There must be many mourners like me today, each of whom thinks they alone knew Mahasweta Devi, the inimitable writer, social activist and doughty fighter for the downtrodden anywhere. Come to think of it, the term “writer” seems too small and distant to describe what she really was.
Through works like Hazar Chaurasir Maa or Aranyer Adhikar, and Choti Munda, Mahasweta Devi rescues us from passivity and sultry resentment, and propels us towards healthy activism.
“I know who you are, you are my Gaura di’s daughter. And let me tell you I have known your mother since our days in Shantiniketan, much before she became the great writer Shivani,” she said to me when I first visited her in Kolkata many decades ago.
My late mother always spoke of Mahasweta with warmth and affection. They were two years apart in age and when Mahasweta, the daughter of the well-known Manik Ghatak , leader of the Kallol movement, entered Shantiniketan, mother and she developed a deep bond.
“You must go see my ‘dost’ Mahasweta in Kolkata when you go there, provided she is not camping among some Adivasi group. And ask her to write for your periodical, get it translated in Hindi.” Mother told me again and again. Yet, I was hesitant to approach her. What if she turns my request down? Or worse, laughs it off?
But Mahasweta di happily agreed to write for me, provided I sent her a sensitive representative who would translate her writings and get the Hindi version approved by her before he or she sent it on. This I did , and thereafter any young staffer, no matter how headstrong and cynical when they first met her, came back raving about not just the writer but the great human being that she was.
The readers were ecstatic and read each piece with great joy and sent her mails she said she cherished greatly.
Your paper Hindustan has provided me with a whole new audience in the Hindi belt, she would say. Then one day she proposed to write a whole series on Hindi writers that she had known and liked.
It was an unforgettable exercise that not just brought a new focus upon the writings of well known writers of Hindi, but also helped wipe out the misgivings many Hindi writers harboured about fellow Bengali writers not being interested in languages other than their own.
Women specially feel close to her because they feel she is a writer who knows what it is to be a woman with her physical vulnerability, her unspoken feelings about motherhood , sensuality and violence. What matters eventually, Mahasweta di’s life and works teach us, is that even if you have faced a nasty, unfair and brutish life, that you do not turn cruel or wasteful, and do not keep the truth from those who need it.
The morality this frail old and ailing lady stood for, all along the volatile Singur agitation, was organic, autonomous, nurturing and balanced like her writings.
As we bow to her memory, perhaps we now need to mount a campaign to make all her works available in all Indian vernaculars, just as we campaign to keep a good leader in power, no matter what the odds.
The writer is an author, journalist and former chief editor of Hindi daily Hindustan.