Mahasweta Devi: Remembering the Crusader on Her Birth Anniversary

In Mahasweta Devi’s visionary universe, writing and activism were inseparable, writes Radha Chakravarty.

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Opinion
4 min read
People lie near a fire they set on a railway track during a protest against the violence in Nandigram, in Siliguri, West Bengal, 16 March 2007 (L); File photo of author and activist, Mahasweta Devi (R)
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“A white-hot anger impels me to write.”

The indomitable voice of Mahasweta Devi, champion of the downtrodden, volatile crusader for human rights, haunts our collective memory. Anger against social injustice fanned her inner fire, and words became her weapons of struggle.

Mahasweta’s own chequered career is as fascinating as the fictional narratives for which she is famous. Born in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) in 1926, Mahasweta, daughter of Manish Ghatak and Dharitri Devi, moved to West Bengal after Partition, and was educated in Midnapore, Santiniketan and Kolkata.

In Santiniketan, Tagore’s ideals left a deep imprint on her worldview.  There she learnt to love and respect nature and the world of animals: never to harm a living creature, or randomly break a leaf from a tree. This passionate concern for all forms of life, and for the universal right of all humans to live with dignity, became the driving spirit behind her lifelong campaign in support of the marginalised and the dispossessed.

In the years of her marriage to playwright Bijon Bhattacharya, Mahasweta battled financial hardships. She found herself compelled to sell hair dye powder and at one point even supplied monkeys to the US for research. Later, she taught English Literature in a college. The disintegration of her first marriage brought heartbreak, and a new relationship.

Kolkata Police present a  gun salute to eminent writer and social activist Mahasweta Devi,  at Rabindra Sadan during her funeral ceremony,  Kolkata, 29 July 2016. 
Kolkata Police present a gun salute to eminent writer and social activist Mahasweta Devi, at Rabindra Sadan during her funeral ceremony, Kolkata, 29 July 2016. 
(Photo: IANS)

Emergence of a Prolific Writer

Her emergence as a writer began in 1956 with a brilliant biography of the Rani of Jhansi, in which history mingles with myth and local lore. An extraordinary literary career followed, spanning several decades of explosive creativity. Bengali literature had found a firebrand, and the world of letters a legend.

Mahasweta’s literary output was prolific. She published over 50 novels, and a vast range of short stories, plays, essays and newspaper columns. She also edited Bortika, a journal devoted to the voices of marginalised tribal people. With time came fame, and a degree of notoriety.

She won a stream of awards – including the Sahitya Akademi Award, the Padma Shri, the Ramon Magsaysay Award, the Jnanpeeth Award, the Padma Vibhushan and the French Legion of Honour – but she also alienated traditionalists with her unorthodox views and her outspokenness.

She challenged the Bengali literary establishment, criticising the writers of her time for what she perceived as their complacent quietism. She chose to write about subaltern groups, insisting that their stories be heard.

Literary Work

Unlike other women writers of her generation, she did not focus on the lives of women confined to domesticity in traditional middle class homes. Her narratives are peopled with feisty female figures who stand out for their courage: the Rani of Jhansi, Dopdi Mejhen and Mary Oraon.

She altered the complexion of Bengali literature by violating the “purity” of language.  Her works incorporate multiple languages and social registers, including “high” and “colloquial” Bengali, English, Santhal speech, Hindi, Sanskrit and Bhojpuri, bringing alive the multilingual reality of our social world. Her hybrid style brings cultural differences to the fore, and insistently draws our attention to the power struggles that define our social existence.

Today, she is widely remembered for iconic works such as Hajar Churashir Ma, Draupadi, Agnigarbha, Aranyer Adhikar, Stanadayini, Pterodactyl, Puran Sahai O Pirtha, and Chotti Munda Ebong Tar Teer. Many of her works are familiar to non-Bengalis via stage and screen adaptations. Her writings have also travelled across India and the world via translation into diverse languages. Perhaps her most famous translator is Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, who has been described as Mahasweta’s dwarpalika, her gatekeeper to the West. For Mahasweta now has come to be recognised as much more than a Bengali writer: she claims her place as a world literary figure.

Eminent writer and social activist Mahasweta Devi (90) passed away following prolonged illness in Kolkata on 28 July 2016. 
Eminent writer and social activist Mahasweta Devi (90) passed away following prolonged illness in Kolkata on 28 July 2016. 
(File Photo: IANS)

Tireless Activism

Through her years of tireless activism, Mahasweta remained true to her cause: the uplift of those who are excluded from the grand narrative of progress and democracy. In her visionary universe, writing and social struggle became inseparable.  Until age and infirmity overtook her, that fiery spirit rarely flagged. Her desire was always to probe beneath surface appearances to seek out the uncomfortable realities hidden from view.  “My approach is forensic,” she told me when I first met her in her Kolkata home many years ago. “Everywhere,my search is for what lies behind.”

She was not afraid of taking on the establishment, and her avowed Marxist leanings did not prevent her from voicing her differences with the ruling government in West Bengal. Later, she would join the Singhur and Nandigram protests against government policy – a move that revealed her capacity for combining introspection and self-scrutiny along with stringent social critique, although it also proved controversial and lost her many friends.

In her personal life as well as her professional sphere, she remained, to the end, a lonely figure. Paradoxically, the writer who saw herself as the voice of the masses found her strength in the solitariness that comes with the refusal to compromise with one’s own sense of truth. Today, she is no more with us, but the legend lives on, in the power of her words, and in the memory of the countless people she inspired.

Also read:
Rest in Revolution, Mahasweta Devi: A Literature Student’s Tribute
An Excerpt From ‘Draupadi’, Mahasweta Devi’s Powerful Short Story

(Radha Chakravarty is a writer, critic and translator. She is a Professor of Comparative Literature and Translation Studies, Ambedkar University, Delhi.  She was nominated for the CrosswordTranslation Award for ‘In the Name of theMother: Four Stories by Mahasweta Devi’ (Seagull, 2004))

(This article was first published on 1 August 2016 and has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark Mahasweta Devi’s birth anniversary.)

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