Tearing the curtain of darkness

Mahasweta Devi's stories of the subaltern will live forever as long as there’s oppression in the world and the poorest of the poor need a voice.

Updated - October 18, 2016 01:43 pm IST

Published - July 31, 2016 01:32 am IST

The story goes, not apocryphal, that every time Mahasweta Devi visited Jharkhand, she would demand that Birsa Munda be unshackled. In Ranchi, on Birsa Munda Chowk, there’s a statue of this fiery tribal leader who died in jail during British rule in 1900. The statue shows him wearing a turban and dhoti, his hands in chains. Officials would tell her that the British photographed him in chains and that perhaps became a reference point for all depictions of the tribal hero who died at 25. The chains also symbolised his struggle for freedom, they claimed.

An old Ranchi hand recalls her saying: “ Shaddhin deshe keno shekole bandha (why is he still in chains when India is free)?” as she gathered for a meeting of bonded labourers in the 1980s. Last month, the Jharkhand government decided to free Birsa Munda of his shackles, 116 years after his death, and several years after the writer and activist voiced her demand. She may not be around to see a “free” Munda, but the downtrodden — tribals, dispossessed, marginalised, landless — and those who are fighting against injustice and are still in chains know that she is there in spirit.

Sudipta Datta

Mahasweta Devi had woven a historical fiction around the legend of Birsa Munda in her 1977 novel Aranyer Adhikar (Rights of the Forest), which chronicles the turbulent period of the late 19th century, and particularly the tribal armed uprising against the British led by Birsa Munda to rid the forests and hills of “usurpers”. She received the Sahitya Akademi award for it in 1979, though Mahasweta Devi, the political and social activist and conscience-keeper, wouldn’t bother herself too much with awards and accolades (Padma Shri, Padma Vibhushan, Jnanpith, Magsaysay) bagged by Mahasweta Devi, the writer.

Yet her books sold well. Her stories of the subaltern will live forever as long as there’s oppression in the world and the poorest of the poor need a voice. In today’s atmosphere of growing intolerance, it’s imperative to read her work and remind ourselves of her lifelong fight for those who are sought to be silenced.

“Her compassionate crusade through art and activism to claim for tribal peoples a just and honourable place in India's national life” got her the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1997. Accepting it, she had said: “My India still lives behind a curtain of darkness. A curtain that separates mainstream society from the poor and the deprived.”

For justice and honour As justice and honour still elude a large slice of tribal peoples across Wet Bengal, Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat, and the north-eastern States, her narratives on their shackled lives are more relevant than ever.

Hajar Churashir Maa (Mother of 1084), one of her most widely read books, was adapted for theatre and film. Even though it was written in the turbulent 1970s at the peak of the Naxalite movement, its message is perhaps even more powerful in the prevailing atmosphere of a million mutinies between state and people.

The novel begins with the death of a son and his mother waking up to the terrible fact of him being reduced to a number. It’s a chilling portrayal of a social movement that wasn’t quite successful, put down by brutal force; and we suffer along with the mother, Sujata Chatterjee, who tries to understand a revolutionary movement that took her son Brati. Her journey is also one of self-discovery and her place in a feudal world.

Writing and activism were in Mahasweta Devi’s genes. Her parents were writers, her uncle Ritwik Ghatak, her husband Bijon Bhattacharya, a radical Left playwright and a member of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). At 28, she toured parts of backward Rajasthan alone, to research for a biography on Rani of Jhansi, her first book. From the bonded labourers of Palamu to the denotified tribes of Bengal — Lodhas of Medinipur, Khedia Shobors of Purulia, Dhikaros of Birbhum — Mahasweta Devi spent three decades of her life listening to them to tell us about these lives, outside the margins of society.

As Irom Sharmila decides to call off her fast in Manipur, with the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act yet to be repealed, we are drawn to another of Mahasweta Devi’s famous stories, “Draupadi”. In a powerful retelling of this Mahabharata character, we have Draupadi, or Dopdi, as a rebel who is cornered by the police in a bid to suppress forces she represents.

“Draupadi” begins with a short exchange between two men in uniform. “What’s this, a tribal called Dopdi? The list of names I bought has nothing like it! How can anyone have an unlisted name?” The other man responds: “Draupadi Mejhen. Born the year her mother threshed rice at Surja Sahu’s at Bakuli. Surja Sahu’s wife gave her the name.”

Since Mahasweta Devi rooted her stories and plots on events she saw or read about, her writing incorporates tribal languages and dialects, folk tales and oral histories. She elevated these stories with her imagination, using various genres and styles. Her prose is brutal and lyrical, her tone ironic, sarcastic.

The power of Dopdi No miracle can save Dopdi, and she doesn’t want it either. As Dopdi is pursued by her abusers, she stands up to them, laughing hysterically as she tears up her sari, exposing her nakedness in a chilling act of defiance akin to what we saw in Imphal in 2004 when women protested the killing of Thangjam Manorama.

In another story, “The Breast Giver”, the protagonist Jashoda is paid to nurse a brood of children of her master and mistress. This helps her to support her poor disabled family. In yet another story, “Pterodactyl”, she explores why Adivasis are so misunderstood. For her, the Adivasis were civilised and cultured, and her own class hypocritical.

Throughout her life and her writing, Mahasweta Devi tried to ensure that the plight of “suffering spectators” of a fast developing country didn’t go unnoticed. She was drawn to people who led a “subhuman existence”, people with no access to education or health care or roads or income. Many of them may not be able to read her work yet, but it’s because of her that their stories are out there.

She was not one to shy away from the difficult path. Despite her obvious Left links, during the Singur and Nandigram agitations in West Bengal, Mahasweta Devi, well in her 80s, launched a vehement protest against appropriation of land by the state. Her frail frame at a rally in Kolkata against police firing in Nandigram helped energise the Opposition and Mamata Banerjee to bring about “ poribortan ” in the State. But then again, when the newly elected Mamata Banerjee government refused permission to the Association for Protection of Domestic Rights to hold a rally in Kolkata against government action against Maoists in Lalgarh, she protested.

For Mahasweta Devi, it was imperative to “make an attempt to tear the curtain of darkness, see the reality that lies beyond and see our own true faces in the process”. With her writing and activism, Mahasweta Devi holds up a mirror to society.

But are we looking?

Sudipta Datta is a Kolkata-based journalist.

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