Review: Truth/Untruth by Mahasweta Devi

ByVivek Tejuja
Jun 05, 2023 09:13 PM IST

Set in the 1980s, this novel, that revolves around the death of a pregnant housemaid, examines issues of class and power

While Truth/Untruth doesn’t read like a regular Mahasweta Devi novel, no one else could have written it. Replete with the celebrated author’s nuances of right versus wrong, good versus evil, and rich versus poor, the emotions that surface here are omnipresent in all her works. Mahasweta Devi’s themes are specific, yet universal. They could take place anywhere in the world and, yet, are so intrinsic to Kolkata that their mysteries and drama could only unfold there.

The Howrah Bridge in Kolkata. (HT Photo) PREMIUM
The Howrah Bridge in Kolkata. (HT Photo)

144pp, ₹599; Seagull Books
144pp, ₹599; Seagull Books

Set in the mid-1980s in an India struggling between the haves and the have-nots, Truth/Untruth revolves around the death of a pregnant maid. Jamuna works in a Khidirpur high-rise called Barnamala Apartments ironically situated next to a slum. As the novel progresses, the reader can see that perhaps not much has changed in the country.

In over 150 pages, the author introduces us to a range of characters including those who live in the building and the people who work for them. She examines their insecurities and fears, the spaces they inhabit, their aspirations, and the things they will do to fulfill them.

Anjum Katyal’s translation from the Bengali is spot-on. She has managed to retain both, the essence of Mahasweta Devi’s sardonic humour and the lens through which she viewed the world. The ways of the nouveau riche and the slum-dwellers’ perspectives on life impinge upon each other with the privileged being very aware that an exhibition of wealth could be eyesore to the domestic workers, security guards, and cleaners who service and protect their homes.

At the centre of the tale is Arjun Chakravarty, who was born Sanatan l Pushilal. He amassed wealth, changed his name to a Brahmin one, married Kumkum, the daughter of a retired Supreme Court Judge, and lives in a posh flat. He impregnates Jamuna their maid. On her death, petrified that he will lose his reputation, he wants be rid of the body.

The author’s eye for detail is evident on every page. She effectively captures the spirit of 1980s India, a time when the country was struggling to hold onto its morals even as the average citizen was painfully aware that corruption was endemic and that every problem could be solved with money. It is all captured with a delicious black irony.

A book that showcases dual realities, its fiction merges with snapshots of contemporary politics and society – there are references to the Bhopal Gas Tragedy and the excesses of the real estate mafia. In this world, identities are constantly shifting. The old makes way for the new, and much lies buried beneath the surface. Jamuna, the maid, is often compared to Arjun’s wife, Kumkum, and the action plays out much like an old Bollywood film but with added layers of profundity. Katyal’s translation makes Devi’s thoughts and ideas clear but the reader also notes a degree of hesitation. Perhaps that’s understandable given she’s working with the words of a legendary activist and author. Still, her interpretation and translation is a feat with the English language changing form and shape throughout the novel depending on context – the way it is spoken by the aspirational classes differs from how those from economically weaker sections use it.

Mahasweta Devi in a picture dated 31 March, 2001. (Subhendu Ghosh/HT Photo)
Mahasweta Devi in a picture dated 31 March, 2001. (Subhendu Ghosh/HT Photo)

Mahasweta Devi does not shrink from presenting inequality, strife, and hypocrisy. She takes a specific slice of society, crystallizes the differences between the have and the have-nots, and then proceeds to show how, when lines are crossed, both sides become palpably desperate. Arjun’s shame, Jamuna’s yearning to get away, Desai’s situation, and Mohsin’s discomfort at being unwittingly caught in a difficult situation all come through as do varying ideas of marriage, love, and survival.

Truth/Untruth constantly looks at, questions, and evaluates the individual and his or her socioeconomic and cultural background and access to power. A book that’s faithful in spirit to Mahasweta Devi’s Leftist ideals, it makes the reader think about all the essential questions. A volume that constantly holds up a mirror, it also forces the reader to look at what’s on the other side of that looking glass.

Vivek Tejuja is the author of ‘So Now You Know: Growing up Gay in India’. Besides men, he loves books, food, and cats, and in no particular order of preference.

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