“If the sky were sheet of paper/ If every blade of grass on earth were pen/ If the seven seas were awash with ink/ If all of that were used up even then/ It would not be enough for their history to be written.”
The popular adage “The pen is mightier than the sword” stands immortalised through Mahasweta Devi’s works, about a 100 novels written during her literary career spanning six decades. The doyen of Indian activist writers, she dedicatedly worked to solve grassroot problems of tribals, landless labourers and other marginalised sections of the society.
In Bedanabala set in pre-independent India, she lends a voice to the scarred lives of prostitutes or ‘kept’ women, women diligently kept off the boundaries of sacrosanct and safe domestic fold.
An account of subaltern memory
Bedanabala: Her Life. Her Times by Mahasweta Devi, translated from Bengali by Sunandini Banerjee, an account in first person begins with the birth of the titular character in the year 1910 but soon meanders into the story of two prominent characters – Ma (Bedanabala’s mother, Kamalini) and Did’ma (whose name is Kaminibala).
Did’ma, a highly influential woman, one in a long line of whores hunted down pretty girls from rich zamindar households and bribed their maids into selling them. Ma, born in a rich zamindar family, was one such victim.
Ma grows up to be an exceptionally beautiful girl, a Kohinoor in Did’ma’s coterie. Her goddess-like beauty invokes a certain devotion and strangely triggers pangs of love in Did’ma. Did’ma who knew only whoring all her life now wishes to atone her sins. She simply cannot get Ma to complete the rituals of becoming a professional whore after she turns 14.
Bathed in turmeric water and married to a curved hand-held blade of iron for life with a pledge to serve any man who crossed her threshold and her name listed in the police records, this marks a girl’s inception into the business of whoring. There is no turning back for the girl thereafter – “Men will tear her to pieces while she’s alive. And when she’s dead, the government will swallow every bit she leaves behind.”
Did’ma‘s mindset is seen undergoing a change around the time the country is embracing Swadeshi ideals and resisting the tyranny of British rulers; a strong nationalistic fervour and a modern outlook is slowly seeping into the air around.
Ma is 17 and still hasn’t flung a garland onto a blade of iron. How fate, once again, through Did’ma charters an alternate course of life for Ma, that of a housewife which every whore hankers after, we learn from the account.
The spare prose of Bedanabala is highly incisive with the plight of these prostitutes tearing our heart asunder. They have a million names and are scorned at, their shadows considered polluting, but the men who visit them remain untainted.
The prose is evocative in parts where Ma’s (Kamalini) beauty is described – her red-bordered garad silk saree, her face framed in it as the sari covers her head, red alta on her feet, all painting a vivid image.
The characters are few and well fleshed out. Mani who just couldn’t escape her fate as a whore and had none to call her own except Did’ma is the most complex and layered character – she rebels against Did’ma but is also servile and loyal to her, her happiness is bitter sweet when Ma’s life takes a turn for good. Her conversations with Bedanabala shape the account to a great extent.
The nationalist movement with instances of social work by Nabya Hindu Mission and daring, young rebels upping the ante against British Raj makes a brilliant backdrop to Bedanabala.
Mahasweta Devi depicts feminism in the most pragmatic fashion in Bedanabala – emancipation of women achieved by concerted efforts from both men and women. Bedanabala’s father – Balaram Ray, a rich zamindar, a zealous patriot and a sincere social worker not only gives a new lease of life to Ma but earnestly treats her an equal in their married life. When Bedanabala is born, he proudly claims his daughter will be worth a hundred sons.
The qualm that we learn very little of Bedanabala in the book despite the title is allayed with a befitting end.
The reasons for Did’ma’s reluctance to get Ma into the profession and the nature of their bond remain quite fuzzy. What compelled Did’ma to make an exception in case of Ma when her remarkable beauty could have brought huge profits to the business remains unclear from Bedanabala’s account of gathered memories.
The first words barely out, the first teeth barely up, and you steal them. Bring them here and feed them and fatten them like chickens in a coop. Then hurl them into hell. If they’d been with their own true parents perhaps they’d marry too, have families too.
Sunandini Banerjee who has translated this novella beautifully and seamlessly has also designed the cover using a painting by Arunima Chowdhury, the image probably conveying how every woman is a sum of many identities, shaped by circumstances and forces around her.
Conclusion – It is noteworthy that the soil from outside brothels is begged for from sex workers and brought to make idols for Durga Puja every year. While this sign of inclusion is heartwarming, we have a long way to go in assuring that these women have the right to break free from the darkness and grime in their lives.
Bedanabala is a powerful account of subaltern lives that should be read to understand that sections we consider as outcasts in society often contribute in the biggest way in scripting its history.
Final Verdict – 4.5*
Our Rating System
* – Don’t bother.
** – Borrow it if you must, use it as a travel companion.
***– Make a purchase. Maybe an online purchase, or a kindle purchase. But buy it, encourage it.
**** – Go to a bookstore and buy it. Pay those extra bucks.
*****–Buy a hardback and show it off in your bookshelf! And then wait for a signed anniversary edition and buy that too.