her son is dead, she is alive. the endless agony of this careens through an entire day: morning, afternoon, late afternoon, evening. now keening, now wretched, now rending, always there, almost a central player. on a day like none other, a day perhaps of reckoning.

hajar churashir ma, the mother of 1084, mahasweta devi’s stunning indictment ultimately of a whole way of life even as she grieves with sujata, the protagonist, and senses, elicits, and enunciates her every thought and emotion, that howling pain which screams so silently. on the morning of her son’s birthday, brati’s mother wakes up from a dream that takes her back to the day he was born. and to a telephone call that would destroy everything. her desperately held together world, the place she had assigned to herself in that world, the very notion of normalcy; it would snatch away brutally from her the one she loved, the only one she loved. and who loved her.

even though she perhaps didn’t know him well, didn’t understand him enough. even if he was a naxal.

not many will know the dread that single word evoked at one time in kolkata, then still calcutta. it was almost half a century ago, from 1968/69 for about two or three years, naxal (pronounced, nokshaal in bengali) meant fear, horror, murder, catastrophe, a group of young people gone mad; some of them brilliant, college students, scholars, brimming with potential, terrorising a whole society, a city; killing people that they considered the enemy of the people: the rich, the famous, doctors, lawyers, businessmen; posting threatening notices on the doors of those they would hunt down later, instilling absolute fear in panic-stricken minds; middle class parents dreading their sons would join the bloodthirsty movement, ruin their lives, their futures. it was a faction of the communist party, that took a radical turn sometime in 1967 in a place called naxalbari, about five hundred and fifty kilometres north of calcutta.

i was nine years old when i went to boarding school in calcutta in 1969. for the next two years i would be there, right when the naxal movement raged across the city, ravaging it. no one had a good word to say about the young men and women involved. even now people’s voices lower, as if in fear or to ward off some unknown terror, when they speak of someone, or someone’s son, who became a naxal.

and then one fine day, it was over. how it was quelled… was justice done? what were the means… did anyone really wonder in the middle of the relief? sometimes still in conversations, you hear of how the boys were taken away… in the night… lined up. shot. so many sent their sons abroad. smuggled out… sent far far away. those who could. to america… to europe. people don’t talk much about all that any more. but no one forgets.

the entire naxal experience focuses so intensely on the erring youths, and those they wiped out. who thinks of their mothers? or what happened to them after it was all over?

mahasweta devi takes us fearlessly into the world of one such mother and her son who chose a path no mother would ever want her son to. she wrote the book in 1974, soon after the naxal movement was brought under control in bengal. it was translated several years later in 1997. the language is once removed from the original bengali. so i am sure i am losing some of the eloquence, although samik bandyopadhyay’s translation seems faithful to the writer’s mind, as though taking care to make sure her word flow, her sentence structure, are not lost. the story is told her way. the story telling is spare, pointed, where less is definitely more. it’s a tight, short book of about a hundred pages. once you pick it up, it’s difficult to let go.

there’s a grandeur in the narrative, in the simple hard hitting words, in that almost documentary style. i felt at times i was reading a greek tragedy. yes, really… not that i have read many, but it did feel like that. sujata was no wronged princess nor warrior from another time, yet wasn’t she that and even more? she, an everyday upper middle class housewife of a typical kolkata “bhadra bari,” who had made peace with everything… everything… become a doormat almost. but now she was the mother of 1048.

and brati? how tender, how vulnerable the young son. how innocent, untouched.

then there are dibyanath, bini, jyoti, nipa, tuli, amit, hem, mrs kapadia, somu’s mother, nandini, and so many others. mahasweta devi’s characters are painted with incisive, insightful strokes. sometimes all it takes are a sentence or two to illuminate an entire persona; even tell a complete story. through just one family she opens a viewing gallery to an entire section of society. the characters may be types, but the individual reaches out and makes his or her presence felt. they touch you, they take you effortlessly into their world. where along with the deep and beautiful and indestructible live the ugly, the mundane, the ones full of fear.

and did i say the writing is spare and hard hitting? yes, that and also intensely lyrical. there are clean breaks in the documentary like narration and lifts into metre. sometimes it feels like poetry.

for some reason, synge’s riders to the sea came to mind; and aparna sen’s paroma and 36 chowringhee lane.

confession. i am reading a book after a long, long time. i picked it up this morning, and read till i finished it. now here i am, writing away. maybe i’ll be reading this one again some day. the naxals are a generation people would rather forget, unlike another gone awry generation, the hippies. yet, there was poignance here too, and perhaps beauty… amid all the blood, manipulation, anger, sordidness, and betrayal. death, agony, destruction, but hajar churashir ma, mother of 1084, is really a story about love. and resurrection.

indrani’s index