This slim novel by Mahasweta Devi (1926-2016) is described in the blurb as a “fast-paced thriller… [with] bizarre twists and turns”, and is said to be focussed on the themes of “sex, lies, death”. This should be enough to make her ardent admirers sit up in disbelief. Did the great Mahasweta, that radical and revolutionary writer and social activist, actually deign to write a thriller with a sex-and-murder mystery in it? What could have made her do it? Was she attempting to uplift the genre and adapt it to her radical agenda, or was she simply reduced to writing a potboiler?
If we are prompted to ask questions like these, it is because we see Mahasweta as standing on a double-column pedestal of both high art and steadfast purpose. Her best-known novels and short stories constitute a shining corpus even in English translation: Mother of 1084, Breast Stories, Rudali, Old Women, Chotti Munda and His Arrow, Titu Mir, and many others. She won the Jnanpith, she is a rare winner of the Magsaysay award for someone who was primarily a writer, and she was awarded the Padma Vibhushan when the glass ceiling for writers was the Padma Bhushan. In any case, no other Indian writer has ever won all three awards.
In her later years, the short and frail Mahasweta developed a robust, off-hand, larger-than-life manner in which she would say anything to anyone. Once she asked a world-renowned professor of English if she, the professor, knew what “pterodactyl” means. (It is the title of one of her short stories.) On another occasion, when a venerable writer who was presiding over her lecture suddenly suffered a heart attack, Mahasweta imputed a causal connection and admonished the organisers afterwards for putting such a faint-hearted man in the chair when she was going to speak.
Maybe all this had something to do with the fact that the one plum that Mahasweta set her heart on eluded her: the post of president of the Sahitya Akademi. As she wryly put it in an interview with Naveen Kishore, she was “gloriously defeated” in an election in which the electorate comprised 100-odd writers from 24 major Indian languages—and this may have galled her even more. Perhaps not all her literary compeers were charmed by her upfront mien and manner. Maybe they could also see more clearly than her that she would not be able to speak truth (and whatever else) to power when she herself was in power.
Mahasweta well knew that man or woman does not live by truth-telling alone. She chose to earn her living by the pen, which involved writing all kinds of things pretty much all the time. She published more than 100 novels and over 20 collections of short stories, and the mystery novella under review is just one of them. And yet, this work is not to be dismissed lightly, for it has many of her signature virtues.
The style is without frills. The sentences are short, with some being mere phrases: “Multi-storeyed. Divided into six blocks.” One or two such sentences make up a whole paragraph.
And some paragraphs fill not even a whole line.
- If a thriller from the great activist and feminist icon, Mahasweta Devi, sounds surprising, the fact is that she did dabble in such genres, if only to subvert its tropes.
- In this story about a missing corpse, there are several self-reflexive nods.
- The ending too is worthy of Mahasweta’s radical convictions.
The story is constantly in motion. In fact, what is in constant motion is a corpse. A young maid lies dead in one of the posh flats. On discovering it, the babu in the flat stealthily moves the corpse to the flat opposite under the cover of night. In turn, the babu in Flat B moves it to Flat C. But the caretaker in Flat C quickly figures out what is going on, and drags the corpse back to Flat A and deposits it on top of the bed in the master bedroom—as if in a macabre version of the party game Pass the Parcel. The master of Flat A then comes home dead-drunk at 4 am, lies next to the corpse whom he takes to be his wife, and sleeps on until the stink alerts the durwan and the manager and they come knocking.
“The story is constantly in motion. In fact, what is in constant motion is a corpse.”
But this is not Mahasweta going over the top. She is, rather, taking the mickey out of the sub-genre while soiling her hands in it. Just to make sure we get it, she also makes some self-reflexive nods here and there. She says the meek old babu in Flat B would not have felt so hassled about what to do with the corpse had he been a reader of James Hadley Chase.
She installs a venerable old writer in another flat and the mafia don who built the whole set of flats keeps him supplied with Scotch whisky and chicken and Chinese meals for a month so that he can complete undisturbed a novel he is writing as a Puja special number. We are not told by the translator, Anjum Katyal, whether this novel by Mahasweta too first appeared in a Puja special. We do know that some of her major works did, including “Draupadi” and “Stanadayini” (The Breast-giver).
As if herself joining in the burlesque, Katyal tells us that her knowledge of Bengali is “far from good.” But she seems to have a cohort of Bengali friends who have kindly “picked the whole text (i.e., translation) apart” and put it back together for her. It remains a mystery why they could not save her from a couple of palpable gaffes. A character plans to wake up at seven, have a cup of tea, “do the daily job”, and bathe. If that “daily job” is a literal rendering of nitya-karma, it perhaps needs to be spelt out that this job involves sitting on the pot.
And when “Kumbhakaran” is said in the Notes at the end to be “a character from the epic Mahabharata,” the error is worthy of Salman Rushdie who told us in Midnight’s Children that Vyasa wrote the Ramayana.
To let Mahasweta have the last word, she gives to the novel an ending quite worthy of her radical convictions. After all the upper-class shenanigans, we have a host of subaltern characters, including the dead maid’s husband and friends from the slum close by, joining the durwan and the manager in bursting into Flat A, cornering the capitalist crook who had got the maid pregnant, and making sure he does not escape.
But even this babu is given a shred of a psychological fig leaf. Mahasweta tells us that he felt especially attracted to the maid when he saw her wearing the smart blouse and fancy sari which his wife had cast off and given to her.
Harish Trivedi taught English at Delhi University.