some of the characters in her stories are old women living in poverty, and some of them are exploited because of their lack of wealth; however, some of them are middle class (one of them is even college-educated). Regardless of their status, though, they all suffer some kind of mistreatment, whether it’s physical or mental abuse, but not all of them are willing to accept their fate. So it would appear that Devi’s works—many of which are available in English from Calcutta-based Seagull Books—would offer a powerful experience for the reader.

Unfortunately, these three selections can be frustrating reads at times, for different reasons. The shorter stories tend to be better than the longer, meandering ones that fail to keep the reader’s interest. However, some of the problems may be due to the translators’ difficulty in capturing “her innovative use of language [which] has expanded the conventional borders of Bengali literary expression,” as stated in Devi’s bio. Also, one of the books is padded with pages of analysis that may be too inaccessible for readers who just want to check out Devi’s work.

Those curious about Devi would probably want to start with Mother of 1084, a popular novel that was made into a movie in the late 1990s. The book itself was written in the early 1970s after a violent time in Bengal’s history. A few years before, the Naxalite movement, which was formed in the 1960s by a group of Indian communists that supported Maoist ideology, was gaining strength, especially among students. Leaders of the Naxalites declared that the Indian State needed to be overthrown and advocated violence not only against the government, but against all “class enemies.” In response, authorities hounded and killed them.

For the rest of the review, go here.

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