I first met Mahasweta Di [author Mahasweta Devi] at a literary festival in France about a decade back. She was great fun and quite unassuming as a person. She was aged, but would still dash off to places. I have a photograph with her at a beach in Saint-Marc-Sur-Mer, France, with a statue of French filmmaker Jacques Tati in the background.
When I met her for the first time, she asked me whether I had read any of her works. I apologized and said I had not. She asked me if I could read Bengali. I was a little offended and said of course I could. She was surprised. I told her I was an autodidact, but that didn’t impress her. She gave me three of her books to read. I must confess that I have read only one of them – Hazaar Chaurasir Maa [that was made into a film by Govind Nihalani]. I found the language a little difficult, because it is colloquial in parts, but I was surprised by her writing. It was extremely direct, hard-hitting and very moving.
At another literary festival in Germany, which Mahasweta di was inaugurating, I remember the speech she made. While most people were being extremely politically correct in their speeches, hers was more confessional. She spoke of the theme that were close to her heart – women, tribals, the downtrodden…
We had few meetings, but we would exchange mails, just the usual ‘how are you’, ‘what are you up to’ kind of mails. As the years went by and she got progressively ill, the mails stopped. The last time I wrote to her must have been two years back when I had got to know that she was not well. I sent a mail asking her how she was and hoping she was better. She didn’t reply to that one, obviously because she was not well enough to do it. I now wish that I had made the time to go visit her on my trips to Kolkata, the last of which was about a year back. But these trips are always so hectic and there is always so much to do that I never managed to.
When I heard of her death today, I was reminded of that stroll on the beach in France.
(Author Upmanyu Chaterjee spoke to Poulomi Banerjee)