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Remembering Mahasweta Devi (1926-2016) on her Birth Anniversary

Photo: The Logical Indian

By Rimli Bhattacharya

“I have read more books than I have eaten food. The matter from my writing comes from there. Writing is activism for me.” – Mahasweta Devi

As Google commemorates the 92nd birth anniversary of Mahasweta Devi, the Bengali fiction writer and social activist, with a doodle today, I find myself looking back at my personal encounter with her.

My mother was the best friend of Mahasweta Devi’s sibling, whom I fondly called Shoma mashi. When I was a little girl, I remember a lady with grey hair and glasses gifting me a book, Kathberali (Squirrel). When my mother said that I should learn from her, I thought in my mind,  “How boring! She looks so serious. Shoma Mashi is much better and there is no need to learn from such a serious person. I will never read Kathberali.” Little did I know that she was a powerful author and a social activist, who worked for the freedom of the tribal people in several parts of India, West Bengal, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh.

Born on 14 January, 1926, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to eminent poet and novelist, Manish Ghatak and Dharitri Devi, who was also a writer and an activist, Mahasweta Devi started her early education in Dhaka but post-partition moved to West Bengal in India. She completed her Masters in English Literature at Calcutta University. Politics and activism ran in her blood and so did writing.

She started her career as a teacher, while also continuing to work as a journalist and engage in creative writing. She focused on the oppression of women and adivasis in West Bengal, especially the Lodha and Shabar tribal community. Her literary works focused on the brutal treatment of these people by the landlords, brokers, and the government.

She left the comforts of Calcutta life and lived with the tribal people. She shared their food, stayed in their huts, spoke to them, and tried to understanding their problems. She fought against the government for improving their living condition. Her novel, Aranyer Adhikar (The Rights of the Forest), was based on the life of the eminent tribal leader, Birsa Munda’s mutiny against the British. She made sure that the Jharkhand State Government freed the statue of Munda in which his hands were tied in chains. This has supposedly come down from the British, who had chained and jailed Munda for rebelling against them.

Devi advocated for two tribal groups: the Lodha community from Midnapur and the Kheria Sabar community from Purulia, who were labeled as ‘criminals’ by the British. Post-independence though these tribes were denotified, they still had to bear the stigma whenever a crime was committed. Purulia was the focal point of Devi’s activism and she was revered as “The Mother of Sabars”. She often said, “The tribals are more civilised than us.” Despite coming from an affluent family, she least cared for comfort and worked for the development of the backward.

Devi also fought against the industrial policy of the CPIM (Marxist) government in West Bengal and condemned their act of usurping fertile agricultural land from poor farmers and handing over to industrialists at throwaway prices. While her father, Manish Ghatak, was a communist, Devi was beyond parochialism in matters of justice. Her movement against the communist government propelled Mamata Banerjee’s victory as chief minister of West Bengal in 2011, ending the thirty-four year long rule of the CPI (M) government.

Maa and Shoma Mashi

The author’s mother, Shyamali (Right) with Mahasweta Devi’s sister, Shoma (Left)

Devi was also a feminist icon, who was against the dowry system and gender discrimination. Her debut book, Jhansir Rani (The Queen of Jhansi), was based on the courage and martyrdom of Rani Laxmibai. In the 80s, Devi launched a protest against the government to free women jailed for years after being labeled as lunatics. The government had no choice but to release them and send them to a rehabilitation centre.

She had a son, Nabarun Bhattacharya, with her noted theater personality and playwright husband, Bijan Bhattacharya. Her marriage to Bijan ended in a divorce as the couple had conflicting ideologies. They parted ways amicably. Nabarun was close to his father and never supported the work of his mother. Devi, who was a mother to the tribal people, could never be a mother to her own son, Nabarun, who died in 2014, two years before his mother.

Some of her prominent literary works include Hajar Churashir Maa (Mother of 1084), based on the life of a dead Naxalite, whose  mother had to identify him on the basis of the tag on  his toes, Rudaali, Maati Maay, and Gangor.

Her 1998 speech at Vadodara on the sufferings of tribals influenced the genesis of the Denotified and Nomadic Tribes Right Action Group (DNT – RAG), an organization to keep a strong watch on any atrocities on minorities and the oppressed people.

She lambasted the gruesome killing of Maoists by the state and explained the rationale behind such movements in her address at the Jaipur Literary Festival in 2013: “Their crime is they dared to dream…The right to dream should be the first fundamental right of people.”

Devi was appreciated worldwide for her activism and writing. She was felicitated with the Jnanpith Literary Award (1996), the Magsaysay Award (1997), the Padma Shri (1986), the Padma Vibhushan (2006), and the Bangabibhushan (2011).

My last interaction with her was in 2014, the same year she lost her son, at Shoma Mashi’s place.  This time, I was a grown up woman and cried seeing her ailing condition. She said to me: “What makes you cry? Just that I am sick, I will go soon. My son died and I never cried. So you should be brave, don’t cry. Believe in yourself.”

As we celebrate her birthday, I would like to remember her as a true feminist icon. She was fearless and courageous. Her work spoke on her behalf. Let us all follow the path paved by Mahasweta Devi by fighting for our rights. Mahasweta Devi shines her light on us and we all are Nirbhayas, the fearless.

Rimli Bhattacharya 
completed Mechanical Engineering from National Institute of Technology. After obtaining an MBA, she worked in the corporate sector. Rimli is a trained Indian classical dancer, based out of Mumbai, India. She tweets at: @rimli76


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