by Debabrata Panda
Frontier | Vol. 49, No.6, Aug 14 – 20, 2016
History will remember Mahasweta Devi (14.01.1926-28.07.2016) as a conscience-keeper of her times. Awards and accolades could not moderate her views on the exploitative structure of the Indian society. She knew it well that a curtain separates India’s mainstream society from the marginalized and the deprived. As a matter of choice, she championed through her writings the demand for justice and honour for these disempowered people—comprising among others, women(identified as objects limited to the usefulness of their bodies), adivasis, Dalits, landless peasants, migrant labourers. She firmly stood by them. The stories and novels she wrote makes people aware of the process of ruthless internal colonisation of the land, communities and the cultures of those who do not wield power, by the mainstream predators. The characters in her stories and novels are all those whom she had observed closely.
The stories were woven around the oppressed inhabitants of the neglected tribal hinterland of Jharkhand, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and the south west of West Bengal where she spent a large part of the four decades of her six-decade-old literary career, listening to them, obviously to tell the people about their lives. This is how her writings were so graphical in their presentation. Anyone going through them inevitably gets the message which the writer wanted to convey, because of the sort of powerful imageries created by her. Mahasweta Devi developed her stories in local settings. But her concerns were universal. This is why her stories were appreciated by readers outside her state. In her passing away, India has lost a great writer.
Mahasweta is a great writer not because of the awe-inspiring large quantity of creative work she has left behind: reportedly over 100 novels and 20 collections of short stories, apart from several hundred letters, columns written in various newspapers and magazines, appeals and petitions which are yet to be published in the book form. Her greatness lies in her role as a writer of the masses and for the masses. In her own words, ‘the reason and inspiration for her writing are those people who are exploited and used and yet do not accept defeat’. For this writer the endless source of ingredients for writing is in these amazingly noble, suffering human beings. She voiced demands for a more humane society, cutting across class, caste, ethnicity, gender and religion only with a desire to put an end to exploitation and oppression of those who have got no voice of their own, who cannot articulate their own demands. She took up cudgels on behalf of the silenced millions. Her literary work became a movement during her lifetime. In this movement activism and writing could no longer have separate entity. One supplemented the other.
Today the writer-activist Mahasweta Devi is best known to the outside world as a genuine crusader for tribal rights. She could not ensconce herself within the confines of family comfort and carry on with her literary work which was of a different genre that has made Mahasweta Devi an extraordinary writer. She toured extensively the tribal districts to gain first-hand knowledge of their living conditions and to find out the way to ameliorate their sufferings. Very soon she realized that for the uplift of the adivasis it was necessary to build some organization of their own. She played a leading role in the founding of Aboriginal United Association, West Bengal Oraon Welfare Society and All India Vandhua Liberation Morcha. After her father’s demise, she took upon herself the task of editing the magazine, Bortika, which was started by her father, Manish Ghatak. Under her editorship, the Bortika mainly dealt with tribal affairs. Those who wrote for this magazine were persons drawn from the various strata of the toiling masses. Their write-ups had to be edited; corrections made in those reports and articles were brought to the attention of the contributors. This was how an altogether new generation of writers gradually emerged on the scene. It shows what a huge burden of work the writer of the masses had to shoulder to make the birth of a caring and humane society possible.
The unique blending of activism and writing enabled her to do the impossible. It was not easy for a writer at an advanced age to live in Sabar villages day after day disregarding her frail health. Mahasweta Devi scripted a new life for herself; she nursed a missionary zeal to chronicle their lives and be their voice. The significant role she played to uplift the Lodha and Kheriya-Sabar community succeeded in de-stigmatizing the “criminal” identity, given to this community by the British rulers. She became a pillar of the Sabar Kalyan Samiity. She donated the entire sum of Rs 10 lac (she was given with the Magsaysay Award) to the Samity. That apart, she organized Sabar Mela where the locals staged their creative talents, both traditional and contemporary. The writer of the masses was found selling the tribal wares in the Sabar stalls in the fairs in the city. She frequently wrote to government officials to take care of road connection, drinking water supply, irrigation infrastructure and setting up of schools and healthcare facilities in the tribal hamlets. Failing to elicit favourable response she would rely on donations, large or small, to render those essential services to the best of her ability. Thus she became the mother of the Kheriya-Sabar-Lodha community.
The intimate bond which she had developed with the highly exploited and neglected people in the tribal areas, gave her immense strength to confront the pernicious ideas harboured by a large section of the urban elite often labeling an inferior status to Adivasi culture. She had the courage to say with conviction that the Adivasis are civilized and cultured, and her own class hypocritical. Addressing students at the University of Hyderabad in September, 2012, she said that the Indian forests, rivers and mountains owed their survival. The egalitarian social structure and the absence of social evils like dowry in the adivasi society prompted Mahasweta Devi to move ahead to bring adivasis of the north and south together.
Influenced by the communist movement of the 1940s, Mahasweta Devi was out and out a democrat, a firm supporter of the peoples’ movements and an indefatigable defender of human rights. She was probably the only writer of renown who practised what she preached. She was an absolutely free person who could not be bound by any party discipline. She had sympathy for the Naxalite cause but she did not fail to criticize the radical excesses. Her cordial relation with the Left Front ministers did not stand in the way of her deep involvement in the Singur-Nandigram movement. Her close intimacy with the Chief Minister of the state could not prevent her from demanding release of political prisoners. She did not hesitate to say that the people like Chhatradhar Mahato might be dubbed by the powers that be as Maoists, but the fact was that they had raised the concerns of the people in the area. This was the true self of Mahasweta Devi who cared very little what others said about her.