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Interview: Nabaneeta Dev Sen

Mahasweta Devi: ‘Different from us all’

Print edition : Sep 02, 2016 T+T-
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Interview with novelist Nabaneeta Dev Sen.

NABANEETA DEV SEN is one of the most eminent and popular Bengali poets and novelists. Noted for her versatility, Nabaneeta Dev Sen has written over 80 books, including poetry, novels, short stories, travelogues, children’s books, literary criticism and essays. Her first book of poems was published in 1959. She is also a well-known academic and was Professor of Comparative Literature at Jadavpur University until her retirement in 2002. In an exclusive interview with Frontline , Nabaneeta Dev Sen talks about Mahasweta Devi’s contribution to literature and her own personal relationship with Mahasweta Devi.

“Each one of us [Bengali women writers] is different from the other. But Mahasweta is different from us all,” she says.


What would you say was the chief contribution of Mahasweta Devi to the field of literature?

She herself believed that putting the Shabars on the sociocultural map of India was her most valuable contribution to society, and this she achieved through literature. As a reader, I have an additional point to make. Her chief, long-lasting contribution to literature was her attitude—how to connect with the subject of your writing. She taught us how to cross over the sociocultural boundaries, how to actually live and share the lives of those you are about to depict in your work.

Unfortunately, this very quality had led some people to reject her as a creative writer and describe her as an anthropologist-cum-social activist once upon a time.

Would you call Mahasweta Devi a feminist writer?

Every time she was asked “'are you a feminist?”, she answered in the negative. She clearly stated it many times. “I do not write the sufferings of women only, I write about the suffering humanity in total. I am a humanist, not a feminist,” she would say. The fact is, unless you are a dedicated humanist, you cannot see the sufferings of women. Hence, being a humanist is step one, and feminism follows naturally. Therefore, we do not take her disclaimer seriously. Her stories are witness to her feminist vision. Starting from her earliest stories, Padmini , Jashobanti , were all tales of women. Then came Draupadi , Shikar , Stanyadaayini , Hajar Churashir Maa , Bayen and many more where we can see a feminist pen fiercely chastising the cruel, exploitative male world.

Mahasweta Devi’s political and social activism was a key facet to her persona. Can it be isolated from her writing, or were the two integral to each other?

Her political writings, her literary output, and her personal way of life, all fall into a pattern. Her sociopolitical thoughts are integral to her literary works and her personal life. Mahasweta divorced from political and social activism is unrecognisable both as a person and as a writer.

What was it that set her apart from other women writers of her generation in Bengal?

Mahasweta was one of a kind. She had little in common with the other women who were writing in Bangla during her time. She has covered six decades through her writings, and she lived an unusual life. Mahasweta has done a variety of jobs, writing school textbooks for kids, walking miles in the countryside and spending nights in just-met villagers’ huts in order to get to know their lifestyle so that weekly features in newspapers could be written, all the while teaching in a college. Apart from her endless vigil for the Shabars of Purulia, she was regularly writing features and columns in various daily newspapers and literary magazines while continuing to write novels and short stories. In her personal life, too, she did not adhere to the middle-class codes of conduct and lived independently, according to her own free will. And she was happy to announce this fact proudly whenever she got a chance. Her [literary] career spanned more than 60 years, hence she had for her contemporary women prose writers a variety of well-known faces, beginning with Jyotirmoyee Debi, who was still writing, Ashapurna Debi, Pratibha Bose, Kabita Sinha, Nabaneeta, Bani Basu, Suchitra Bhattachariya and others. Each one of us is different from the other. But Mahasweta is different from us all. Most of us write about city-based social problems; Mahasweta, in her major works, stuck to rural Bengal’s sociopolitical scenario, moving to the urban scene from time to time for stories like Hajar Churashir Maa , or Bhat . Romantic love or family intrigues did not inspire her. If anyone was a pathfinder for her, it was the elderly veteran Jyotirmoyee Debi. Jyotirmoyee (1894-1988) had a sharp and sensitive pen and was one of the first Indian writers to write angrily from the thirties about social discrimination and the ill treatment of women in rural Rajasthan by both men and women.

You knew her well. Please share an anecdote or two with us.

Once she was supposed to speak at Calcutta University along with me. We waited for more than an hour for her and were getting increasingly impatient when she arrived, huffing and puffing. She was cooking for the Shabars who had arrived at her home late and hungry, for a legal appointment in the city, which was arranged and supported by Mahasweta herself.

My second anecdote is rather personal. The day my father [the famous Bengali poet Narendra Dev] passed away in 1971, I shall always remember Mahaswetadi kneeling beside my father’s body, tears in her eyes, singing Tagore songs one after another. She created the atmosphere of bidding a warm, peaceful farewell to a loved one.

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