‘My India still lives behind a curtain of darkness, a curtain that separates the mainstream society from poor and the deprived. But then why my India alone? as the century comes to an end, it is important that we all make an attempt to tear the curtain of darkness, see the reality that lies beyond and see our own true faces in the process.’ (Mahasweta Devi, Ramon Magsaysay award acceptance speech, 1997)
Mahashweta Devi is an extraordinary woman who has written, worked and fought for the marginalized tirelessly for the past six decades. She is a strange mix of an activist and a writer who has carried both duties fiercely all her life. Away from the spot light, she keeps working for the welfare and betterment of those whom the media and the mainstream conveniently keep forgetting. Her writing is disturbing because it shows the reader her or his own true face.
She is certainly as a noted critic puts it ‘one of the most important writers writing in India today.’ Much more can be said of Mahasweta Devi. She stands with few equals among today’s Asian writers in the dedication and directness with which she has turned writing into a form of service to the people.
Mahasweta Devi was born in a privileged, middle-class Bengali family on January 14, 1926. Force of custom had it that she was born in Dhaka where her maternal grand-father was a practising lawyer. It was tradition in the family for daughters to give birth in their parents’ house. While Devi briefly attended Eden Montessori school in Dhaka, it was in West Bengal that she grew up in the midst of a large and intellectually stimulating family.
It was a family with a long tradition of civic spirit and high literacy. Devi’s grandparents were involved in various movements aimed at the promotion of western education and social reform, initiated and inspired by Rammohan Roy (1772-1833), who has been called an important mentor of modern India, and such leaders of nineteenth-century Bengali Renaissance as Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar. These were man who played important roles in shaping early Indian nationalism as well as modern Bengali literature, perhaps the richest and most dynamic of the literary traditions in India.
The eldest of nine children, Devi was raised in the rich milieu of Bengali high culture. Her father Manish Chandra Ghatak (1902-1979), was a renowned poet and prose writer. In the 1920s, he was part of a group of young writers who broke new grounds by writing a new type of realist stories that dealt with the slum life and the seamier underside of Indian society. Devi’s mother, Dharitri Devi (1908-1984), was a writer who loved Pearl Buck’s novels about old China and translated some her works. She met the famous American author when the latter visited Bombay in 1934 and was gifted with a copy of one of Buck’s books. Dharitri was also a social worker who, like her own mother, devoted a great part of her time to promoting literacy among underprivileged children. Assorted Aunts and uncles won prominence as artists, journalist, actors and filmmakers, among them the pioneering, British- trained cinematographer Sudhish Ghatak, actor and film-director Ritwik Ghatak, journalist Sachin Chowdhary and sculptor Sankho Chowdhary.
Together with her sisters and brothers, Devi was raised to love books and develop an interest in music, theatre and films. Her parents instilled in their children a curiosity for new things and other places and enjoyed taking them to the cinemas in Calcutta (called Kolkata since 2001) to watch the British and American movies. Devi was brought up in an atmosphere ‘where everyone read and read and read.’ ‘There was no bar on my reading,’ Devi recalls. Thus, while still quite young, she became acquainted with western authors such as Charles Dickens, Balzac and Anton Chekhov, as well as such Bengali classics as the sixteenth-century Chandi Mangal by Mukundram Chakravarty (more popularly known as Kavikankan), narrative poems that stirred her interest in fiction and history.
While she enjoyed the benefits of a middle-class upbringing, Devi was also exposed to the values of egalitarian concern for those less fortunate. The women in her family were deeply involved in volunteer work to spread literacy among the poor, and Devi recalls that on visits to her parents’ ancestral village in eastern Bengal, her grandparents always admonished them, the children, against wearing expensive clothes, insisting that they wear what the poorest in the village wore.
Devi’s family moved around a lot, because her father’s job as a government income tax officer meant periodic reassignments to new districts. Hence, Devi picked up her education at various places. She finished her elementary education at Medinipur missionary girls’ school in West Bengal in 1935, attended middle school in Shantiniketan (1936-38) and finished high school at Beltala Girls School in Kolkata(1939-42).
Shantiniketan left a deep impression on the young Devi. The school in Shantiniketan was an experiment in education started in 1901 by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), the leading light in Bengali literature and winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize for Literature, the first Asian to receive the honour. Devi’s father was an admirer and friend of Tagore. Her uncles too, either attended Shantiniketan or moved in the same circles as Tagore. It is not surprising that, at the age of ten, Devi would find herself partaking of the heady atmosphere of Indian cultural nationalism.
Shantiniketan (which in 1921, came to be called Vishwa-Bharti- its founder’s vision of a ‘world-university’ embodied Tagore’s ideas of education, open-air classes, freedom from traditional restrictions, students of all countries coming together to participate in a life of creative harmony. Here Devi came in contact with students from all over India and came to think of herself not just as a Bengali but part of a larger country. She listened to well-known Bengali writers, watched Tagore’s dance dramas performed, cultivated her love for literature and the arts, enjoyed outdoor games, and learned the value of independent study. She was fortunate as well to have sat “at the feet” of Tagore himself in his final years. Tagore spent a lot of time in Shantiniketan and, once, briefly took over as teacher in Devi’s class in Bengali. Tagore left quite an impression. Devi’s first published piece of writing was an essay on Tagore’s My Boyhood Days for a Bengali children’s magazine, written when she was thirteen. Shantiniketan, however, was an idyll rudely interrupted by the momentous crisis India went through in the years that followed.
Her years after High school thrust Devi into a new and troubled stage in her life. She attended Ashutosh College of Calcutta University (1943-44) and then returned to Shantiniketan to earn bachelor’s degree (with high honours) in 1946. Tagore had passed away and Devi’s memories of her second stay in Shantiniketan are not as vivid as her first. Now older and restless, she felt that Shantiniketan had lost something of its old, pastoral charm.
This was a time of great social upheaval in India. The world was in the grip of the Second World War. The Nationalist “Quit India” campaign of 1942, after the Indian National Congress voted to expel the British from India, led to the arrest of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and the thousands of Indian nationalists. The suppression of the nationalists triggered widespread violence.
Among those arrested was Devi’s uncle, Sankho Chaudhary. It was the time of the Great Bengal famine (1942-44) caused by the cutting off of the Burma rice supply and administrative bungling during the war. In 1946, the Great Calcutta riots broke out as communal rioting among Hindus and Muslims took place in Calcutta and elsewhere in the Punjab and Bengal, unleashed by the intensifying conflict between the Hindu-dominated parties and the Muslim League.
On August 15, 1947, the British Indian Empire ceased to exist and India achieved its Independence. The triumph of freedom, however, was diluted by the tragedy of partition as two nations were born, India and Pakistan. Eastern Bengal became part of Pakistan. Splitting many families (including Devi’s) between, the two new countries, the partition was marked by violent, large-scale communal disturbances, a toll of many thousands of causalities and the migration of several million persons. The cities, recalled Devi, were “bathed with blood” passions were so inflamed that, on January 30, 1948, Gandhi was assassinated by a young Hindu extremist.
It was a tumultuous and violent time. As a young college student during the famine, Devi joined her classmates in relief work: distributing food, picking through the dead bodies in the streets to find those still alive, feeding them and bringing them to the relief centres. She remembers one particular instance when they found a baby still alive beside her dead mother only to discover, as they carried the infant to the centre, that she, too, had died. The sight of suffering and death deeply affected Devi . In her teens, she felt that, inside her, something was changing. It was during this time of uncertainty and violence, Devi said that she came out of her relatively protected middle-class life.
After her college graduation in 1946, she married Bijon Bhattacharya, a playwright, who acted in her uncle, Ritwik Ghatak’s films and was one of the founding members of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). He was also a member of the Communist Party of India (CPI). Though her family advised her against the marriage, Devi could not be dissuaded. Even as a young woman, she was already quite headstrong and independent-minded.
Founded in 1928, the CPI was ascendant at the time Devi was in the University. The party had legal status and was active in organizing, propaganda and electoral work. It was an important influence on Devi and her generation , though she herself never joined the party. At the time married Bijon, however, the party was in deep crisis. During the war, the CPI had alienated the Indian nationalist leadership by supporting the British war effort against the badly defeated in the 1946 elections. When India became independent in 1947, the party adopted a policy of insurrection; carrying out a series of violent agitations.
Devi and her husband briefly stayed with Bijon’s family and then lived on their own in a one-room apartment on the outskirts of Calcutta. In 1948, they had a child (Nabarun, who would become a poet, actor and novelist). It was a difficult time for the family. Communists and their sympathizers were harassed and Bijon could not find a job. To help support the family, Devi sold dye powders and even became involved in a friend’s failed venture to supply thousands of research monkeys to laboratories in the United States. She also worked as a teacher in Puddopukur Girls’ school (1948-49), did private tutoring and then gained employment as an upper division clerk in the regional office of the Deputy Accountant General of Post and Telegraph (1949-50). Accused of being a communist, she was retrenched from her government job after someone planted books of Marx, Engel and Lenin in her office drawer.
It was at this time that she began to turn her energies to writing. To augment her income, particularly after she lost her government job, she wrote for Sachitra Bharat, a Bengali weekly, under the pen name Sumitra Devi, producing light fiction (“romantic stories, ghost stories, family stories”). In 1956, however came her first major work. This was Jhansir Rani (The Queen of Jhansi), a fictionalized biography of the women ruler of the princely state in north India who fought against the British in 1857 in the first war of independence by the Indian people. Devi has first learned of this of a woman warrior who was able to inspire and unite the common people to wage a war of resistance against the British. She resolved that this was the story she had to write.
In preparing to write the novel, in 1954, she demonstrated uncommon seriousness and tenacity. She scraped together enough money from relatives and friends to travel to the area in the then united province (now Uttar Pradesh) to collect the archival data and oral history. She travelled on foot through remote villages and desert plateaus, collecting scraps of legends and folk ballads, getting firsthand knowledge of the places where Rani of Jhansi fought the British. She had always been interested in history and the research she did for Jhansir Rani was to characterize her working style as a writer.
Jhansir Rani earned for her reputation as a writer. It was quickly followed by other works - Nati (1957), Madhrey Madhur (1958), Yamuna ke teer (1958), Etotuku Asha(1959) and Premtara (1959) – romances and novels that formed a virtual kaleidoscope of Indian lives. While many of her writings during this period, she said, impelled by the need to earn money for the family, they also demonstrated an appetite for chronicling social realities that would mark her body of fiction.
In 1962, her marriage came to an end and when she divorced Bijon, leaving her fourteen year old son with his father. She lived on her ownin the remote southern outskirts of Calcutta and went through a terrible spell of depression during which she attempted suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills. The attempt failed, she woke up, she said, and the first image she had was that of her son. Surviving death, she recalls feeling “a tremendous surge for living.”
In 1963, she finished her master’s degree in literature at Calcutta University and, from 1964-84, served as a lecturer in English at Bijoygarh Jyotish Roy College, a small private college that served poor students in a refugee area. During this time, she married an aspiring writer but this marriage did not work out either and came to an end in 1975.
Devi had begun to focus on what she wanted to do with her life. Like a dam of creativity that had burst open, she wrote furiously, publishing novels, stories and articles. She wrote plays, textbooks and children’s fiction; adapted folklore for young readers; translated works in other languages; and even did biographies of her own father, Manish Ghatak, and the famous Chinese writer Lu Xun.
It was at this time that there was a marked intensification of social purpose in her writings. Devi says, “I was born in a family with strong literary traditions and was fortunate enough to attend Shantiniketan with its founder, Rabindranath Tagore, was alive. Writing came early, though not with any special purpose. What people call social activism came much later. ”
A turning point came in 1965 when Devi visited Palamau, a remote and impoverished district in Bihar that she calls “a mirror of tribal India.” Moving from place to place on foot, she witnessed the savage impact on indigenous society of absentee landlordism, a despoiled environment, debt bondage and state neglect. In India other tribal districts, she subsequently observed the same dismal conditions. There was no education, no health care, no roads, no income. Exploitation and neglect had reduced people to a subhuman existence. Devi had for long been dimly aware of the presence of tribal people, but it was the Palamu experience that brought her face to face with the misery of a people largely excluded from official, mainstream history.
This exposure focused Devi’s work. This can be seen in the novels Kavi Bandyoghoti Gayiner Jivan O Mrityu (The Life And Death of poet Bandyoghoti Gayin, 1966) which depicted the struggle of a low-caste boy in fifteenth-century Bengal and Andharmanik (Jewel in Darkness, 1966), which dealt with the upheaval in Bengal’s social life caused by the Bargi (Maratha cavalry) raids during the mid-eighteenth century.
A deepening social awareness and literary maturity converged in her watershed novel of 1974, Hajar Chaurashir Ma (Mother Of 1084), which is one of Devi’s most widely read works. Written in 1973-74, it charts the emotional struggles of a mother as she tries to understand her son’s involvement in the Naxalite movement, a rebellion that began in 1967 in the village of Naxalbari, northern West Bengal, and soon spread to urban areas in the region until the mid-1970s. The journey of discovery carries her to an understanding of her son’s death as well as her own alienation, as a woman and wife, from the complacent and hypocritical bourgeois society her son had rebelled against.
The plot is condensed into the scenic space of a single day through the device of the mother recalling, a year after, the events that followed the morning when she was summoned to identify her son lying dead in the police morgue. Through this device of dramatic condensation, Devi achieves an admirable concentration of effect. Hajar Churashir Ma, the critic Samik Bandyopadhyay says, reveals “a passion that has rarely emerged so unashamedly in the Bengali novel.” On another plane, it can also be said that the novel is significant in personal terms. It enacts Devi’s own passage from urban middle-class domesticity to the larger sphere of what would be her focal subject and concern, the age-long exploitation of the tribals and the landless peasantry in rural eastern India.
In the succeeding years, she would return to the Naxalite Movement in works such as Agnigarbha (The Fire Within, 1978), four long stories about the Naxalite tribal unrest, and the novel Bish-Ekuh (1986). In a career of sustained creativity, she would produce a stream of narratives, fusing indigenous oral histories with contemporary events to uncover the bitter and often bloody relationship between tribal communities and India’s dominant classes and systems.
Her work has gravitated around certain topics and themes. History has always fascinated her. She says, ‘I think being conscious about history is a primary condition of being a writer.’ Devi has used fiction not only to resurrect forgotten episodes of India’s tribal and feudal past but to highlight acts of local resistance to aggression and oppression. Her historical fiction includes Aranyer Adhikar (Right to the forest, 1977). A meticulously researched novel on the life and struggles of Birsa Munda and the famous Munda Rebellion against the British in the late nineteenth century; Chotti Munda 0 Tar Teer (chotti and his arrow, 1979), which records the history of one of the tribes of eastern India in the first seven decades of the twentieth century; Subhaga Basanta (1980), two novels set in Bengal on slavery in eleventh century and the Sati system in the eighteenth century; and Sidhu kanhur Daakey (1981), a novel on two heroes of the Santhal tribal rebellion in 1855-1856.
Her interest in history is not backward- looking but strongly contemporary. She renders scenes of the past ‘in their physicality, as if they were nothing less than contemporary’ and creates characters evolving through their interactions with a historical process. While she turned to the past for materials, her vision is not exotic but historical. It is always trained on realities of the present. In an interview in 1983, she said, ‘It is my conviction that a story writer should be motivated by a sense of history that would help her readers to understand their own times. I have never had the capacity or the urge to create art for art’s sake.’
Devi has critically reflected on her own class position in works exploring the dilemma of the bourgeois intellectual’s social loyalties. These works include Gharey Phera (1983), which treats the degeneration of a once politically committed writer and Srinkhalito (1985), a novel about a writer torn between an easy life and one of social engagement. The drama of divergent class realities is powerfully communicated in the characters of the Naxalite tribal hero and the communist journalist in the novelette Bashai Tudu (part of the 1978 Agnigarbha collection). A martyred tribal hero, Bashai Tudu, assumes the power of myth as he periodically appears to succour the landless farm laborers when they are driven to crisis. He gets killed and then appears again at another point of crisis. As a counterpoint to the myth, Devi creates the character of the middle-class journalist who must wrestle with his shame, helplessness and guilt, as he is called upon, time and again, to identify Bashai Tudu’s martyred body.
Devi returned on the profound subordination of women in Indian society in such works as Bioscoper Baksho (1964), which is about the condition of women in tradition-bound, middle-class society; Swaha (1977), on bride burning; Daulati (1984), three interlinked stories on the Palamau bonded labor movement; Iter Parey It (1987), stories of an illiterate tribal woman who strives to start a school in her village. Leading scholars see her powerful tales of exploitation and struggle as extremely rich sites of feminist discourse. However, Devi (who dislikes labels) declines to be called a feminist. She acknowledges that a woman tends to be more vulnerable to exploitation because of her body, but asserts; “I write not as a woman…..I look at the class, not at the gender problem.”
Indeed, a pronounced class consciousness informs Devi’s writings. While she professes little interest in ideological abstractions and theorizing, Devi is clearly influenced by the Marxist ideas ascendant in India during her formative years. Almost from the beginning of the twentieth century, Bengal has been a centre of leftist intellectualism. Though Devi kept her distance from party politics, she appropriated from the left something of its ideological fervour as well as the tools for understanding the social and economic problems of her country. Speaking of the highly politicized 1940s, she says, ‘In retrospect, I think that my understanding of the people and their struggles came from those days.’
What joins all these topics and themes in Devi’s fiction is a passionate opposition to realities of social exploitation. Her fiction is driven not only by a strong sense of identification with the oppressed and the excluded but by a faith in their capacity for self-emancipation. The cause of tribals has become Devi’s life mission. She has chosen the cause in part because the lot of the tribals has been, for her, the most emblematic of social oppression in modern India.
Devi has used her writings to render the plight of this population invisible to India’s mainstream society. She has explored in her fiction the history of Santhals, Hos, Oraons, Kurunis, Mundas and other tribal communities. Since 1976, she has been actively involved in the struggles of tribal and underprivileged communities in the border areas of the three adjacent provinces of Bihar, Orissa and West Bengal, especially in the districts of Mayurbhanj, Medinipur, Purulia, and Singhbhum. As Samik Bandhopadhyay said of this stage in Devi’s career, ‘The subjects of her stories have become the subject of her life.’
In her introduction to Agnigarbha (1978), Devi explained her mission thus:
‘I find my people still groaning under hunger, landlessness, indebtedness and bonded labor. An anger, luminous, burning and passionate, directed against a system that has failed to liberate my people from these horrible constraints is the only source of inspiration in all my writing. All the parties to the Left as well as to the Right have failed to keep their commitment to the common people. I do not hope to see in my lifetime any reason to change this conviction of mine. Hence I go on writing to the best of my abilities about the people, so that I can face myself without any sense of guilt and shame. For a writer faces judgement in her lifetime and remains answerable.’
Restless, feeling that writing fiction was not enough; she pursued other avenues of engagement. In 1980, she founded Palamau (Bihar) Zila Bandhua Samiti, India’s first bonded-labour organization, with the help of local journalist, Rameshwaram. The organization raised public awareness of the bonded-labour system and drew together thousands of bonded labours in common action to call for an end to bonded labour and demand a program of land-to-the-tillers.
The year after her father died in 1979, Devi started editing the Bengali quarterly Bortika, an obscure literary periodical her father had edited. She turned it into a forum where tribals, small peasants, agricultural labourers, factory workers and rickshaw pullers wrote about their life and problems.Impatient with abstract, theoretical and academic research, Devi turned Bortika into a publication that gave precedence to the view-from-below and the documentation of social and economic conditions through surveys and reports done by the local people themselves.
In 1982, she took a two year leave of absence from the Calcutta college where she had been teaching English literature since 1964 and joined Jugantar, a Bengali newspaper, as a roving reporter. This gave her greater opportunity to travel and learn of conditions in the countryside. Increasingly involved in the lives of the people she met; she resigned from her teaching job in 1984 and became a full-time writer and activist. She wrote for a Bengali daily, Dainik Basumati, for about a year and then joined Bartman, another Bengali daily, for which she wrote a weekly column until 1991.
She has done articles and investigative reports for English-language periodicals such as the Economic and political weekly (founded by her uncle Sachin Chowdhary). Business Standard, Sunday, Frontier and New Republic, written in English and Bengali, her journalism mapped her passionate commitments. She ranged through such topics as police atrocities, failures in the implementation of government programmes, exploitation of sharecroppers and miners, unemployment and landlessness, environmental degradation and the need to protect and foster tribal languages and identity.
Her practice of journalism is an integral part of Devi’s lifework. She has embraced journalism as social advocacy instead of as a trade or profession. Her practice of “journalism-from-below” is quite innovative. She has located herself, marked out her vantage point at the peripheries, in the rural districts, instead of writing out of the capital or metropolis. She does not just collect information from “informants,” she identifies with the people she writes about and works side by side with them for the redress of their problems. As her experiment with Bortika shows, she believes ‘that the people I write about should themselves write about their own problems.’ These are writings she says, ‘Based on real life experience, facts and figures. I sometimes help them with questionnaires and guides for conducting surveys in their own areas, which they themselves write. For many of the writers, it is the first time that they can project their own problems to a wider audience, in their way.’
She has pursued journalism side by side with active grassroots organizing and advocacy. In 1983, she founded Paschim Banga Kheria Sabar Kalyan Samiti (Kheria Sabar Welfare Society) with the help of other social activists, such as Gomasta Prasad Soren and Gopiballabh Singh Deo. The welfare society is an autonomous organization of the Kheria and Sabar tribes, among the poorest of the poor in India. Aimed at defending the rights of tribals and promoting their material and cultural well-being, the organization has undertaken such initiatives as handicraft and farming, irrigation and water, forestation, health and savings, and literacy projects. At least ten thousand, out of a population of about sixteen thousand constituting the two tribes, have directly benefited from the various projects of the organization.
Recognizing the value of collective action, Devi pioneered in forging a common voice for tribals by founding, in 1986, Adim Jaati Aikya Parishad (Ancient Tribes Union), a forum of thirty-eight West Bengali tribal groups. Formed to enable tribes to claim their rightful socioeconomic and civil liberties, the forum promoted co-operative action among both big and small tribes and reduced the incidence of intertribal violence.
In 1990, Devi instituted the Shabara Mela, an annual fair based on traditional Indian country fairs, held after winter harvest in Rajnagar some thirty kilometes from Purulia, West Bengal. It features crafts, exhibits, contests and theatrical performances dealing with social themes such as literacy, anti-alcoholism. The yearly fair has grown into a celebration of values of tribal dignity and autonomy. It has been duplicated in other rural areas.
Devi has been involved with numerous other initiatives in grassroots organizing, even serving as President of the Berhampur Municipal Sweepers Association in her home district of Murshidabad. Among the other organizations she is associated with – she took the initiative in founding a few of them- Paschim Banga Munda Tribal Samaj Sugar Ganthra (Mighty Union Of West Bengal Munda Tribal society); Paschim Banga Bhumij Tribal Samaj Kalyan Samiti (West Bengal Tenanted Tribal Welfare Society- Medinipur and Purulia districts); Paschim Banga Oraon Tribal kalian Samiti (West Bengal Oraon Tribal Welfare Society); Paschim Banga Sahis Scheduled Caste Kalyan Samiti (West Bengal Sahis Scheduled Caste Welfare Society); Paschim Banga Harijan Kalyan Samiti(West Bengal Harijan Welfare Society-North 24 Parganas district); Bharat Ker Adim Jaati Samiti (The Indian Ker Aboroginal tribal Society-North 24 Parganas District); Adibasi Kalyan Samiti (Adibasi Welfare Society-South 24 parganas district); and Paschim Banga Baul Fakir Sangha (West Bengal Baul Fakir Union-Murshidabad district).
She lives with the people she writes about, participates in their struggles, and gives voice to their lives in her writings. She calls them “her own people” and they call her in turn, Didi(elder sister). Her reputation as an advocate is such that she has become a ‘one person resource center’ for people in distress. People, mostly from remote rural areas, come to her house in Calcutta daily with their problems. Some even stay in her tiny apartment. They approach her with their problems: job for the unemployed, violation of government norms for jobs reserved for tribals and other eligible people, inaction or unjust action of the police or the administration, government recognition for running a school, someone needing admission to a hospital immediately, land, irrigation, drinking water, or SOS from a small tribal group fearing violent attacks. The list can go on and on.
She listens and gives advice, makes referrals to her extensive network of contacts or personally intercedes for them by bringing their grievances to the attention of state agencies and officials. Each year, she tirelessly writes several hundred letters of complaint or petition addressed to the government and publishes columns and articles documenting abuses by police, landlords and politicians. She has made the cause of the tribals and the poor her own, and her reputation as an advocate has spread far and wide.
Having been raised with the education and other privileges of a middle-class Indian family, Devi feels a certain complicity in the marginalization of millions of her compatriots. Although her own family followed a Spartan lifestyle and devoted much time to projects of civic amelioration, she believes that her social activism is a matter of expiation and duty. What she is doing, she often says, is partly atonement for India’s exploitation of tribal groups in the last thousand years.
Fiercely independent, Devi is critical of the failure of political parties from both the Left and the Right to change the system. Expressing her impatience with ‘mere party politics,’ she says, ‘Life is not arithmetic, and man is not made for the game of politics. I believe that it should be the object of every kind of politics to fulfil man’s craving to live with all his rights intact…’
Devi perceives herself as a catalyst rather than a leader. She has spent much time listening to people rather than talking to them; she has danced with them in their tribal festivals; she has marched with them in their protest demonstrations; she has tried to mould her voice to theirs in her writings.
Devi takes sides. She is impatient with hypocrisy, complacency and indifference. Deeply stirred by how the tribals and the poor have been pauperized and abused, she set for herself the task of savagely exposing the realities and structures of social and economic exploitation. In refusing to mystify what she sees, she shocks her middle-class readers into confronting a social cancer in Indian society. Devi says, ‘Bengali literature has been far too long a field for retraction from objectivity and an atrophy of conscience….A responsible writer, standing at a turning point in history, has to take a stand in defence of the exploited, otherwise history would never forgive him.’
Her comments gave life to her distinctive qualities as a writer and artist. She studied the history of the peoples she wrote about by examining archival documents; by collecting myths, legends and ballads; and by direct observation in her frequent travelling through the countryside. Her empirical research into oral history as it lives in the cultures and the memories of tribal communities was the first of its kind among Indian writers. It has allowed her to create fiction rooted in history and folk myth as well as in contemporary reality. Combining narrative with segments of oral history and social critique, she moved between past and present as she presents characters formed in the thick, time-shaped materiality of their social existence.
Her innovative use of Language has expanded the conventional borders of Bengali literary expression. She calls upon an eclectic array of classical and modern images and interlaces literary, bureaucratic and ‘street’ Bengali with tribal idioms. Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak believes that it was with Aranyer Adhikar (1977) that Mahasweta Devi began ‘putting together a prose that is a collage of literary Bengali, street Bengali, tribal Bengali and the languages of the tribals.’ In crafting this style, Devi has succeeded in melting the often discordant realities of modern Indian life. Transgressing the boundaries of language, she has broken down the barriers of class as well.
She creates the effect of documentary realism by representing reality with precision and economy of detail, using irony and satire and avoiding romantic cliché. She sentimentalizes what would otherwise slide into the realm of melodrama, by grounding her fiction in the particularities of the actual; her stories acquire the authenticity of lived experience at the margins.
She described her instinct as a writer in the preface to the story collection ‘Shrestha Galpa’ (1985): ‘I have found authentic documentation to be the best medium for protest against injustice and exploitation…I have a reverence for materials collected from folklore, for they reveal how the common people have overlooked at an experience in the past and look at it now…To capture the continuities between the past and present held together in the folk imagination, I bring legends, mythical figures and mythical happenings into a contemporary setting, and make an ironic use of these...’
Her use of folk symbolism and political irony in wholly contexts is illustrated in the stories adapted as plays and translated into English in five plays; Mother of 1084, Aajir, Bayen, Urvashi and Johny Water (1997). In one of these stories, a traditional water diviner’s instinctive understanding of the processes and movements of nature is turned into a medium for the rise of a new consciousness that empowers a community to contest a dominant, class-defined system. In another, the cancer of the throat that afflicts a local ventriloquist becomes a metaphor for the suppression of democratic rights during the period of Emergency in India. In still another story, the tragedy of a mother who is branded as a witch and separated from her son until the later acknowledges the dead woman as his mother inscribes the larger story of the cruelties of superstition and of a male-dominated system that has erected barriers between mothers and sons. In another collection of stories, published in English as Breast Stories (1997), Devi constructs a human as well as national parable in the story of a woman who becomes a professional wet nurse to support her family and dies of painful breast cancer, betrayed alike by the breasts that for years became her chief identity and the dozens of “sons” she suckled.
The uncompromising realism of her fiction has led the critics to see her work as a critique of the Bengali renaissance Devi departs from the high diction and musicality of renaissance writing by immersing herself in the non-snskritik idiom of the tribal world and by assuming the terse, direct style of modern journalism, she also goes beyond the humane, universalizing lyricism of Tagore and the renaissance writer in her violent, mythopoeia-ridden depiction of class conflict in Indian society. Shantiniketan schooled her love for humanity. It was, however, in the ideologically conflicted and violent world of the 1940s that she forged the anger at humanity’s violation as well as the weapons to defend it.
Devi’s work has not gone unrecognized. She has won various literary honours, among them the highest state-sponsored literary award in India from the Sahitya Akademi (National Academy of letters) which she received for ‘Aranyer Adhikar’ in 1979. In 1986, She was honoured with Padamshree (awarded to distinguish citizens by the Government of India) for her activist work among tribal communities. In 1996, for lifetime literary achievement, she was given the Jnanpith Award in ceremonies in New Delhi attended by Nelson Mandela. In handling her award, Mandela honoured her work by saying that Devi “holds a mirror to the conditions of the world as we enter the new millennium.” (she donated Jnanpith prize money for the uplift of tribal groups through the tribal welfare society she established and heads.) In the same year, the Rabindra Bharti University of Calcutta conferred on her an honorary Doctorate in Literature.
Her achievement as a writer and activist has carried her beyond India. She travelled to Paris in 1985 as part of a cultural exchange program between India and France and went to Frankfurt in 1986 as part of delegation of Indian Writers to that city’s famous book fair. In 1988, she visited Pittsburgh University in Pennsylvania on the invitation of the Marxist Study circle and then returned to the United States in 1990 as a visiting Fulbright Lecturer. In 1992, nominated by India’s First Lady, Devi attended the Geneva Summit Conference on ‘Economic Development Of Women in Agricultural Sector in The Third World.’ In the same year, she visited France again on the invitation of the French Cultural Affairs Ministry.
Some of her works have been translated into English, Italian, Japanese and French. Although her work may not conform to the cosmopolitan ‘Indian Fiction’ currently fashionable among western readers, she is slowly gaining an international readership, in part because of the admiring attention given to her work as sites of Postcolonial and Feminist discourse by Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak, one of the world’s foremost literary theorists. A literary writer in India does not have a large and ready readership. The literacy rate in Bengal is only 38 percent as of the 1970s, and a serious novel in Bengali sells about five thousand copies in three years. Devi’s best-known books, however, have run to over twenty editions. Her writings have also circulated beyond the confines of print. Her works can be found in Gujarati and two tribal languages, Ho and Santhali.
‘In the last few years in my travels among the people, I’ve come across several traditional folk forms, like the Aikap. With its rich treatment of social themes in an idiom of repartees-earthy, full-of-blood and highly sophisticated forms that carry on easily from speech to singing. I have seen several such performances that project images of persecution. In the 1940s the communist party had instructed its cadres to locate, learn and revitalize all these forms and made them a vehicle for both the people there, and the people here who would like to communicate with them. In my novel ‘Bandobasti’ last year I went back to a reconstruction of the history of that encounters folk forms that the communist peasants’ movement has initiated. I feel a crying need for a revival of that process.’
Devi has widened her audience by writing in many forms and media in both Bengali and English. Her fiction has been adapted as theatrical performances in various Indian languages and Devi herself has adapted some of her works for the stage. ‘Rudali’, an adaptation of her short story about a poor, low-caste village women, has been staged a hundred times to packed houses in both Bengali and Hindi since it was performed in 1992. Devi’s other stories have been dramatized and performed in towns and villages in Bengal. The stories are appreciated by audiences closer to the experiences in which her works are rooted. In her visit to the villages, Devi has also made it a point to discuss and narrate her stories to the people about whom she writes. Her stories have entered into the oral tradition of the places where her books and plays circulate. The social researcher Maitreya Ghatak, for instance, relates how she met a young tribal boy while she was visiting a village in Medinipur district of West Bengal. The boy was carrying a copy of an abridged version of Devi’s ‘Birsa Munda’, written specifically for young readers. It was a book read by everyone in the community, the boy said.
One of the most prolific writers in Bengali, Mahasweta Devi has published over a hundred titles of fiction in addition to a large body of journalistic and other writings. Her works of fiction include ‘Byadh Khanda’ (1994), ‘Prosthan Parba’ (1995) and ‘Krishna Dwadoshi’ (1995). She had also finished her autobiography. Devi is in her late eighties, yet her dedication to her mission and her art has not dimmed.
A Bengali novelist has remarked about Devi; ‘She is perhaps the only living author (in India) whose literary activities cannot be separated from her day to day living.’ Both in and outside India, there are few writers who offer as clear an example of writing as an act of social conscience and a function of individual will. Her life is a lesson in the idea that, indeed, one person can make a difference. The spirit of Mahasweta Devi symbolizes her compassionate crusade through art and activism so that tribals may find a just and honorable place in India’s mainstream, national life.
References: Work by Mahasweta devi (English Translations)
- Imaginary Maps: Three Stories. Translated by Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak, Calcutta: Thema, 1984; New York; Routledge, 1995.
- Bashai Tudu, translated by Samik Bandhopadhyay and Gaayatri Chakravarty Spivak, Calcutta; Thema, 1990
- Paschim Banga Kheria Sabar Samiti: An Outline[Calcutta], 1994
- Dust On The Road: The Activist Writings Of Mahasweta Devi, Seagull Books, 1997
- Mother Of 1084: Translated by Samik Bandhopadhyay, Calcutta; Seagull books, 1997.
- Breast Stories. Translated Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Calcutta: Seagull books, 1997. 7.Five plays: Mother Of 1084, Aajir, Bayen, Urvashi and Johnny Water. Translated by Samik Bandhopadhyay, Calcutta: Seagull Books, 1997
- Rudali- From Fiction To Performance, with Usha Ganguli and Translated by Anjum Katyal, Calcutta; Seagull Books, 1997.
Works by Other Writers:
- Chaudhuri, Amit, ed, The Picador Book Of Modern Indian Literature, London: Picador, 2001
- Contemporary Indian Literature: A Symposium, New Delhi: Sahitya Akadeni, 1959
- Devi, Mahasweta, Interview by James R.Rush, Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, Manila, September 2, 1997.
- Katyal, Anjum, ‘The Metamorphosis Of Rudali.’ STQ: Seagull Theatre Quarterly 1(January 1994): 5-24
- Nyrop, Richard F., et al. Area Handbook for India, Washington DC: American University, Foreign Area Studies, 1975
- Schermerhorn R.A., Ethnic Plurality in India, Tucson: University Of Arizona Press, 1978
- Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, A Critique Of Postcolonial Reason; Toward a History of Vanishing Present. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.
- In other Worlds; Essays In Cultural Politics, New York; Routledge, 1988
- Various interviews and correspondence with individuals who have met Mahasweta Devi and know her work (like me and my friends) and other primary documents.