NIMI KURIAN

Once again Mahasweta Devi has touched upon the lives of those who are never noticed, never cared for.

Wrong Number and Other Stories, Mahasweta Devi, translated by Subhransu Maitra, Seagull Books, Rs. 140.Bedanabala, Mahasweta Devi, Seagull Books, translated by Sunandini Banerjee, Rs. 140. CONSIDERED one of India's foremost writers, she has won recognition awards from the Sahitya Akademi (1979), Jnanpith (1996) and Ramon Magsaysay (1996), the title of Officier del' Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (2003) and the Nonino Prize (2005). Mahasweta Devi is not only a writer but an activist too, and for her work among dispossessed tribal communities she was the awarded the Padmashri in 1986.Mahasweta Devi has written many novels and short stories in Bengali and hence the power of her literature was open to only a select few. But with translations of her work, now more people can appreciate her prose. Seagull Books has brought out two translations — Wrong Number and Other Stories and Bedanabala. Her Life. Her Times.

Poignant scene

Wrong Number is translated by Subhransu Maitra and has four stories. The first, "Wrong Number", tells the story of an old couple, Tirtha Babu and his wife, Sabita. Tirtha Babu is afraid of answering the telephone. Every time the phone rings he says, "Wrong number. Hang up please. Why do you call the wrong number? The wrong number?" Unable to sleep, thoughts flit through their minds. Thoughts about Dipankar, their son — their only son. It is news of Dipankar that they wait for but knowing deep down that the telephone can only bring bad news. The second, "Fundamental Rights and Bhikari Dusad", lucidly tells the tale of plunder and outrage. One passage stands out: "This has been, and will be. The fable of the rich landlords — poor peasants — sharecroppers — bataidars is never very different. Nobody can alter the plot." Bhikari Dusad, a timid, harmless soul who tends his flock of goats and kids is yet another innocent victim of highhanded arrogance. He is always on the run seeking a safe haven for his goats. Until one day he hears Sukhchandji, the teacher, who tells him about "Fundamental Rights". And it is with this new found knowledge that he faces the Rajasahib's sepoys when they come yet again to take away his goats. He tries to put up a fight "... I have the same right to my goats as the Rajasahib has to his land... " he says. But all this is considered impertinence and he is beaten — "efficient, thoroughly professional beating, approved by the law and administration."

Communal barriers

The third story "Gandhi Maidan and Raghua Dusad" begins with schoolteacher Charan, carrying young Raghua, followed by Raghua's grandfather, Chand and Rajaram walking through a Patna street at 11 o'clock at night. Their minds are numbed by the horrors they have just witnessed — the loss of life, property and everything else they held valuable and Raghua has remained mute ever since. They are the only survivors of the carnage. They arrive at Gandhi Maidan and prepare to sleep there. But Raghua screams out in shock, "No, not Gandhi Maidan, not Gandhi Maidan... ". For, in his young mind he associates the Gandhi school and the Gandhi statue with the violence he has witnessed. The story ends on a sombre note, "For children, like Raghua, is Gandhi always going to be another word of terror?""Ram and Rahim" tells the heartbreaking story of two mothers as they wait for their sons to return. Reaching across barriers of caste and religion they find comfort in each other's company. The narrative touches a sensitive chord with the description of Sajumoni praying at the Fakirbaba's holy place. "How I feel Panchubibi's grief, baba. Such a bright boy dying like that! How little my grief is compared to hers."

The essential and the inessential

Once again Mahasweta Devi has touched upon the lives of those who are never noticed, never cared for. And her pen cuts a deep wound in the minds of readers, forcing them to sit up and discern the essential from the inessential.Bedanabala. Her Life. Her Times is a touching tale told in first person of a woman, Bedanabala, whose mother used to live in a brothel. These reminiscences are sometimes personal, sometimes historical. The story begins in the late 19th Century, with the "theft" of a beautiful girl child from a wealthy family. She is Bedanabala's mother. She grows up in the house of ill repute, to be groomed to enter the profession once she has come of age. But then, Did'ma, the owner of the brothel, grows to love this beautiful child as she would her own daughter and does not want her to enter this profession. She seeks for her a life of a householder. It is story that is seldom told. Did'ma's contribution to the war effort, her donations to the fighters of India's freedom and her gifts to the mission are her way of atoning for her sins. The story is set in a changing India, an India poised on the threshold of progress and transformation. New thoughts and ideas are forming in the minds of idealistic youth and nationalistic passion runs high.Mahasweta Devi's Bedanabala. Her Life. Her Times empathises with a section of women that is misunderstood and disapproved of. She narrates the story with great sensitivity, skilfully weaving into the story a changing India and nationalism. The book is translated by Sunandini Banerjee.