Mahasweta Devi: The goddess of the downtrodden

  • Arindam Sarkar, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Jul 29, 2016 08:53 IST
In this file photo from January 2013 file photo, Indian writer Mahasweta Devi delivers the keynote address during the opening of Jaipur Literature Festival in Jaipur. (AP)

Mahasweta Devi, one of the greatest littérateurs who fought for the downtrodden, believed in Marxist ideology and yet lent her undying spirit to the ouster of a 34-year-old Left regime from Bengal. On Thursday, she left a legacy that none can match.

South Asia’s most decorated author and social activist, Mahasweta Devi always felt embarrassed to talk about her Sahitya Akademi Award, Jnanpith Award, Ramon Magasasay Award, Padma Shri and Padma Vibhushan. “It is not money or award but sincerity towards one’s mission, honesty and self-reliance that makes the difference,” she told HT in an interview a few years ago, as she looked out of her study window from the second floor of her modest three-storey house on Kasba Connector off EM Bypass.

Read: Mahasweta Devi lived like she wrote, fearlessly and without restraint

Mahasweta Devi graduated from Visva Bharati, where she came in touch with Rabindranath Tagore. She said it was Tagore who taught her to be self-reliant, developed a taste for art and inspired her to write. She used to do a lot of homework before starting a novel. “For Jhansi Ki Rani, I consulted history books and several eminent historians. I did similar groundwork while writing Adhar Manik and Rudali. I believe in homework,” said the writer. A small, cluttered table with a precariously placed telephone, a bookrack and the divan comprised her study.

File Photo of noted author and social activist Mahasweta Devi who died at a hospital in Kolkata on Thursday following prolonged illness. (PTI)

Associated with communist movement in her early life, Marxist thoughts influenced her writings and activism. Her father, Manish Ghatak, was a well-known poet and writer of Kallol Yug. Her paternal uncle was famous film director Ritwik Ghatak. Her maternal uncles were noted sculptor Sankha Chowdhury and Sachin Chowdhury, the founder-editor of Economic and Political Weekly of India.

Mahasweta Devi married well-known playwright Bijon Bhattacharya, who was a founder-father of the IPTA movement and writer of the historic play ‘Nabanna’ which presented a shocking picture of the Great Bengal Famine. Her son, famous writer Nabarun Bhattacharya, died on July 31, 2014 and left behind a rich volume of work and a band of students and followers.

Read: Author-activist Mahasweta Devi dies at 90

“I was influenced by Marxism but I am not into politics. I have never minced words to criticize the misdoings of the Left or the Right. I have struggled all my life and lived in rented houses, I built this house last year,” she told HT in 2012.

In this Aug. 31, 1997 file photo, Philippine President Fidel Ramos presents the 1997 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts to Mahasweta Devi of India during the award ceremony in Manila. (AP)

The devastating Bengal Famine of 1943 brought out the activist in Mahasweta Devi. Subsequently, the plight of tribals in Bengal, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh drew her closer to them. Soon, she became a champion for the cause of the Lodha and the Sabar tribes. “I was in tears to see the debt-bonded labour system imposed on tribals by the Palmau zamindars. My book `Dust on the Road’ tells the sad tale,” she said.

The writer was shocked to find people killing the Lodhas of Midnapore, Kheria Sabars of Purulia and Dhikaros of Birbhum just because the British Raj had declared them “criminal tribes.” The ghastly practice made Mahasweta Devi launch a relentless campaign to protect the tribes.

“My doors are always open for the tribals. We collect donations to work among them in Purulia. I believe one doesn’t need crores of rupees to do good work. Ford Foundation had offered funds but I refused. Today, with our meagre resources, we run 11 schools in Purulia,” said the writer.

Mahasweta Devi criticised the Left Front government for ignoring the tribals and forcibly acquiring farmland for corporate houses. “I criticised former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. The Left had left us with a poor health and education system, bad urban and rural infrastructure, water crisis, inadequate irrigation and rampant deforestation.”

Mamata Banerjee, too, did not respond to her demand for welfare of the tribals, said Mahasweta, who at one point was very close to the chief minister.

As chairperson of the Bangla Academy, she refused to accept government interference in choosing candidates for the Vidyasagar Purashkar in 2012 and resigned. But this was not the only reason for her resignation. She said the Academy could have done useful work by promoting rich literature and encourage talents from districts and tribal areas. “Mamata misunderstood me. I am keen to work with her and help her,” she told HT.

Defending Mamata Banerjee, the author said she had great hopes for poriborton (change). “But one cannot not expect change overnight. It is not magic. I know Mamata is sincere and not corrupt. But she needs to take correct decisions and have good advisers,” said the writer.

Age could not rob Mahasweta Devi of her spirit and sense of humour. Feeble but alert, tottering in her room and speaking in a hushed voice, the writer, who in the last 44 years churned out 114 novels and 20 collection of short stories, told HT: “I will be writing another novel. Do you know, I conceived and finished writing Hazar Chaurasi Ki Maa in 60 hours.”

She said when Govind Nihalani was making Hazar Chaurasi Ki Maa, based on Naxalism, Jaya Bachchan came to meet her. And the author was astonished to know that someone was a complete vegetarian. “I can’t believe how can one eat bhindi for the whole life,” Mahasweta Devi said, mischievously hinting at Amitabh Bachchan.

A true incident in a Rajput zamindar family in Palmau, Bihar, inspired her to write Rudali. She could not believe when she saw the family of a local zamindar hiring wailers to mourn after his death. Rudali was made into a Bollywood film with Dimple Kapadia in the lead.

Age might had slowed down the prolific, grand old dame. But as long as she had a clear, thinking mind and a beating heart, she planned to keep on writing just like Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

“I am in search of that man who is in the crowd. I am unable to catch him. But the day I do, I will complete my new novel.” Mahasweta Devi had said.

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