Maheshwata Devi’s urban novella, Truth/Untruth, set in 1980s Calcutta, is a story about dirty pasts that catch up with the present, and how money is often built on this belief that it won’t. It’s fiction that tingles with real-world politics. Translated by Anjum Katyal, the book begins in Khidirpur, a seedy part of central-west Calcutta. In the opening chapter, Devi invites us inside our non-human protagonist: Barnamala, a high-rise building. The surrounding landscape is in tatters, but rapidly urbanizing; a slum adjoins from where Barnamala “gets its labour.” The second chapter introduces us to our main characters, the shady Arjun Babu, Barnamala’s contractor, and the domestic worker Jamuna, who Arjun gets pregnant. Arjun tells Jamuna to get an abortion. She goes to a quack and is prescribed the wrong medication that ultimately kills her. Her body is discovered in Arjun’s house. What ensues is the rest of the comedic, albeit dark plot.
Devi’s book locates itself in a space where old realities are swept into the new, producing a duality of the old, and the primal against the modern and the moral. The past is not wanted. Yet the people in this book are both of these versions. The greed and the guilt. The desperation and the earnestness. The scandal and the innocent romance. Even outside this subtext, the story is full of contrasting juxtapositions. The affluent Barnamala is placed next to a slum. Jamuna is compared to Kumkum, Arjun’s wealthy wife. Within them, these juxtapositions trace further contrasts. Like an eighties Bollywood movie, the story often superimposes simplistic notions of the good and the bad on the haves and have-nots. Despite these stereotypes, there is an unabashed quality to Devi’s voice (in Katyal’s English rendition) that produces its own versions of reality. One believes that Barnamala’s elite residents are possessed by acidic self-preservation because, within the background of the surging neo-liberalism of the 80s, this high-rise building is a self-contained world.
Whether one regards the substance or the form, Truth/Untruth fits easily in Maheshwata Devi’s oeuvre of realist stories grounded in post-independent India’s complex politics. She wrote about the margins, though she wasn’t part of them. Like many of her writings, Truth/ Untruth does not explain itself; one learns through the details. For instance, the time period is emphasized with the help of a reference to Bhopal Gas Tragedy, a catastrophic gas leak in a North Indian town in the early 1980s. Devi does not spoon-feed, almost as if the book wasn’t written for an unfamiliar audience, an outsider. Katyal’s translation makes clear Devi’s deliberate opacity.
See, for instance, the opening sentence,
For those who gasp at the mere mention of Khidirpur, it is to make them gasp in yet another way that high-rise building after building keeps shooting up.
The use of two gasps forms a lawyered surprise; effuses a circular quality to the sentence, like reading a poem and immediately wanting to return to the first line as you finish. This opener does two things: immediately sets the context, but also directs us to the emotion Devi expects the reader to have about Khidirpur.
Another aspect of Devi’s voice that Katyal’s translation preserves is the uneven language across characters. Indian English makes it difficult to portray class-affected language—the poor don’t speak bad English, they often don’t speak any English. Katyal remedies this defect by using misspellings and varying the lengths of sentences—are the rich more verbose?
It’s not hard to imagine why Devi’s books were once so hugely revered. They give snapshots of a life that India went through, and still—in many parts—aches through. The greys are non-existent, and the blacks and whites are paper-thin. Yet Devi suspends them in a concentrated world and compels us to think about the nightmarish quality of this world that isn’t very far from us.
by Maheshwata Devi
Translated by Anjum Katyal
Published on June 21, 2023