Mahasweta Devi wrote Hajar Churashir Ma (1084’s Mother) in 1974, when Naxalism had scorched its way across Bengal. The author and that book have since then been one.
The story has a Calcutta housewife, Sujata Chatterjee, at its centre. Jaya Bachchan plays the role in the story’s film version, recalling Karuna Banerjee in Ray’s Pather Panchali . But Sujata’s son Brata is not Apu, the village trundler. A city-bred college student in Calcutta, Brata has been drawn into the Naxal fires and — is killed. Brata Chatterjee becomes Corpse Number 1084. A number.
Was Brata innocent? Mahasweta could be expected to ask “What is innocence?” Was he misled? She would return that with “Misled? Tell me, who is ‘well-led’?” Was he violent? I can picture her suppressing a pained laugh to say: “Violence is both the cause and the result of gunfire.” And follow that up with “Do you know, can you know, the numbers killed by Naxals and the number of Naxals killed by the police, the army… Do you… Do you? Numbers, numbers, it has become a game of numbers against numbers… of the killing and the killed….”
She must have read, some 40 years later, the suicide note of Rohit Vemula, the Dalit student leader in Hyderabad, in which he said the value of men like him had been reduced to a number and to “…a thing”. A corpse is a thing and when it is in police custody, it is a thing with a number.
Twelve years after she wrote it, the novel got Mahasweta a Jnanpith. Regret over the delay dissolved in the satisfaction that it came to be handed to her on March 28, 1997 by the visiting South African President, Nelson Mandela. This did not happen in the routine of diplomatic and protocol arrangements. New Delhi sounded its mission in Pretoria (where I was then posted) asking if the Jnanpith investiture could be included in the itinerary of the Presidential visit that was under discussion. I went to the man who, as Director-General of Mandela’s Presidency, would be consulted by Mandela on this — the extraordinarily wise and, in fact, sagacious intellectual, Jakes Gerwel. Would the President be inclined to honour an Indian writer who has been championing human rights, especially among tribals? “Most certainly, yes”, was the instant response. “This is just the kind of thing he would like to do,” Gerwel said. “But he would appreciate a note on the lady.” Jnanpith’s office supplied the material which, Gerwel told me later, Mandela read “word by word”.
I did not know Mahasweta at the time, only her reputation. I had not even read her. But I knew she was not just another writer, not just another Jnanpith awardee. She was a force. The function at Vigyan Bhavan was, as I scribbled in my diary, “a success of moneyed organisation”. But Mahasweta’s passion for justice, her reflexive identification with the poor, the marginalised and the dispossessed, was patent. “I am overwhelmed,” she said in her acceptance speech. “I wonder whether I deserve all this love and affection from so many people. For, how long can I continue to accept praise when I, more than anyone else, know that I should have done so much more, not merely as a writer, but as part of a society where so much needs to be changed?” I could see that Gerwel, who had accompanied Mandela and with whom I was seated in the plush auditorium, was listening rapt. And Mandela himself listened with an attentiveness that seemed like that of a student before a teacher. Receiving the award from Mandela, she said, was “a unique experience as he has remained, over the years, before and after long incarceration in prison, a symbol of the oppressed people’s struggle against exploitation, repression and their fight for human rights and dignity, not only in his country, but all over the world.” Humility forbade Mandela from nodding in approval but the deep creases on his forehead smoothed out as Mahasweta said those words about “all over the world”.
I met Mahasweta only for a few moments at the event as we were to rush to the Old Fort where a ‘Delhi Declaration’ was to be announced, taking India-South Africa ties to a new high.
It was almost a decade later that I met her again, this time in Kolkata. I rang to ask if I could come over to meet her. She was surprised to get my call, but only a little. “Of course you can come any time,” she said to me, in Hindi, recalling our Vigyan Bhavan meeting. “ Upar ka flat hain… Tum sirhi charh sakoge na? ” (Mine is an upstairs flat... I hope you will have no difficulty with the stairs?) I assured her I would manage.
Mahasweta was looking out of a window as my wife and I reached in a car that I had very markedly got to hoot no hooters, fly no flag and, above all, come without a screeching pilot in front. But still, there were two support vehicles. She came halfway down the stairs and met me on a mezzanine landing. “ Mere aane se koi taqleef…? ” (Hope my coming has caused no trouble?) I had presumed, pompously, that Mahasweta’s English was not her strong point. She replied in clipped accents. “What are you saying; most certainly not.” And then, “What a lot of cars you have brought with you!”
Once in her house, she introduced me to her family, her grandson Tathagata Bhattacharya, in particular, and his little children. She then took me to “her” multi-purpose room, a tiny affair. It was as rudimentary as a room can be. There was a desk in one corner, with very few things on it… photographs, books, a sheaf or two of writing paper, a couple of pencils. And opposite, beneath a book-case nailed to the wall that was so heavily laden with books that it bulged like a hammock, her bed. I couldn’t help wonder if it was safe for her to sleep under a potential avalanche of volumes, hardback, paperback, large, small.
Mahasweta settled down in her chair and pointed to a seat beside her. Her spectacles tenuously perched on her nose, she looked me straight in the eye, a half-smile playing tricks around her mouth as if in anticipation of a laugh of searing ridicule. She asked me how I was taking to “life in Bengal”. Tour the tribal areas, she said, and “…remember the tribal areas of Bengal are part of tribal areas in their vicinity even if they belong to other states... They do not belong to this or that state… they belong to each other... The tribal world and the tribal way is complete in itself...”
From that point on, I was a recalcitrant recruit in her work for tribals, and for those who are generally down and out. She spared no pains and spared no one else any pains either. Her causes were great causes, her fears were real fears. Her hopes lay in shards, her expectations in tatters. She was in a state of continuous disbelief at others’ inability to match her intensities, her passions. And the author of poignant novels, sensitive verse, powerful prose, was capable of choice invectives. Her language register did not scruple to exclude alternative words, slang, swear-words. Only she did not make them her daily speech. And that is where the strength of her words lay. Her searing word-portraits of politicians, including those who believed they were in her good books, will be in my self-proscribed book of satire.
Contrarian voices from the country’s secular, democratic and Left formations, and from individuals who are just themselves, free-thinkers, are being routinely characterised as subversive, seditious. Civil protesters are being detained and subjected to physical and psychological torture in jail, media personalities pilloried in that handy tool of the intolerant Right, social media, for speaking frankly about Kashmir. In this situation, our political estate needs literary gadflies, not butterflies. Mahasweta was a gadfly. Always difficult, ever capable of misunderstanding persons and situations, she was ‘adi’, original.
Not every writer can be a Mahasweta. Yet, many among Indian writers share and reflect her spirit. Vikram Seth’s little poem on Tiananmen Square mailed a fist at tyranny like no small poem in recent memory. And his position, so compellingly articulated on minority rights, has been an inspiration and an instruction to liberal intellectuals, the judiciary, politicians and the general public. Those writers who recently returned their Sahitya Akademi awards, led by the indomitable Nayantara Sahgal and the late M.M. Kalburgi, have all done what Munshi Premchand (as journalist Amrith Lal recently reminded us) visualised so powerfully: “Literature is not something which follows politics, but leads it like a torch.” There is more than hope. There is the assurance from torch-bearers.
Comparisons ill serve the one compared and the one being compared to. So I will connect, not compare. Mahasweta was Hannah Arendt’s kindred spirit. She was Nadine Gordimer’s soulmate. Had Mahasweta written in a language that used the Roman script, she would have gotten the Nobel Prize for Literature years ago, perhaps after her Aranyer Adhikar (1977). And the citation would have called her literature the literature of protest. But she is better off having used the scripts of India, understanding and interpreting them as only Hajar Churashir Ma could have done.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi, former Governor of West Bengal, is a distinguished professor of history and politics at Ashoka University. He was also India’s High Commissioner to South Africa and Lesotho.