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The Activist writer's Centenarian wish


"I have never had the capacity nor the urge to create art for art’s sake. Since I never learnt to do anything more useful, I have gone on writing. I have found authentic documentation to be the best medium for protest against injustice and exploitation.” Mahasweta Devi in the preface to Shrestho Golpo...
NANDINI C SEN | Issue Dated: August 5, 2016, New Delhi
Tags : Mahasweta Devi | Adivasi | Naxalbari | Feminism |

Mahasweta Devi is no more. The news comes as a shock because in spite of being wheelchair bound, the severely diabetic octogenarian writer dreamt of living till she was hundred. Her desire to live long was necessitated by the constant demands on her from the people who loved her and addressed her as “Ma”. She was mother to the Shobors and many other tribal communities, for her literature was activism and vice versa. Her only regret currently was that she could not walk for miles in the Palamau District of erstwhile Bihar living with the people whom she loved and who loved Mahasweta Devi back – the adivasis.

The Writer, Journalist, Historian

Mahasweta’s writing has a uniqueness of its own. Free from jargons and linguistic niceties, she writes in the common man’s language. Very often, she even introduces a Bihari dialect into her writing.

Her writing has the rural earthy flavour which defines her persona. In her writing career spanning over almost six decades, she has written extensively on the lived realities of the marginalised communities of India. She has also continued to document Calcutta in its myriad hues. Her writing is a repository of well researched history, oral cultures and activism. In order to write her first novel Jhansi Ki Rani, she walked for miles in the Bundelkhand region interacting with the locals and trying to find out what the queen meant to them. The novel is as much a treatise on the brave queen as it is a documentation of songs and dances of the local populous of that region.

Mahasweta shared with me once, “I remained interested in history. For me the real history remains in the space between two printed lines – the white space because there, one has to search for people’s history. Even for writing my first book, which came out in 1956, at the age of 28, I went to Jhansi, Gwalior and other places, all alone, and collected from the people, folklores, songs, etc. I still remember villagers sitting around a wood fire; it was December – very cold. They sang the following lines,

“Patthar mitti se fauj banaye,

Kat se katwar,

Pahaar utha kar ghora banayii,

Chali Gwalior…..”

Mahasweta’s books have been translated into several languages and have also been adapted into cinematic versions – Sanghursh (1968), Hazar Churasi Ki Ma (1998), Rudali (1993), Maati May (2007) and Gangor (2010).


Mahasweta edited a journal called Bortika (The Lamp). Her initial contact with the Munda tribes living in McCluskieganj and Palamau districts of Bihar in 1965 developed into a lasting commitment to adivasi welfare. She retired from her educational career in 1984 and devoted her energies to work for the betterment of the adivasis. In 1983, she founded the Paschim Banga Khedia Sobor Samiti to assist in the development of the Khedia Sobor tribe. Bortika provides a forum to the adivasis, peasants and agricultural labourers. So the subaltern was speaking all the time. It just needed an ear like that of Mahasweta’s.

While investigating a police atrocity in Gua, in 1981, in the Singbhum district of Bihar, Mahasweta was told by a Kol tribal witness of the police firing to tell the story in the Kolhan way, which is “to walk miles to godforsaken places across the jungles and over the hills.” Mahasweta did exactly that to represent the truth embedded in the story. She belonged to a small coterie of writers and social activists who have chronicled the oppression to which adivasi populations and other “untouchable castes” have been subjected: the insufferable living conditions, caste biases, refusal of benefits of education and scarce employment opportunities.

The Person

Born in Dhaka in 1926 to accomplished parents, Manish Ghatak and Dharitri Devi, Mahasweta Devi migrated to India after Partition. Ritwik Ghatak, the noted film maker was her uncle and she was fiercely proud of him. She wrote under the pen name of Sumitra Devi for fear of losing her government job. She lost her job twice at the Post and Telegraph office due to red baiting. Later, she was to teach at Bijoygarh College. Her subsequent divorces and her acrimonious relationship with her son earned her some notoriety in the social circles, but she was quick to brush it off and move on as her readers loved her work. Mahasweta has been the recipient of several awards, namely the Sahitya Academy (1979) and Jnanpith (1996) and the Padmashree in 1986.


Adivasi, Naxalbari, Feminism

Mahasweta never thought herself to be a feminist. “I write for all people who have been marginalized. Men, women and children are all equally abused when they belong to the weaker section of the society. My stories are not about women alone. I write for all oppressed people.” However, her writing is fiercely feminist. Several women characters portrayed by her belong to these oppressed sections of the society who are forced to fight for their basic sustenance. Caught in the grim battle of class, caste and poverty, her women protagonists chart out their own paths of self realization. More often than not, it is not limited to debunking patriarchy, but a redefinition of the woman’s role in the severest of adverse situations. Mahasweta’s canvas is vast – from the palaces of the queens depicted in the Mahabharata to the bonded labour of Palamau – she examines the patterns of domination of class, caste and patriarchy. She also looks at her own social surroundings, closely exposing the hypocrisies of the middle class and the debauchery of the state-funded attack on the Naxals.

In one of her strongest indictments of the state, she presents the adivasi-Naxal woman Draupadi who fights for equal rights to water. When she is apprehended, in order to break her, she is gang raped. The next morning, her apprehenders wish to clothe her and take her to the District Magistrate. She tears the sari and walks out naked turning the narrative of rape to her advantage. The men who had shamed her are now unable to meet her eyes. In a similar protest, the Imas (mothers) of Manipur stripped and walked to the police protesting Manorama’s rape.

There was a playful childlike quality to Mahasweta.  She would hum Bollywood numbers and burst out laughing at her own (fairly bad) jokes. Her house was teeming with books and she spent hours listening to the poor and oppressed and trying to find ways of helping them. She could be equally sharp tongued and dismissive of sycophants. It was a hot and sweaty afternoon when I was recording an interview with her when she asked if I wanted some tea, adding, “You will get tea without sugar. Don’t expect sweetness from a jailbird.” With great reluctance, I sipped the tea only to realise that it had sugar! “See, you are ready to believe the worst of me!” she said gleefully clapping her hands. Then she added on a serious note “There is so much to do. I want to live to  hundred. I want to keep working till then.”

Mahasweta Devi was a woman who defied all norms. While the literary world mourns the loss of a giant, the shobors, lodhas and other marginalised tribes have lost their mother.  

(All quotes are from an interview the
author did with Mahasweta Devi in 2007)

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017