Though the writer is no more in the corporeal sense, her words, her thoughts, and the lives of those she touched will ensure she continues to live on in our midst.
I can’t recall the exact date anymore. But it was for sure in the month of March in 2010, soon after I had quit my full-time job as a journalist, that I had met Mahasweta Devi in Kolkata. Ahead of a holiday visit to the city, I looked up Kolkata’s telephone directory from the BSNL website and typed in Mahasweta Devi in the name search bar and voila! The great writer’s residence landline number appeared right before my eyes. When I dialled the number and enquired, in the broken Bengali that I’d picked up during my childhood days in the city, if this was the residence of Mahasweta Devi, the writer herself answered the phone, uttering in crisp English, “Yes, speaking.”
“Ma’am, I am a great admirer of your works. I have read several of your plays while in college. Can I meet you in Kolkata when I am there?” I asked, thrilled to bits.
“Yes, sure. Please come. You’re most welcome,” she said kindly.
At that time I was seeking renewed inspiration to continue writing about the struggles of the poor and the marginalised in the country. Three years in a newspaper job had left me thoroughly disillusioned as stories of poverty and development were rarely treated as important by the editors. Meeting Devi fired me up.
Sitting in her humble two-bedroom flat in Golf Green, Devi and I had a long chat about several things, including her political views and the electoral prospects of the Left after the incident at Nandigram. Elections were more than a month away in the State and opinion was divided over whether or not the CPI(M) ought to have allowed big capital to enter into regions where the rural peasantry formed the traditional stronghold of the party. I asked Devi if her writings were not influenced by the Communist ideology after all, and what she thought of the party’s current doings in West Bengal:
“All my writing is about real people and real issues. It doesn’t cater to any specific ideology,” she stressed. Devi herself had become disillusioned with the politics of the Left and its unfulfilled agenda. She told me: “Thirty years of CPI(M) rule has crushed the ordinary people’s movement in West Bengal. I am backing Mamata Banerjee this time. I know Mamata well. She has stood alongside ordinary people and participated in their everyday struggles.” At the time of the conversation, Devi was confident that the CPI (M) would be routed in West Bengal in the Assembly elections. Her prediction came true.
But Devi never espoused violent methods of challenging the State. Arundhati Roy’s controversial essay Gandhi, but with guns ( Part 1, Part 2, 3, 4, 5) and other writings on the Naxalite movement in central India had just been published and they were being hotly debated then. I asked her if she sympathised with the Naxal cause. Devi had told me that she never endorsed the use of violence as it disrupted the lives of adivasi villagers, who, she said, were becoming collateral damage in the war between the extremists and the State. Devi’s novel Hazar Chaurashir Ma on the Naxalite movement in West Bengal was, in fact, about the struggle that the mother of a Naxalite, who is killed by the police, goes through as she grapples with the knowledge of his secret life as a revolutionary. “The novel was very much a projection of Devi’s inner struggle with understanding her own son Nabarun Bhattacharya’s ideological leanings towards left-wing extremism,” her translator Samik Bandyopadhyay told me in an interview recently. “Later on in life, Devi and her son had a very bitter separation,” recalls Bandyopadhyay.
Another subject that figured during our meeting was the impact of the cyclone Aila of 2009. The cyclone had ravaged the Sunderbans islands and that was uppermost on Devi’s mind when I met her. She was concerned about the number of children being trafficked from the islands to Kolkata to work as maids, in hotels, and other jobs. Her apartment was like a mini-NGO office and often the poor and the vulnerable communities in distress found their way to her house seeking help, having heard of her from others. And she did what she could to alleviate their sufferings.
Before our conversation came to a close, I confessed to her: “I want to be like you, and I don’t think I will get married. I want to dedicate my life for social activism and write about social issues, travelling in rural India and working for the poor…”
To this, she laughed and said, “You are so young. You should fall in love, get married. Live your life like common people do and gather in all the experiences that you can. It is these experiences, whether happy or sad, that makes us the writers that we are.” She asked me not to lose heart over the small rejections or challenges that I had faced in my career so far and asked me to continue writing.
At this point, Devi revealed to me an aspect of her life that very few might have been aware of. “I wrote love stories too before I became the serious writer you all know about,” she told me, indicating that there was a young, romantic, lesser-known side to her life as well. However, very little is known about this earlier creative phase of Devi’s life.
Most of the important works for which Devi is known today was produced after 1956.
“She started writing at the age of 13, and even those of us who have read her works know very little about this earlier creative phase. She came to be recognised only after Jhansir Rani was published in 1956, at age 30,” said award-winning Bengali poet and writer Nabaneeta Dev Sen, when contacted.
“Only ten percent of Devi’s novels have been translated from the original Bengali into English,” says Bandyopadhyay, the Kolkata-based art critic who has translated three major works of the author from the original Bengali: The Mother of 1084, Bashai Tudu, and Five plays, including Jal and Draupadi. Speaking to The Hindu, he said that Devi’s literary career reached its first major milestone in 1956 when she published Jhansir Rani, a work of historical fiction on the life of Rani Lakshmibai. “This work nearly coincided with the release of the centenary history book on the 1857 mutiny commissioned by Jawaharlal Nehru to the Calcutta-based historian S.N. Sen,” he said, one of the reasons why the novel caught attention. In Jhansir Rani, Devi tapped into the popular imagination of the people to construct the narrative around the first major rebellion by Indians against the British colonial rulers.
Her next major work was Hazar Chaurashir Ma, published in 1974. After this, Devi wrote a series of major works focussed mainly on the tribal communities of Bengal and Chhotanagpur plateau. These included the novels Chotti Munda aur Tar Tir (1980), and Bashai Tudu (1990), and a collection of stories Agnigarbha (1978) and the play Bayen (1998).
Bandyopadhyay says that one of Devi’s most important legacies was how she created a whole new language — almost a tribal version of Bengali — so that she could convey the thoughts and ideas, which the tribal people spoke to her about, that she couldn’t articulate in pure Bengali. In an interview with her translator and renowned postcolonial critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Devi explains why she chose to write about tribal heroes in her works:
“A tribal girl asked me modestly: ‘When we go to school, we read about Mahatma Gandhi. Did we have no heroes? Did we always suffer like this? ‘I repay them their honour. They want to feel proud that they are tribals.”– Imaginary Maps (1993)
Besides her writing, she was also into social activism in a big way. In the introduction to Dust on the Road, a collection of her journalistic writing on social issues, Bandyopadhyay writes about how Devi travelled several kilometers on foot into remote villages to interact with tribal communities. Devi had been very vocal about separate statehood for Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, to ensure political autonomy for their majority tribal peoples, and also fought hard for the preservation of tribal languages, demanding that they be given official recognition just like Hindi or Bengali. It is towards these efforts that Devi had collaborated with G.N. Devy of Bhasha Research and Publication Centre in Vadodara. What was remarkable about the writer was that she never exploited the causes she espoused or the community members who formed the subject matter of her writing for her fame or personal benefits. She never jumped on to any bandwagon just because it promised instant recognition as an author, rather she stuck to the cause of the tribal poor till the end and worked relentlessly for them.
In this context, a significant contribution of Devi was the setting up of Budhan theatre in Ahmedabad for the Chhara tribal community, who constituted a notified “criminal” tribe under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. They along with other similar tribes were denotified post-independence. Dakxinkumar Bajrange, a member of Chhara community in Ahmedabad came into contact with Devi in 1998. Speaking to The Hindu, he said: “I was 22 years old then, when maa came to Chharanagar, our tribal colony in Ahmedabad, and helped found the theatre group, Budhan theatre.” Devi had won the Jnanpith award in 1996 and was looking for a fruitful way to invest the prize money. “She started a library for us in Chharanagar and urged our community members to overcome the stigma of the criminal label attached to us and use theatre as a means for self-expression,” he said.
Bajrange today is a prominent documentary-filmmaker with over 80 films to his credit, some of which have even won international recognition. All members of Chharanagar today are fully literate. Bajrange says that but for Devi’s intervention, the people of Chharanagar would have remained backward forever and with one library full of books. She inspired the community members to become aware of their own stigmatised history and fight to rise above it. “Had she not encouraged us thus, for all you know I too might have been a great thief like my ancestors, who took to robbery for want of a better means to survive,” Bajrange says. He recalls how even at that age of 72 when she had first visited Chharanagar; she was full of infectious energy and walked real fast!
As art and cultural critic Sadanand Menon notes Mahasweta Devi had a profound influence on the thoughts of the people who read her or came in touch with her. “Reading her novel Aranyer Adhikar [Rights to the Forest] had a deep influence on me and made me aware of the exploitation of the natural resource to the disadvantage of the tribal people,” he said.
What most people who have read her or have known her in person point out is that she was not an ivory-tower writer but someone who engaged with the harsh realities of society and showed them a way to address those challenges. In fact, if I still harbour that activist spirit in my heart today, it is thanks to her writing. For anyone who says that you cannot change the world by writing about something, one ought to consider the works of Mahasweta Devi. She has shown us that it is possible to make someone believe in a cause enough through your writing to take necessary action for it. And though the writer is no more in the corporeal sense, her words, her thoughts, and the lives of those she touched through her works will ensure that she continues to live on in our midst…