Mother of 1084; Old Women; Breast Stories

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 (trans. by Samik Bandyopadhyay), 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.

Mother of 1084 takes place two years after the killings. In fact, the mother in the story—Sujata Chatterjee—is trying to understand why her youngest son, Brati (known to the government as Corpse No. 1084) was a part of this movement and why he had to die for it. Everyone else in her family, however, has already moved on. In fact, on the anniversary of Brati’s death—which also happens to be his birthday—Sujata’s daughter Tuli is hosting a party for her fiancé, Tony Kapadia, and his family.

Sujata would have preferred to have the party on a different day, but no one really asked her. That’s because her family doesn’t have much respect for her. Despite having a college degree, she has to defend her decision to work at a bank. Also, the children tend to side with her husband, even though he’s been cheating on his wife without even trying to hide it.

The other reason the children go against her is because of the close connection she had with Brati, even though, ironically, they also criticize her for not crying at the youngest son’s funeral. They disliked Brati, not only because he was a spoiled child who received special treatment that the other children never received, but because of his beliefs. In fact, his father was so ashamed of Brati’s involvement with the group that instead of going to the morgue to identify the body, he was more concerned about making sure the newspapers didn’t mention his name. However, as the novel progresses, Sujata realizes that she didn’t know her son as well as she thought she had.

It may sound as if Devi has written a novel that is too sympathetic to terrorism. However, to the author’s credit, the focus of the novel is really Sujata and her refusal to forget about her son, even if it means disapproval from the rest of her family. Through visiting another mother of a Naxalite and Brati’s girlfriend, Nandini, she also learns about herself and how her subservient ways could have widened the distance between her and her son.

Sujata’s discoveries, though, lead to a very long denouement that introduces some new characters rather late into the novel. In fact, the final chapter, which takes place during the party, doesn’t add a lot to the overall story. In addition, the novel contains some weak passages that are distracting and blunt the impact of what could have been a very powerful novel; for example, this dialogue takes place between Sujata Nandini:

Did Brati say that?
How else would I know?
Brati said that!

Perhaps exchanges like this sounded better in the original Bengali, but in English, it sounds unintentionally humorous in a novel with a serious message. To make matters worse, the narrator follows with this: “Sujata’s face flushed red, then regained its normal look.” Even though it is sufficient enough to explain Sujata’s feelings about what Brati said to Nandini, it could have been more powerful with some trimming and better word choices.

One encounters the same problem in “Statue,” which is the first—and longest—of two novellas in Old Women. “Statue” takes place in the village of Chhatim, where a statue is being erected for Dindayal “Dinu” Thakur, who, 54 years earlier, died during a robbery that he committed as a “freedom fighter.” Back then, his death was blamed on Dulali, who rejected his proposal of marriage. Since then, she has lived alone, working for a family in exchange for very little food. Now, she’s 78 years old. Not only has she lost all her former beauty, but she has gotten used to being hungry all the time.

Devi definitely has a setup for what could have been a compelling criticism against government that uses funds to erect a statue instead of helping those in need. The problem, though, is “Statue” does not feel like one complete novella—it feels like several. It begins with a rambling, overlong introduction that has some great moments, but readers to plod through dense paragraphs just to find them. Once they get over that hump, the story becomes more accessible, but it also starts to become a sappy love story that includes the same kind of limp dialogue found in Mother of 1084; for example, in this scene, which takes place decades earlier, Dinu is telling Dulali that if she doesn’t marry him, he’ll “float away”:

Then let me die, Dinu.
Die—die—can’t you say ‘I’ll live?’
How’ll I say that? If I go with you it’ll be scandal, the blacklist, my father will be fallen.
He’ll do penance and reclaim caste.
I’ll not forget, I’ll burn out.
You won’t be able to?
Do you love me?
Still . . .
I don’t have that courage.

After the love story, things switch gears again, and the focus is not on Dulali but on another character. These kinds of shifts are OK for a complex novel that is hundreds of pages long but not a 75-page novella.

Fortunately, the second story in Old Woman, “The Fairy Tale of Mohanpur,” is better, even though it’s still flawed. Like Dulali in the previous story, Ani is an old woman who works hard for very little in return. However, she believes in the power of fairy tales, so much so that she convinces herself that a snake she brought home for her family had originally been a fish. Unfortunately, the reality is, as one of her four sons points out, she’s going blind, and it doesn’t seem like there’s anyone around who can help her. “The Irkanpur Health Centre is unable to bear the health requirements of this Behula Block,” the narrator writes. “The population of the Behula Block villages is 7,051. There are 20 beds at the Health Centre hospital, on the average there are 60 patients at any given time. It is a daily sight to see more than one patient to a bed, patients strewn on the floor.” At 25 pages, “The Fairy Tale of Mohanpur” doesn’t drag like “Statue” or Mother of 1084. And while it contains a jarring shift in the middle of the story, its poignancy has more of an effect on the reader.

So do some of the stories in Breast Stories. In fact, in my opinion, out of these three books, this one contains two of Devi’s best stories, “Draupadi” and “Breast-giver.” The first gives us a strong female revolutionary, Dopdi Mejhen, who shows that a woman’s breast can be a powerful weapon against evil. The scene where this happens only lasts about a page, but it’s the strong imagery—as well as the reaction of the main villain, Senanayak—that makes it truly unforgettable.

“Breast-giver,” on the other hand, argues that the same breasts that could be used against evil could also be used against someone who is willing to exploit them. This is what happens to Jashoda, who decides one day to become a wet nurse in order to provide for her own family. After years of nursing many infants, though, she suffers from breast cancer, and the adults who once benefited from her mother’s milk treat her with indifference. Yet, throughout the novel, she makes her own decisions, even though the choices she made were not always the right ones.

The final story, “Behind the Bodice,” which was published 17 years after “Breast Story,” is not quite as effective as the other two. Like “Draupadi,” this tale shows how powerful a woman’s breasts can be. This time, though, Gangor’s breasts are being used for a couple purposes: First, to seduce an Upin Puri, an “ace photographer,” who becomes so enamored with them that he feels he has to “save them”; and second, they’re helping her expose police corruption. However, the idea that Upin’s photos led to the police corruption is not very convincing since it seems to come out of nowhere. Also, it contains the same kind of jarring shifts that marred the stories in Old Women: Much of the story goes back and forth between Upin’s history with Gangor and the conversation between Upin’s wife, Shital, and his friend, Ujan, who discuss the photos and wonder why Upin is so obsessed with the breasts. As a result, “Behind the Bodice” lacks the originality of the other stories in Breast Stories, and the reader is just left with another story about a dangerous obsession.

“Behind the Bodice,” though, is not the most unfortunate part about Breast Stories: Seventy-six of the 155 pages consist of translator Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s essays about two of the stories (and that count doesn’t even include the 10-page introduction). While these essays contain some interesting background information and observations that show the richness of Devi’s texts, they also seem like opportunities for Spivak to show off her erudition. For example, at one point during her analysis of “Breast-giver” (which, by the way, is much longer than the actual story), she offers the following about literature:

When literature is used didactically, it is generally seen as a site for the deployment of ‘themes’, even the theme of the undoing of thematicity, or unreadability, or undecidability. This is not a particularly ‘elite’ approach, although it may be called ‘unnatural’. On the other hand, Marxist literary criticism as well as a remark like Chinua Achebe’s ‘all art is propaganda, though not all propaganda is art’ can be taken as cases of such ‘thematic’ approach. On the other hand, some ‘elite’ approaches (deconstructive, structuralist, semiotic, structuralist-psychoanalytic, phenomenological, discourse-theoretical; though not necessarily feminist, reader-responsist, intertextual, or linguistic) can also be accommodated here.
This is the kind of in-depth analysis usually reserved for an edition from Penguin Classics—and even then, I don’t recall reading anything this esoteric. Perhaps in India, students of Devi may feel that she is worthy of such treatment, but readers unfamiliar with her may wish that Seagull Books provided something a little more basic and saved Spivak’s essays for a separate volume.

Interestingly enough, in this same essay Spivak admitted that she was unable to translate some of Devi’s dialogue. (Perhaps this is the reason for the weak dialogue contained in some of the other stories.) However, just as translations of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy have evolved over the years, perhaps we will someday see English-language editions of Devi’s work that will make us better appreciate her importance as a writer. Until then, English readers will have to settle for these.

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