Indefatigable chronicler of the oppressed

As the voice of the disempowered, she had an incredibly powerful in-your-face literary style.

July 29, 2016 12:18 am | Updated December 04, 2021 10:54 pm IST

Mahasweta Devi.

Mahasweta Devi.

“I don’t want to die,” she said, “I want to live forever.” There was so much to do, so much to write about. If she did die, however, she wanted to be buried and a mahua tree planted on her grave.

On July 28, Mahasweta Devi, 90, cut loose the ties that bound her to mortal life and set off to live forever. Her deeply political novels, short stories and columns have nurtured generations of readers of Bengali literature. One of the most widely translated authors of contemporary India, she has readers the world over. She was already in foreverland.

A deeply political writer and social activist, Mahasweta Devi fiercely championed the rights of the marginalised and the dispossessed. Women, tribal people, Dalits, landless farmers, migrant labour, prostitutes, young idealists — she firmly stood by them. And among all those she campaigned for, she was most vocal as a crusader for tribal rights — particularly the rights of denotified tribes of Bengal like the Kheria Shabors and the Lodhas. She wrote about them, spoke about them, set up voluntary organisations for them, collected donations for their welfare, braved legal battles for their rights. She also edited Bortika , a magazine documenting the concerns of the dispossessed in their own words.

Because Mahasweta Devi — Padma Vibhushan, winner of the Jnanpith, Magsaysay and Sahitya Akademi awards among numerous others — could never be just a writer. For the daughter of eminent poet and novelist Manish Ghatak, niece of filmmaker Rittwik Ghatak, the girl who partly grew up in Rabindranath Tagore's Santiniketan, who married left-wing playwright and actor Bijon Bhattacharya, and taught English literature, writing came easy.

But it was always a means to an end. At first it was for the money. Then to document change. Then it was to disseminate information that she was keen to share. “I want to reach as many people as possible,” she said. “I write for the masses.”


Which was not an easy thing to do, given the deeply disturbing stuff she wrote. She wrote about the ruthless colonising of the land, the communities, the cultures and even the bodies of those marginalised by the mainstream. As the voice of the disempowered and the conscience-keeper of her times, she prioritised content over form, and developed an incredibly powerful in-your-face literary style. Direct, brutal, often mixing bits of tribal dialect with sophisticated urban Bengali, and only sometimes lapsing into beautiful imagery.

Because within that fierce crusader for the dispossessed, who raged against middle class values, was a soft core that valued beauty, loved to sing Rabindrasangeet, had a fantastic sense of humour, wrote delightful stories for children and was a keen observer of human life. “The right to dream should be the first fundamental right,” she said.

In essence, Mahasweta was a chronicler of oral history and a lobbyist for change. From British-era tribal hero Birsa Munda, fictionalised in Aranyer Adhikar (The Right to the Forest), to the struggle in Nandigram and Singur, she spoke out for the oppressed. Her decades-long demands for the rights of the disempowered, for a more humane society cutting across class, caste, ethnicity, gender and religion, sadly, are still relevant.

So when you see women in Argentina protesting restrictions by breastfeeding in public, you remember Mahasweta’s Gangor, the young tribal mother who was horribly tormented by the police because someone took a photo of her breastfeeding her baby and published it. When you hear of Odisha’s Dongria Kondh tribe’s historic victory against Vedanta, the powerful multinational corporation intent on mining in the land where the tribal gods reside in the form of forests and hills, you remember the little people in Shishu (Children), the neglected ones whose beliefs are trampled upon, who are forced out of their own land by mining projects and made into criminals by the greed of the mainstream.

The debate over AFSPA reminds you of Dopdi in Draupadi , the woman who continues to roar against the armed forces even as they brutalise her. Or of Sujata, the mother of a slain Naxalite, in Hajar Churashir Ma (The Mother of 1084). The apathy of an increasingly selfish society that discards elderly parents reminds us of Yashoda in Stanyadayini (The Wet Nurse). Mahasweta lives among us. Even without the mahua tree.

(Antara Dev Sen is editor of ‘The Little Magazine’ )

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