Mahasweta Devi: Beyond labels

Mahasweta Devi (1926-2016) was the voice of the subaltern. She remained a rebel and a free spirit right until the end.

Published : Aug 17, 2016 12:30 IST

Mahasweta Devi.

Mahasweta Devi.

PARAMANAND SINGH, chairman of the West Bengal Munda Samaj Kalyan Samity, a tribal welfare body, used to refer to Mahasweta Devi as “Marandai” (meaning big sister). Years ago, in an interview, he spoke of Mahasweta Devi’s relationship with him and his people: “When she would come here, she would sit inside my little mud hut on my broken charpoi, and wrapping my torn blanket about her, she would say, ‘When I come here my heart is fulfilled and I can sleep.’” These words essentially sum up the life and character of Mahasweta Devi.

For all the adulation she received in her life, for all the awards and accolades for her works, she was happiest when she was among the people about whom she wrote and for whom she fought—the oppressed, the marginalised, the forgotten people of the land. With her writings she shook the urban middle-class consciousness out of its complacency and exposed mercilessly what was brutal and shameful in society. With the power of her pen she forced society to face the truth when it would rather have averted its eyes and continued in convenient and blissful ignorance.

Hers was an extraordinary life. She was a giant in the literary world, the author of such timeless, path-breaking classics as Hajar Churashir Maa (“No. 1084’s Mother”), Aranyer Adhikar (“The Right to the Forest”), Draupadi and Chotti Munda Aar Taar Teer (Chotti Munda and his Arrow); she was a selfless social activist and a fiery and formidable political crusader; she was the most powerful voice of the subaltern and a messiah of the oppressed—a figure practically worshipped by the tribal people and treated with respectful (and intimidated) deference by the ruling classes. But what was most extraordinary about Mahasweta Devi was that she lived the life that she wrote about. She was no objective outsider. A Hajar Churashir Maa or Draupadi or Pterodactyl Puran Sahai o Teertha could not have been written with a detached point of view. The rhythms of the lives and struggles of the tribal people that are reflected in her writing cannot be separated from her own. It was this that defined her art and set her apart.

A singular, untameable, indomitable spirit, Mahasweta Devi lived life on her own terms. She was free with her favour but never sought any. She received some of the highest awards (including the Jnanpith, the Ramon Magsaysay Award, the Padma Vibhushan, the Padma Shri, the Sahitya Akademi Award and the Banga Bibhushan) but could never be persuaded to fall in line with mainstream values and norms. Right until the day she died, on July 28, 2016, at the age of 90, she remained a rebel to the core.

Early life and influences

Mahasweta Devi was born on January 14, 1926, in Dhaka (then part of undivided Bengal). Literature and the fine arts were a constant factor in her life right from the start. Her father was Manish Ghatak, the famous poet and novelist of the “Kallol era”, one of the most influential literary movements in Bengal and the harbinger of modernism in Bengali literature. He wrote under the pen name Jubanashwa . Her paternal uncle was the great Bengali film-maker Ritwik Ghatak. Her maternal uncle was the eminent economist Sachin Chaudhury, who was one of the founder-editors of Economic & Political Weekly . Her other maternal uncle, Shankha Chaudhury, was a famous sculptor. Later, she married the acclaimed dramatist and actor Bijon Bhattacharjee, the author of the famous play Nabanna (Harvest). Her son, Nabarun (1948-2014), inherited her rebellious personality and was one of the most influential Bengali writers and satirists of his generation.

Though a part of her early education was in Rabindranath Tagore’s Santiniketan (1935-38), and she later graduated in English Literature from Visva-Bharati (1946), the culture of Tagore’s famous institution never had any direct influence on her. It was her marriage to Bijon Bhattacharjee in 1947 that was the first major influence that would subsequently shape her personality and mould her into the kind of artist she ultimately became. “My marriage to Bijon introduced me to a new philosophy, a different way of life, another appearance of society, experience in an ongoing struggle, an understanding of poverty from close quarters. All these influenced me in a particular direction. These experiences had channelled my life in a particular direction, which shaped my attitude and outlook in the subsequent years in my life,” she wrote in Aami O Amaar Lekha (Me and My Writing, 1976). The couple faced tremendous hardship in the early days of their marriage, and Mahasweta Devi had to take up different kinds of jobs just to make ends meet, from working as a schoolteacher to selling soaps from door to door, and even writing letters in English for those who were not proficient in the language. It was around this time that she was also influenced by the Communist movement, for which reason she is believed to have lost her job in the Post & Telegraph.

Her first published book was Jhansir Rani (1956), for which she travelled extensively in Uttar Pradesh, collecting information, folk songs and legends of the land. It must be kept in mind that in the mid 1950s it was a radical decision for a woman of middle-class background to leave a young child in her husband’s care and travel alone in the Bundlekhand region, armed with just a borrowed camera, collecting data for her book. She was already straining at the shackles of societal norms and in doing so, setting herself apart from her peers. From this early stage of her writing, we see Mahasweta Devi’s growing interest in the history of the subaltern and her unique observation of history from the perspective of the common people. Already she was breaking out of the common mould of women writers of the era, who focussed on their own lives, the lives of other women, the family, and the society to which they belonged.

In 1958, she wrote Jamuna ki Teer and in 1959, Prem Tara , a novel based on life in a travelling circus. But it was with Eto Tuku Aasha (1959; literal translation: Just a Little Hope)—a story on urban working-class life—that her writing began to get more universal in its theme, encompassing the lives of the common people in general. It was from around this period that her interest in the lives of the tribal people, the landless poor and the marginalised, began to get stronger.

In the mid 1960s she travelled extensively in the tribal belt of Palamau (now in Jharkhand, then in Bihar) and witnessed at first hand the deprivation and suffering of the people of the region. The trip strengthened her resolve to focus on tribal lives. In 1966, she wrote Kabi Bandaghati Gamyir Jibon o Mrityu (literal translation: “The Life and Death of Poet Bandaghati Gami”). The story is about a forgotten Adivasi poet, and the message is that genius exists among the people of society’s lower strata. “Historical romances were no longer attracting me. I wanted to write about an individual who wanted to transcend his birth and background and create for himself his own world,” Mahasweta Devi had said about the book.

One is reminded of Thomas Gray’s words: “Full many a gem of purest ray serene / The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear: / Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, / And waste its sweetness in the desert air.” It was Mahasweta Devi’s constant quest to unearth the treasures that the rest of humanity had chosen to forget.

Through her writings in this period, we see her moving away from urban middle-class existence, but when she does come back to the urban setting, she does so with a shattering impact that instantly secures her place among the immortals of Bengali literature. The novel Hajar Churashir Maa , published in 1974, is set against the backdrop of the naxalite movement of the time. It is about a woman (Sujata) whose naxalite son was killed by the police; and her exploring of the naxal ideology; and the lives of the masses at the time of the naxalite upheaval. Mahasweta Devi expressed an ultra-Left ideological stand clearly and categorically through this book.

Some of her other notable stories relating to the naxalite movement are Wrong Number , Sharir , Pratyohik and, of course, the magnificent Draupadi —the story of Dopdi, a tribal woman who was tortured and raped by the police after a Red Book was found in her possession. The story was made into a powerful play by the famous Manipuri dramatist Heisnam Kanhailal.

Turning point

In 1975, Aranyer Adhikar began to appear in serialised form in Betar Jagat , a fortnightly magazine. Published as a book in 1977, the novel centred around the 1899 tribal uprising led by Birsa Munda. On the one hand, the book deals with the tribal people’s fight against colonial power and Birsa’s rise as the hero of the movement; on the other, it looks at the tribal people’s struggle for survival in an oppressive, unsympathetic society, and their constant battle to keep their forest. The book bears testimony to her deep insight into tribal lives, gained from her long and close association with the tribal people during her travels in the Chhotanagpur belt.

Sampa Sen, Associate Professor of Bengali, Hooghly Mohsin College, who has been teaching the works of Mahasweta Devi for a long time, said: “The book’s greatness lies in that Mahasweta Devi broke away from the trend of studying history from an urban middle-class perspective. Tarashankar Bandopadhyay and Manik Bandopadhyay also wrote about the marginalised people of society in the 1930s and 1940s, but in Mahasweta’s works a very distinct political ideology is in evidence. She wrote not just of the lives of the tribal people but also of their political struggle.” Sampa Sen pointed out that in writing about tribal people, Mahasweta Devi introduced a new kind of language, at once radical and stark and pulsating with the energy and the rhythms of the regional tribal dialects. So perfect was the union of standard Bengali with the lilt of tribal tongue that a whole new writing style emerged from it.

It was only after Aranyer Adhikar was published, the writer later acknowledged, that tribal people accepted her as one of their own, though she had written about them earlier, too, during her stint as a journalist and had spent long periods living in their midst. “I was attached to the so-called criminal tribes, but when I wrote Aranyer Adhikar , I got real acceptance among them as they felt that what I wrote was their voice,” she said in an interview to Revolutionary Democracy .

The rest of her life was completely dedicated to the cause of tribal people. She wrote of them and for them. Powerful novels based on tribal life in different parts of the country, such as Operation Basai Tudu , Chhoti Munda Aar Taar Teer , Shri Shri Ganesh Mahima , Pterodactyl Puran Sahai o Teertha , and Suraj Gagan Me , not only opened a new window on the world of literature but also brought to the fore long-ignored issues of tribal life. She was the first Bengali novelist to highlight in her works not just the lives and culture of the tribes of India but also their political struggle. She worked indefatigably for their rights and their uplift. She fought court cases, set up committees and platforms, took part in protests and demonstrations, and wrote ceaselessly—letters, articles, essays, books and pamphlets. To the tribal people, she was more than just a friend, they literally revered her and called her Maa (mother).

It is impossible to categorise Mahasweta Devi as a writer. Though best known for her stories on tribal matters and the naxalite movement, her writings also extensively dealt with contemporary sociopolitical issues. The Book of the Hunter was on the life and death of Chuni Kotal, the first woman from the Lodha Shabar community to become a graduate, who committed suicide in 1992. She had been allegedly harassed and humiliated by the university authorities after she enrolled for a master’s course. After Sixth December was based on the demolition of the Babri Masjid. There were also numerous short stories dealing with contemporary issues.

Mahasweta Devi’s work gained international recognition with translations into English by the renowned literary theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Several of her stories were also made into films by acclaimed directors: Sunghursh (1968) by Harnam Singh Rawai; Rudaali (1993) by Kalpana Lajmi; Gudia (1997) by Goutam Ghose; Hazar Chaurasi ki Maa (1998) by Govind Nihalani; Aranyer Adhikar (1998) by Tarun Mazumdar; Maati Maay (2006) by Chitra Palekar; Gangor (2010) by Italo Spinelli; and Swabhumi (2013) by Ujjwal Chatterjee.

One cannot separate Mahasweta Devi’s activism from her writing. “My writing is my activism,” she once said. She drew her inspiration from the world she chose to live in—the world of the exploited, the dispossessed, the forgotten and the marginalised. But she did not restrict her work to the tribal community. She lent her support and voice (and pen) to practically every cause against injustice and exploitation that came her way, whether it was a high-profile agitation like Medha Patkar’s Narmada Bachao movement, or an ongoing struggle for survival of snake charmers in some remote corner of West Bengal.

Debashish Syamal, vice president of the South Bengal Fishermen’s Forum, used to call her Pishimoni (affectionate term for aunty) and stayed with her whenever he visited Kolkata. He remembers her as a warm, affectionate, fun-loving, chatty and disarmingly blunt person. “Every time I would come to her after a hard day’s work and journey, she would always first say, ‘Come here, let me first smell you; that way I will know how all my fisherman brothers are doing.’ She was like a mother to us all,” he told Frontline . He recalled that when Harekrishna Debnath, the influential leader of the fishermen’s movement in West Bengal, died and his organisation stood on the verge of collapse owing to a lack of direction and leadership, Mahasweta Devi quietly took over the reins and rescued the movement. “Today, thanks to her, the organisation and the movement are as strong as ever,” he said.

Mahasweta Devi was equally formidable in her political activism and was, in fact, the face of the violent agitations in Nandigram and Singur in West Bengal led by Mamata Banerjee, which hastened the downfall of the 34-year-old Left Front government. Though close to Mamata Banerjee, she nevertheless did not blindly endorse everything that the Chief Minister did. Upon her death, Mamata Banerjee said: “India has lost a great writer; Bengal has lost a glorious mother; I have lost a guardian.”

Right until the end of her days, Mahasweta Devi’s door was open all the time to everyone. Bengal’s first Dalit writer Manoranjan Byapari’s encounter with Mahasweta Devi in 1980 has gone into the realm of legend. Byapari at that time was a rickshaw puller and Mahasweta Devi was a chance passenger. It just so happened that at that time Byapari was reading one of her books and asked her the meaning of a particular word in it, without knowing who he was talking to. With her help and encouragement, Byapari is today an established author, having written nine novels and over a hundred short stories. Even in her final years, dogged by ill health and personal tragedy (her son, Nabarun, died of cancer in 2014), she never stopped writing. She also edited, translated and composed letters, sometimes on behalf of complete strangers who sought her help. In her literary career spanning 60 years, she wrote more than 100 novels and over 20 volumes of short stories.

Mahasweta Devi also wrote for children, a fact that gets often hidden by her stature as an activist and novelist. As the writer Nabaneeta Dev Sen pointed out in a tribute published in The Indian Express on August 2, Mahasweta Devi wrote for the Bengali children’s magazine Mouchak in the 1960s and for Sandesh , then edited by Satyajit Ray, in the 1970s. The fiction and memoirs that she wrote for children showed how her imagination could wrap itself around a child’s mental world and how humorous she could be in her writing. Our Non-Veg Cow and Other Stories , a translation of her short fiction for children, published by Seagull in 2009, contains a hilarious recounting of the adventures of a cow (called Nyadosh) that her mother had trained to eat fish and meat.

The acclaimed film-maker Buddhadeb Dasgupta, who has made 13 short films based on her short stories, succinctly summed up the essence of her personality: “I used to know her personally for a very long time. She was an extraordinary person. What I respected the most is that she lived life completely on her own terms. She never apologised for what she did and never cared for the opinion of society. Her way of life was altogether different; and that to me is a very unique life.”

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