| Outcastes and Oppression |
Breast Stories, by Mahasweta Devi; Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak; Seagull Books; Calcutta; 1997; ISBN: 8170461405
Of Women, Outcastes, Peasant and Rebels: A Selection of Bengali Short Stories, Edited, translated, and with an Introduction by Kalpana Bardhan; University of California Press; 1990; ISBN: 0520067142
Bengali literature has been abundant, rich and multifaceted for several centuries. Much of it, though, exists only in Bengali, and thus is unavailable to the rest of India and most of the world. A recent trickle of translated works is now rapidly expanding, as evidenced by the two books discussed here.
Mahasweta Devi needs little introduction. Her powerful stories about the dispossessed along with her activism on their behalf have made her one of the best-known, and most frequently translated, of India's authors. One of the books reviewed here, 'Breast Stories' consists of three of her stories translated into English, and her works are featured significantly in the other: 'Of Women, Outcastes, Peasants and Rebels'.
'Breast Stories' is translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, the doyenne of postcolonial analysis. Spivak features as prominently in the book as Devi herself. Each story is accompanied by an analysis of almost equivalent length, described variously as a foreword, analysis, or notes. Their sheer volume makes them impossible to ignore -- the deconstruction of the story 'Breast-Giver' is, in fact, twice as long as the story itself.
This analysis is presumably a bonus for postcolonial academics, but it adds little for the casual reader. Perhaps 'casual' is not the most appropriate term -- Mahasweta Devi's stories are potent and disturbing, and would not be good beach reading, so one assumes that only moderately serious readers would attempt them. The translator's comments, however, are couched in the jargon of the postcolonial arena which is impenetrable to anyone outside that field. They stand in stark contrast to the simple language used by Devi herself.
A paragraph from Mahasweta Devi's Draupadi:
Now Dopdi spreads her arms, raises her face to the sky, turns towards the forest, and ululates with the force of her entire being. Once, twice, three times. At the third burst the birds in the trees at the outskirts of the forest awake and flap their wings. The echo of the call travels far.
A typical paragraph from the accompanying analysis:
Of course, this voice of male authority also fades. Once Dopdi enters, in the final section of the story, the postscript area of lunar flux and sexual difference, she is in a place where she will finally act for herself in not 'acting', in challenging the man to (en)counter her as unrecorded or misrecorded objective historical monument. The army officer is shown as unable to ask the authoritative ontological question, What is this? Enough said.
Draupadi is probably one of Mahasweta Devi's most famous stories, and has been reprinted and translated in several collections. (See, for example, the 'SAWNET archive' for a list of her translations.) Like most of her stories, it is set among the tribals in Bengal. Draupadi, or Dopdi as her name appears in dialect, is a rebel, hunted down by the government in their attempt to subjugate these groups. The government uses all forces available to them, including kidnapping, murder, and rape, and any tribal deaths in custody are invariably 'accidents'. But Dopdi is not easily cowed. After continuous days of rape and abuse, deprived of food and water, the story ends with a magnificient final scene in which she faces her abusers, naked and bloody, but fiercely strong.
The thread that ties the three stories together is the breast. In the second story, Breast-Giver, the breast is a source of food and a livelihood: Jashoda is paid to breastfeed the many children in the extended family of her Master and Mistress. Her abundant milk supports her own crippled husband and family. The names of the characters are not casually chosen -- Jashoda is the mother of Krishna, and Draupadi the wife of the Pandavas in the Mahabharat. There are many layers to these stories and therefore many interpreations; each reading may reveal, and each reader may discover, a different slant.
The final story in this collection was perhaps the least intriguing, focusing on a respectable middle-class photographer Upin, who is fascinated by the lovely breasts of a tribal woman, Gangor.
Devi's stories are remarkable for their complete lack of sentimentality. The hard life stories of the tribals who are oppressed by the moneylenders and landlords, condescended to by the government, aided in uselessly inappropriate ways by charity groups and well-meaning city people, are described in her distinctively matter-of-fact style. The history of the region is integral to many stories, but it is taken for granted and never explained. Many readers may miss the finer details of the classes and cultures, but will still be shaken by the stories themselves.
'Of Women, Outcastes, Peasants and Rebels' also contains several of her stories. They are translated by the editor, Kalpana Bardhan, and have a distinctly different tone than those in 'Breast Stories'. Mahasweta Devi writes in a mixture of tribal and folk dialects and urban Bengali. Her language is probably very hard to translate, and the two editors have taken different approaches. The stories in 'Of Women...' flow easily in English, and one tends to focus on the story and characters who are quite riveting in themselves. In 'Breast Stories' the English is intentionally awkward at times, and the unusual language startles the reader into an awareness that there are words and worlds beyond the English translation.
The five stories by Mahasweta Devi in 'Of Women...' are linked, set in East Bihar in a community of landless peasants. As always, they detail the devastating oppression under which the characters suffer -- by the Rajput landlords, the moneylenders, the police, the BDOs (Block Development Officials) -- yet, in each story, someone is fighting the tide. In 'Paddy Seeds', Dulan is used by a landlord to suppress any stirrings of rebellion in the village, but at the same time Dulan is cleverly manipulative himself. 'Dhowli' is an outcaste girl who has the misfortune of having the landlord's son fall for her. Dhowli has few options, and the ending is sad, but her own fortitude saves this from being just another mournful tale of oppression. 'Giribala' leaves her wastrel husband, and her saddest thoughts are that she wished she had done it earlier. The characters in the stories are immensely tough, in spite of a system that grinds them down at every step. It is this innate sense of raw rebellion that makes the stories so impressive - she forces the reader to feel the humanity of every one of her Ganjus and Dusads.
The authors translated in 'Of Women...' are a subset of the Bengali canon of great literature -- Tagore, two of the three famous Bandyopadhyays and Hasan Azizul Haq. Rabindranath Tagore's (Bardhan uses the Bengali Thakur in the book) stories, written between 1892 and 1914, feature the interactions between married couples, mostly in the small middle-class world of Bengali bhadralok. The language is clean and precise, and the stories focus on the societal failings that trap some people into tightly woven nets of miserable rituals and family expectations. In 'Haimanti', for example, the husband watches his young, lighthearted wife wither under the subtle family oppression. He is is anguished but objective about his own failure to save her. He justifies his support of social norms:
Some of my friends asked me later why I did not do what I had said I would do. All I had to do was just leave with my wife. Why did I not take such an obvious simple step? Why indeed! If I am not to sacrifice my true feelings for what people regard as proper, if I am not to sacrifice my dearest one for the extended family, then what about the ages of social indoctrination running in my blood? ...Don't you know that on the day the people of Ayodhya demanded the banishment of Sita, I was among them? The theme of suppressed wives in extended joint families is repeated in Tagore's 'Letter from a Wife', in which the wife, Mrinal, is leaving a 15-year childless marriage. The letter is a damning indictment of the woman's own husband, who had never physically abused her but was a passive participant in suppressing her interests, desires, and those of the other women in the extended family.
Manik Bandyopadhyay's stories, along with those by Mahasweta Devi, were my favourites in this collection. They are unsentimental too, and set among the impoverished peasants of Bengal. 'A Tale of These Days' is set shortly after the famine of 1943, and the characters are completely consumed with the desperate struggle to survive. The story goes beyond this raw misery to show how the characters still have opinions and decisions to make; how morality changes in such situations, how a wife may be faced with prostitution to feed her children, how a man may be faced with the choice of whether to accept her back. 'A Female Problem at a Low Level' (1963) has a remarkable protagonist, Durga, who is well aware of her choices and trade-offs.
Hasan Azizul Haq was born in pre-Partition India, grew up in India and East Pakistan, and now lives in Bangladesh. Many of his stories are set in the aftermath of the bloody disruptions that made the country. This is a space where both the oppressor and oppressed are bitterly poor, and it is not easy to make distinctions between the two. The young men in 'The Daughter and the Oleander', the most intriguing of his stories here, have no hope of employment or future. They pick pockets to make miniscule amounts of money. Which they spend on the 'golden body' of the daughter of a nearby Partition migrant, who himself has no alternative earning ability. There is a general sense of resentment and shame shared by all the characters. In this book, he is the only author to include both Hindu and Muslim characters, who mingle easily with each other.
Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay is represented by the odd choice of two largely similar stories. Both are titled 'The Witch' (he wrote many variations on this story). They are similar enough that one wonders why both were necessary, and they give the impression that his writing had limited breadth. I found neither story especially compelling, though they did show the power of imagined evil.
All five authors were translated by Kalpana Bardhan, yet she has managed to retain a distinctive voice for each. She has also taken the sensible step of providing context and historical background via footnotes, which do not intrude upon the story. In her introduction, she discusses her reasons for selecting this particular group of stories, which all feature oppression in some form. She provides brief biographies of each author and an overall comparison of the themes in their stories. I read the introduction after the stories themselves, not wanting to be biased by her point of view, but found instead that it gave me an additional appreciation and insight into the writing. I would suggest reading it before the stories, for background information, as well as after, when the discussions of the stories will be more meaningful. Just skip over the occasional repetitive sentence.