One of the prime functions of literature, fiction, call it what you will, is to move us, to stir feelings that either lie buried inside us or that we didn’t know we had. Mahasweta Devi is the ‘moving writer’ of our generation, turning an objective object like the world into a palpable place teeming with people and their struggles and their joys.
Writing in Bengali, her works deal overwhelmingly with the idea of what it is to be fully human — or rather the terribleness of its incompleteness. “I have always believed that real history is made by ordinary people. I constantly come across the reappearance, in various forms, of folklore, ballads, myths and legends, carried by ordinary people across generations,” wrote Mahasweta. “The reason and inspiration for my writing are those people who are exploited and used, and yet do not accept defeat. For me, the endless source of ingredients for writing is in these amazingly noble, suffering humans.”
Since the publication of her first novel, Nati, in 1959, Mahasweta has been masterful in welding a powerful sensibility to a powerful style. Her 1975 masterpiece, Hajar Churashir Ma (1084’s Mother), tells the story of an upper middle-class mother whose world — and worldview — turns upside down when she hears that her son’s body is in the police morgue with the number tag 1084. This tour de force deals with Mahasweta’s longstanding theme — how the personal and the political enmesh and clash in this riotous, deceptively compartmentalised world of ours.
Mahasweta’s activism, especially for the rights of the tribal people of West Bengal, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, is an extension of the power she wields over words and sentences. Works like Titu Mir, Rudali, Aranyer Adhikar (The Occupation of the Forest) are world classics.
With her sheer range and oeuvre — novels, short stories, plays, essays — Mahasweta Devi doesn’t only make the best Indian candidate for the Nobel prize in literature, but she’s also the most deserving candidate across languages whose works need to be recognised as modern classics. No living writer is a finer craftsman of social realism — never a dull, self-righteous genre in her hands — than this spunky 82-year-old from Kolkata.