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SHOMA A.CHATTERJI | 29 JULY, 2016

Mahasweta Devi (1926-2016): A Voice for The Dispossessed Silenced by Time


Mahasweta Devi, who passed away in a Kolkata nursing home on July 28 2016 at the age of 90 needs no introduction in the world of literature in global terms. She is perhaps the first author and commentator who ceaselessly fought for the cause of the tribals and downtrodden and the marginalised of West Bengal not only through her writing but also through her social activism. Her powerful stories about the dispossessed along with her activism on their behalf have made her one of the best-known, and most frequently translated, of India's authors. One of the books reviewed here, 'Breast Stories' consists of three of her stories translated into English, and her works are featured significantly in the other: 'Of Women, Outcastes, Peasants and Rebels'. . Her empirical research into oral history of the cultures and memories of tribal communities is the first of its kind in India. Her powerful, haunting tales of exploitation and struggle are seen as rich sites of feminist discourse by leading scholars. Her innovative use of language has expanded the parameters of Bengali as a language of literary expression, achieved by imbibing and interweaving of tribal dialects into her writing.

She was bestowed the Sahitya Akademi award in 1979, the Padmashree award in 1986, the Jnanpith award in 1997, the Magsaysay award (referred to as the Asian Nobel Prize) in 1997 and the Deshikottam award in 1999. There were rumours that her name did not feature in any Nobel Prize shortlist because there were not enough English translations of her works to be considered for the award. Perhaps to fill this vacuum, Seagull Books of Kolkata ventured into a series of English translations of her works. The most memorable of these that form layers of shocking revelations about the oppression and torture of tribals by the mainstream is Breast Stories, a collection translated by none other than Gayatri Chakravarty-Spivak. Each story is accompanied by an analysis of almost equivalent length, described variously as foreword, analysis, or notes. Their sheer volume makes them impossible to ignore -- the deconstruction of the story 'Breast-Giver' is, in fact, twice as long as the story itself

In the last forty years, Mahashweta Devi wrote twenty published collections of short stories and close to a hundred novels, primarily in her native language of Bengali. She championed the cause of 25 million tribal people in India, who belong to approximately 150 different tribes. Her writing reflects the ugliness, squalor and misery in the lives of the tribal people and indicts Indian society for the indignity it heaps on its most oppressed constituents. Her pioneering work with the Sabars, a de-notified tribal community in the Purulia district of West Bengal, earned her the title "The Mother of Sabars". She was closely associated with the West Bengal Oraon Welfare Society and the All Indian Vandhua Liberation Morcha and was the founding member of Aboriginal United Association. She has also edited a tribal magazine, Bartika, since 1980.

Some years ago, Nandan, the cultural complex of the West Bengal Government, stopped the screening of a documentary - One Day from a Hangman’s Life by Joshy Joseph that followed the hangman of Dhananjoy Chatterjee who had raped and killed a 14-year-old schoolgirl in Kolkata. When most of Kolkata’s intellectuals remained silent, Mahasweta Devi’s was the sole dissenting voice. In a letter to DRIK-India, the producer of the film and a photographic NGO, she wrote, “I saw (the film) and was impressed. The treatment is entirely objective. No judgmental attitude towards other questions like whether death by hanging should or shouldn't be there. No moral attitude from the filmmaker. No questions about the morality of a death sentence. It is a bare and savage documentation of a day in a hangman's life. It is just another day. Of course, the hangman is deeply concerned as one Dhananjoy every five years means bread and butter for him, but somewhere he also understands. This film actually points towards the reality, which is today in every viewers' life.”

Mahasweta wrote from personal experience. She saw about 60 Lodhas and Shabars of West Bengal killed for either theft or for dacoity. But not a single receiver of stolen goods was been brought to book. The situation in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh is worse. Delhi is no better. The mainstream population in India neither knows nor wants to know about the tribals. Her first major work is the life of the queen of Jhansi, Jhansir Rani, undertaken in an extraordinary way. In her early twenties, Mahasweta Devi married playwright Bijon Bhattacharya. Their son Nabarun Bhattacharya, another trailblazing writer, was born in 1948. The couple had talent, but no money, and suffered because of being "Communists". Their marriage did not last. Nabarun passed away of cancer a couple of years ago. His relationship with his mother was tenuous.

Her short story Rudali, “emerges as a multi–layered and multi– dimensional story where issues of caste, class, gender and economies come together to portray a woman who in spite of all the odds, ultimately finds the road towards empowerment and success with the silent help and support of her community,” write Anindita Ganguly and Prof. J.S. Jha in A Dalit Woman’s Experiences in Post-Colonial India: A Close Reading of Mahasweta Devi’s short story Rudali. It deals with women from an adivasi tribe who are professional mourners when someone rich dies in nearby villages.

Among the many films based on Mahasweta Devi’s stories, Rudali is one, directed by Kalpana Lajmi. Many short stories and novels by Mahasweta Devi have been transposed/interpreted/translated on celluloid. But none of them could even scratch the surface of the raw reality, the flesh and blood of the oppressed her stories brought out. Even a director of the calibre of Govind Nihalani could hardly do justice to one of her most striking novelettes Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa, which, in the end, turned out to be a melodramatic extension of the original story. Usha Ganguly of Rangakarmee also staged a theatrical version of the same story.

“In her short story “Draupadi’ (first appeared in Agni Garbha (Womb of Fires) a collection of loosely connected short narratives) Mahasweta Devi ventured to write an episode from the great epic Mahabharata and as a feminist response to the myth of Draupadi (the icon of womanhood in Hindu mythology) to the fore, a re-invented cultural history that deconstructs the representation of women, cultures, images, stereotypes and archetypes. The politics of interpretation has most often been the politics of gender,” writes Rajni Dwivedi in Archetypal Deconstruction in Mahasweta Devi’s Draupadi.

Her Verrier Elwin Memorial lecture in Baroda in 1998 led to the setting up of the Denotified Tribes and Communities Right Action Group. The group brings out a bulletin named Budhan. When Budhan Sabar, a member of the Sabar Khedia tribe of Akarbaid in Purulia district West Bengal, was mercilessly killed by the police on February 17, 1998, Mahasweta Devi, as president of the Paschim Banga Khedia Sabar Kalyan Samity (of which Budhan was also a member) filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Calcutta High Court. The responsible police officers were suspended, a CBI inquiry was initiated, and Budhan’s widow was awarded a compensation of Rs.100, 000.

Mahasweta Devi passed through milestone incidents of history such as World War II, the Quit India Movement of 1942, the Bengal famine of 1943, the Partition, and the Tebhaga Peasant Movement. Her involvement with social and political happenings started early. She tried a number of odd jobs, from peddling dyes to 171 teaching. She married Bijan Bhattacharya, a noted writer and playwright when she was 21 but the marriage did not last and she walked out of it.

Between 1964 and 1982, Mahasweta taught English literature at the Bijoygarh College, ‘a poor college’ according to Mahasweta Devi. “It was the most rewarding experience to teach children from poor families. I taught them Milton and Shelley and they did not know even basic English Grammar, so I used to teach them Active English as well,” said Mahasweta. “I believe in documentation. After reading my work, the reader should face the truth and feel ashamed of the true face of India. To fully understand these stories, one must have knowledge of the agricultural economy and land-relations. Because caste and class exploitation, and the resistance of the exploited ones, are rooted in India's land-system,” she often said.

(Note: Mahasweta Devi’s short story Rudaali and the novel Hajar Churashir Ma (Mother of 1084, Govind Nihalini director) were made into internationally acclaimed films. Many of her writings have been translated into various Indian and foreign languages and have won her international repute.)

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