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Struggle of Class and Conflict of Ideas as Seen from the Familial to Social Surface in Mahasweta Devi’s Mother of 1084: A Marxist Study


Struggle of Class and Conflict of Ideas as Seen from the Familial to Social Surface in Mahasweta Devi’s Mother of 1084: A Marxist Study

Dipak Giri

Assistant Teacher of English

Katamari High School (H.S.)

West Bengal, India



Translated into English by Samik Bandyopadhyay from its original Bengali version, entitled as Hajar Chaurasir Ma, the play Mother of 1084 tries to present the class struggle between the bourgeois and the proletariat on the dramatic surface against the background of Naxalite Movement of 1970s. The expansion of the peasant revolution into a mass revolution against the Neo-colonial bourgeois capitalist government in March, 1967 in Naxalbari of Darjeeling District of West Bengal serves as the dramatic background behind all the action in the play. The paper endeavours to bring into surface this widespread class struggle that had taken the form of mass revolution during the time impacting almost every sphere of life from familial to social. The paper as a whole not merely discusses how Mahasweta Devi presents the class struggle and conflict of ideas but also shows how sympathetic Devi had during her life-time for the Naxalites to whom she had earnestly tried to win the heart of majority. The paper discusses Devi’s humanistic standpoint from both social and political perspectives. With blend of literature and history, the paper has tried to infuse realism into the mass revolution of 1970s in order to seek plea for the Naxalites taken by majority as social enemy.


Keywords: Class; Conflict; Marxist; Society; Naxalite; Movement


The very opening line of the legendary text The Communist Manifesto written by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles (Marx & Engels 473) is the hard reality that is at the core of all existing and pre-existing human societies. Even though the writers have died hundred years ago, the legacy still continues. This continual and endless process of struggle has been going on since the very origin of our civilization. One class of our society is always made victim by another oppressive bourgeois class and this sub-ordination of one class of people to another class turn one class to the state of proletariat. “Oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of contending classes” (ibid 474).  In Marxism, human society combines of two classes- ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’. The ‘superstructure’, the bourgeois holds the rein of the ‘base’, the proletariat who, in spite of being behind all human productions, is denied to freedom of life. The injustice and domination of the ‘superstructure’ over the ‘base’ is well-illustrated in Bernard Shaw’s most celebrated essay “Freedom:

If you like honey you can let the bees produce it by their labor, and then steal it from them. If you are too lazy to get about from place to place on your own legs you can make a slave of a horse. And what you do to a horse or a bee, you can also do to a man or woman or a child, if you can get the upper hand of them by force or fraud or trickery of any sort, or even by teaching them that it is their religious duty to sacrifice their freedom to yours. (Shaw 120)

Translated into English by Samik Bandyopadhyay from its original Bengali version entitled as Hajar Chaurasir Ma, the play Mother of 1084 tries to present the class struggle between the bourgeois and the proletariat on the dramatic surface against the background of Naxalite Movement of 1970s. The expansion of the peasant revolution into a mass revolution against the Neo-colonial bourgeois capitalist government in March 1967 in Naxalbari of Darjeeling District of West Bengal serves as the dramatic background behind all the action in the play. As per the ideals of Marxian class struggle, the rebels worked to realize the movement forming a new party CPI (ML) out of CPI (M) and followed the footsteps of Marxist leaders to establish the socialism in place of capitalism. This was a time of crisis when “the middle class is fast losing its balance, and going over to the other class”, and “a brutally complacent and ignorant richer class has come into being” (Bandyopadhyay viii-ix). It gave birth to two classes which came in conflict to each other. As a socially responsible writer, Mahasweta Devi could not overlook the spirit of the time and took her pen to meet the demands of the time and the result was her Mother of 1084. “After thirty one years of independence, I find my people still groaning under hunger, landlessness, indebtedness, and bonded labour. An anger, luminous, burning and passionate, directed against a system that has failed to liberate my people from these horrible constraints, is the only source of inspiration for all my writing” (ibid). The success of this celebrated play lies not in giving scattered information about the revolution but in bringing out the hard realities of the revolutionists who suffered inhuman tortures at the hand of law and state machinery.

The very air of class struggle is felt from the beginning of the play Mother of 1084 and goes on till end. A voice repeating three times ‘Seventeen January Nineteen Seventy’ in Scene 1 and the police morgue littered with dead bodies of Brati and his group in scene 2 link the play to the Naxalite Movement of 1970s in which many youth lost their life in their attempt to bring social change driven by Marxian idealism of classless society: “ Reference to the Barasat killing in November 1970, when the bodies of eleven young men with their hands tied behind them, were found slaughtered on the road to Barasat, and the Baranagar killing on 12 August 1971 when more than a hundred Naxalites were hounded out from their dens and decapitated and killed in broad daylight, connect the killing of Brati and his group to the organized massacre of the Naxalites in 1970-71, perpetrated by the police, the party in power, hired assassins, and even parties of the Left Establishment acting in unholy collision” (ibid xi). The 1970s was the witness of inhuman and ruthless torture on the revolutionists by the repressive forces. It was a time when the tide of revolution reaching from North Bengal to South Bengal covered the entire Bengal. The revolution that started in northern parts spread like a flame and reached every nook and corner. Fusillade, massacre and death were common occurrences. Youth of one locality is forbidden to roam about freely in another locality. The day Brati visits Somu’s house before the night that follows his death gives the hint how risky was to move about freely in those days. When Brati seeks permission for his departure from Somu’s house, Somu warns him: “Why? Are you dying to get killed? Stay here. I too joined in, Don’t go, dear, stay here for the night. They were killing the young men of the locality itself, a stranger would be a surer target” (Devi 10). Ironically Somu’s warning and denial against Brati’s departure invites an unexpected turn of event and Brati is killed that night by the hooligans through unexpected reversal of situation. This hard and shocking realization is well conceived in the words of Somu’s mother to Sujata, “Who knows, sister? If we had let him go that night, he might have escaped death” (ibid).


The play Mother of 1084 chronicles the time of 1970s, the rise and fall of Naxalites. The movement was started with the great idealism of Marks that transformation of society can only be possible by the active participation of majorities against the minorities: “All previous historical movements were movements of minorities or in the interests of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority. The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air” (Marx & Engels 482). The zeal of revolutionary spirit was so high among the revolutionists that they openly faced the police fire and the attacks of the hooligans. There are many references regarding   open challenges and fights in the play. Somu, Bijit and Brati sacrifice their life for great social cause. They face death as if they are going to marry it holding ‘one another’s hands’ and ‘shouting slogans, ‘Long live…! Long  live…!”(Devi 16) Nandini’s sacrifice is greater than Brati and his group. She becomes the victim of inhuman police torture at the prison. “NANDINI. The prison. The solitary cell. The worst torture…Yes, the worst kind” (ibid 22). She faces “the gleams of the thousand watt lamps (ibid 26) which made her almost blind. Then comes the worst form of torture. Saroj Pal dishonours her physically. Nandini hints it to Sujata, “I won’t be able to tell you all that happened after, (Pause). The sores on skin have healed but I’ll never be normal again (ibid 25).  Sujata also realizes this hard and unbearable fact that “It’s more tragic for a living Nandini than for a dead Brati” (ibid). We are left in surprise seeing Nandini still upright even after all these nightmarish occurrences. Hopes of sparks are still living inside her. She makes it clear when Sujata seeks permission of re-arrival in Nandini’s house at the time of her departure. “NANDINI. No. What do you gain out of coming to me? You live with your past. I have to harness my present, and think of the future (ibid 26). Here Nandini appears to be a true and ardent follower of Marxian ideology. A true Marxist dreams in all situations that a time will come when society will be transformed from class-division to classless.


The play Mother of 1084 reveals how a lot of humanity is living a life of illusion. Majority of people of modern society believe that the laws and orders regulated by the government are always for the welfare of majorities but the picture of reality is totally different. These laws and orders are regulated by few bourgeoisies for the same class of people. “The executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie (Marx & Engels 475).  How people are lying under the sheet of illusion and betrayal is revealed in Nandini’s speech: “Betrayal. The prison walls rise higher, new watch towers shoot up, there are so many young men still in the prisons, and yet a political party will not take a stand until it has been able to determine how it’ll serve its own interest and affect its standing with the Centre. Betrayal. The worst reactionaries make avowals of their sympathy for us, and in the process they spoil our image in the public eye. Betrayal. We are not allowed the use of the Press, paper, type-lead to explain our views. And yet there are all those journals that claim to be sympathetic to our cause. Betrayal. Every supposedly sympathetic piece tries shrewdly and skillfully to prove us adventurist-romantics. Betrayal. Even when we were being killed, all the writers and all the periodicals were crying over Bangladesh, they had nothing to say about West Bengal. And the same ones now write lamentations about us. Betrayal. And…within the prisons…” (Devi 20-21). This trap of illusion and betrayal is so vast that hardly anyone is left from it. Proletariat class of people think people involved with the revolution hate whatever exists (ibid 19) and they easily fall upon the trap of illusion and betrayal laid by few bourgeois.  Anindya is among such people who comes under the temptations of bourgeoisie and betrays Brati and his group to death. Bourgeoisie class sometimes uses the bait of material power and benefits to trap the majority of people and its impact proves so high that they are made easily tempted to. Nandini accepts the fact to Sujata, “Money, jobs and power didn’t mean a thing to us. But these were the temptations that seduced those who had joined us only to betray us. You shouldn’t underestimate the power of those temptations (ibid). In Mahasweta Devi’s dramatic design Nandini is shown as a symbol of threat to all those people who are smug and complacent even after seeing all these injustices. As a Marxist rebel she hurls her sharp arrows of anger and rage over all mankind during her conversation with Sujata: “How can you be so smug and complacent? With so many young men killed, so many imprisoned, how can you wallow in your complacency? It’s your ‘all’s right with the world, let’s go on nicely’ that frightens me most. How can you carry on with your pujas, concerts, cultural festivals, film festivals, poetry fests?” (ibid 26)  In her rebellion to all social distinctions and injustices, Nandini comes between the clever and strategist bourgeoisie and ignorant and uneducated proletariat favouring one and disdaining other. She tries to make realize the ignorant masses who find in their actions hatredness to whatever exists that “behind all our (their) apparent hatred lay a craving to love and to revere (ibid 19).


The class struggle that rose from Naxalbari of Darjeeling district between the land owners and the peasants soon became a mass struggle in which many young students irrespective of class division participated. In this regard, Charu Majumdar, one of the leading leaders of the movement took a crucial role. His appeal to the students in his article entitled, “The Party’s Summon to the Today’s Students and Youth” in Deshbrati journal to stand by the peasants exerted a far-reaching influence. “…in this extremist revolutionary movement, the educated youth’s association is necessary. The student youth are not only educated, but they have immense potentiality: courage for sacrifice and power of adaptability(Deshbrati, 21st August, 1969). In Mahasweta Devi’s Mother of 1084, Brati and his group are young students. Their social origin varies. Still, they have same ideals. The ideological bond was so high among the revolutionists that their class origin did not come in the middle. Brati, a member of an elite class has the same feeling and sympathy as Somu, a member of poor refugee has for the helpless peasants. Nandini, Sanchayan, Dipu and Simran hailing from a high middle class family, Mani and Kushal, members of leftwing parental origin feel same urge for the poor and exploited class of people as Somu, Laltu and Bijit, members of apolitical poor refugee family  feel for them. In Deshbrati, young students are not only awakened with revolutionary spirits but they are also invited for enarmed combat against the bourgeois. Kill as many enemies of the poor class possible to take the revenge of our dead comrade in Srikulum shot down by the bullets of the police, the governmental dogs (ibid, 15th January, 1970). In the course of Saroj Pal’s interrogation with Nandini, we come to know about Nandini and her group’s involvement in arms related activities. We learn participation of Mani and Nandini in inter collegiate rifle shooting, Nandini’s strong decision to train up the guerrillas in the village and learn to manufacture pipe guns with Partha. “…you go to Samiran’s house to collect arms, and you keep them for Bijit…you learn to manufacture pipe guns with Partha and another one…” (Devi 23-24).


Laying bare the hard reality hidden behind the repressive mission of the police to curb the spirit of revolutionists in the decade of the seventies, the play shows the greed and selfishness of one section of people representing Bourgeois sentimentality. The police under the cover of safeguarding people were working for the Bourgeois class of people at the cost of commoners’ life. It was the decade of violence and bloodshed, torture and repression. The reign of terror prevailed all over Bengal. “An encounter with numerous heart rending events became unavoidable in this decade. The taunt excitement of determination, the helplessness of the shot arrow that had missed the mark, the self-destructive structure of the headless ideal, and above all, the watchful, advantage seeking silence of the larger intellectual elite, and the clever inhumanity of the state machinery- all these contributed to a cloudy silence that absolutely choked the decade”(Parichay, 1980). Saroj Pal, the bloody cur of police” defines the mass action of youth revolutionists as “a cancerous growth on the body of democracy (Devi 9).


Blinded by the succession of his promotion in his professional career Saroj Pal hardly foresees any good result in the action of the revolutionists. He is always on duty to suppress the mass action, now in one place, now another. For “recognition of his heroic role in the suppression of the Naxalite revolt” (ibid), he has got a quick promotion. Forgetting all lesson of humanity he appears as an inhuman brute while treating with the revolutionists. Words like human feeling and sympathy have no place in his dictionary. At the time of interrogating Nandini, his immorality crosses all the bounds. He distorts the image of manhood which is considered and understood as the protector of feminine virtue. In a solitary cell of the police station, he tortures Nandini  psychologically showing photographs of dead Somu, Bijit and Brati and then “bends closer to her, lights a cigarette, presses the lighted cigarette to Nandini’s cheek” (ibid 25) and even does not hesitate to dishonor her physically. In real life, Saroj Pal leads a life of intrigue and hypocrisy. His outward appearance does not match with his inward reality. His speech and action are unmatched as he says one thing and does another. As a double-faced intriguer- on one hand, he tries to soothe Sujata and her husband Dibyanath: “I know, I too have a mother. No, Mr. Chatterjee, it won’t get into the papers,” (ibid 9) and on the other hand, taking life of many young revolutionists he has turned unnumbered mothers childless. The dark and distorted image of police sold at the hand of few powerful bourgeoisies is made clear when no policeman lodges the report of Somu’s father when his son Somu and his group including Brati is struggling against the hooligans as we learn from Somu’s mother on the occasion of Sujata’s visit at her house:


SOMU’S  MOTHER (Shakes her head). Somu’s father ran all the way. He had such faith in the police, but they wouldn’t even take down his complaint. They didn’t do a thing. They only sent their vans when it was all over to collect the dead bodies. When it was all over he had run to the police headquarters at Lal Bazar too. (She shakes her head again). They didn’t do a thing. That was more than he could bear, and he died of the shock. O God! Is there no justice in this country? God! No justice? He went on and on asking till he was dead. (ibid 17)


Presenting the distorted image of police, so called protector of democracy and the rights of citizen, Mahasweta Devi has exposed the illusive world of misguide principles in which a lot of humanity are left far from reality due to  false self made idealism of some bourgeois class of people.


Along with social and public sphere, the play Mother of 1084 also shows the same picture of Marxist class struggle in the domain of family. In the domestic sphere, this struggle is not fought as openly as it is seen in the societal sphere. Still the fire of rebellion is same, rather in cold and suppressed way. In Dibyanath’s household, Brati’s existence is overlooked as he has his own ideals contrasted to the rest of the family. There is also castigation of Sujata from her family only because of her attachment with her son Brati. This is well-understood through Sujata’s speech:


SUJATA (off). With Brati, they’ve cast me too in the opposite camp. If Brati had been like Jyoti, or a drunkard like Neepa’s husband, Amit, or a hardened fraud like Tony, or had run after the typist like his father, he’d have belonged to their camp. (ibid 9)


Here the hypocritical self-complacent and self-contented life led by the members of the Dibyanath’s household comes to its clear revelation in Sujata’s speech. Untouched from the stream of revolution they are like most of the humanity leading a self-centered life and alienate from them who live on selfless idealism. A true Marxist believes in action instead of spending a life of passivity and inactiveness with other family members in the cosy corner of the house. Instead of becoming the easy chair critic they are the real heroes of society who want to bring a social transformation based on the Marxian idealism of equality through widespread mass revolution. In order to realize their high idealism, they prefer the path indicated by Chinese Marxist leader Mao Tse-tung to leading a life of passive onlooker as a home stayer:


A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery. It cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another. (Tse-tung 2004)


Ironically people of such high idealism are ill-treated by family members of cheap rated mentality which measures everything with the scale of power and money. “The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation (Marx & Engels 476). Confined around the narrow and cheap idealism of the family circle, both Brati  and Sujata feel a suffocating air of  bourgeoisie sentimentality blowing around us and they feel relief only after escaping from it. The unwillingness of Brati to stay at ‘home’ which stands for Bourgeois mentality is clearly expressed in the speech of Nandini while speaking to Sujata:


NANDINI. Of course. He stayed back home till the sixteenth of January only to honour your sentiments. Otherwise he should have left for the base on the fifteenth. (Devi 21-22)


The same conflict of ideas is seen also in the household of Nandini as we learn from Saroj Pal when he is interrogating Nandini:


SAROJ PAL. Fine. (Staring at her.) Do you realize that your parents will have to pay for your stubbornness?

NANDINI. I won’t say a thing.

SAROJ PAL. They’ve all left you in the lurch and are cooperating with us. (Devi 24)


Sujata’s final speech with which the play Mother of 1084 comes to an end not only shows the awakening of an apolitical mother but also gives the social message to the lying and ignorant people to come in action against injustices and other unsocial practices of the bourgeoisie class of people. “Why don’t you speak? Speak, for heaven’s sake, speak, speak, speak! How long will you endure it in silence? (Devi 31) Driven by rage and anger, she addresses the common folk of people dead and lifeless corpses, “Corpses, stiffened corpses, all of you!” (ibid) She attacks sarcastically to all those people who are leading the shadowy existence of still and lifelessness remaining immovable from all the ill-happenings going on all around keeping safe distance from those people who are in against of them and sacrificing their life only for the happiness of others driven by full of life and energy: “Do the living die, only to leave the world to the dead to enjoy? No! Never! (ibid)  Sujata’s final speech serves the design of the play, i.e. the awakening of the ignorant proletariat against the clever and powerful bourgeoisie and at once brings the final culmination.


Works Cited

Bandyopadhyay, Samik. “Introduction”. Mahasweta Devi: Five Plays. Seagull Books, 1997.

Deshbrati. 21st August, 1969 & 15th January, 1970 issues.


Devi, Mahasweta. “Mother of 1084.” Mahasweta Devi: Five Plays, Translated by Samik Bandyopadhyay. Seagull Books, 1997, pp 1-31


Marx, Karl & Engels, Friedrich. “Manifesto of the Communist Party.” The Marx-Engels Reader. 2nd ed. Edited by Robert C. Tucker, W.W. Norton & Company, 1978, pp. 469-500


Shaw, Bernard. “Freedom”. Kaleidoscope: Textbook in English (Elective) for Class XII. NCERT, 2020, pp 119-127

Parichay, Critical Issue, May-June, 1980.

Tse-tung, Mao. “Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan. March 1927” Marxists Internet Archive. 2004, www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-1/mswv1_2.htm.