“All through my life, I’ve done whatever I felt like doing” — this quote aptly describes the fiercely independent-minded Mahasweta Devi, the doyen of activist-writers in India, who died on Thursday aged 90.
The Ramon Magsaysay and Jnanpith awardee Bengali novelist penned telling commentaries on the sufferings and oppression of tribals, and in a rarity for a city-bred writer, came down from the ivory tower to mingle with them.
She shared their food and huts, tried to understand their problems and fought the powers-that-be to uphold the rights and better the living condition of these backwards people.
In her six-decade literary career, she authored over 120 books, comprising 20 collections of short stories and around 100 novels and contributed innumerable articles and columns to newspapers and magazines, a large number of them woven around tribal life.
Adopting a distinctly matter-of-fact style free from sentimentality, Mahasweta vividly portrayed the sufferings the tribals endured at the hands of upper-caste landlords, money-lenders and government servants, and chronicled the stories of tribal resistance and protests.
“Aranyer Adhikar” (The Occupation of the Forest), dwelling on Birsa Munda’s revolt against the British, fetched Mahasweta the Sahitya Akademi award in 1979. “Choti Munda evam Tar Tir” (Choti Munda and His Arrow), “Bashai Tudu” , “Titu Mir” are among other novels that come under the genre. Her short story collections, including “Imaginary Maps” and “Breast Stories”, “Of Women, Outcasts, Peasants, and Rebels”, and short stories “Dhowli” and “Rudali” also deal with tribal life.
Another famous novel published in 1975 — “Hajar Churashir Maa” (Mother of 1084) — inspired by Maxim Gorky’s “Mother”, has the backdrop of the Naxalite movement. It narrates a mother’s efforts to understand her son, who dies as a Naxalite fighter.
(It was turned into an extremely touching Hindi movie, “Hazar Chaurasi Ki Ma”, featuring Jaya Bahaduri, in 1998).
Mahasweta’s debut book in 1956 was a lucid life sketch “Jhansir Rani” (the Queen of Jhansi) describing the bravery and martyrdom of Laxmibai. She also wrote popular humorous pieces and stories in children’s magazines like Sandesh.
Mahasweta had deep respect for tribal life and culture, highlighting the absence of the caste, dowry systems and gender discrimination in their society — and was convinced the “so-called mainstream” had nothing to offer.
“The tribals are more civilised than us,” she would often say.
In 1978, Mahasweta championed the cause of two tribal groups — the Lodhas of the erstwhile Midnapur district and the Kheria Sabars of Purulia — who were among those notified by the British in 1871 as “criminals”. Though these tribes were denotified after independence, the stigma remained and they faced trouble whenever crimes were committed in their vicinity.
Purulia soon emerged as the epicentre of Mahasweta’s activism and she came to be revered as “The Mother of the Sabars”. Simultaneously, she lent her weight to the tribal struggles in various other states.
In 1998, Mahasweta’s speech at Vadodara on the plight of India’s denotified tribals influenced the formation of the Denotified and Nomadic Tribes’ Rights Action Group (DNT-RAG) mass organisation that now keeps vigil against such atrocities.
That protest was a second nature to the 1926-born Mahasweta, daughter of poet-novelist Manish Ghatak and writer-social activist Dharitri Devi, was amply evident through the decades. In the 1980s, moved by the miseries of women confined to Kolkata jails for years as non-criminal lunatics, Mahasweta wrote sharp and incisive articles in newspapers demanding their release, forcing the West Bengal government to free and rehabilitate them.
Mahasweta, who obtained a B.A in English from Bolpur-based Vishva-Bharati University founded by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, led militant protests in the first decade of the 21st century against private promoters for undertaking “mindless constructions” in the Khowai region — close to the university — one of Bard’s favourite haunts.
Then Bolpur Lok Sabha MP Somnath Chatterjee once bitterly complained that the octogenarian Mahasweta had even kicked a foundation plaque.
Though she criticised their violent acts, Mahasweta found merit in the Maoists’ cause.
“Their crime is they dared to dream…The right to dream should be the first fundamental right of people,” she said during a memorable keynote address at the Jaipur Literary Fest in 2013.
Earlier, she had demanded the withdrawal of the security forces deployed in areas hit by left-wing extremism.
In the twilight years of the state’s erstwhile Left Front government, Mahasweta mobilised the civil society against the regime’s “forcible” acquisition of agricultural land for setting up big industries in rural pockets like Singur and Nandigram.
She wholeheartedly backed the then opposition leader Mamata Banerjee, who became chief minister in 2011, ending the 34-year Left rule.
The two enjoyed great chemistry, but Mahasweta did not shy away from calling the Banerjee regime “fascist” for banning a rally and banishing anti-government newspapers from state-aided libraries.
Mahasweta’s initial schooling was at her birthplace Dhaka — now in Bangladesh — before the family moved to India after the partition. She completed her MA in English from the Calcutta University.
She had a love marriage with playwright Bijan Bhattacharya, a founder of the left-leaning Indian People’s Theatre Association, and their only child Nabarun was born in 1948. The couple divorced in 1959, and Nabarun — a left radical who died in 2014 — never quite saw eye to eye with Mahasweta.
She taught at a college for two decades and also dabbled in journalism. She subsequently quit the lecturer’s job in 1984, devoting all her time to the pen and activism.
Her work as an activist and writer received wide recognition. The honours showered on her included the country’s highest Jnanpith literary award (1996), the Magsaysay (1997) the Padma Shri (1986), the Padma Vibhushan (2006) and the Bangabibhushan (2011).
Apart from “Hazar Chaurasi…” four of her other creations have been made into films — “Sunghursh” (1968), “Rudaali” (1993), “Maati Maay” (2006) and “Gangor” (2010).
Mahasweta’s incessant attacks against the Indian state for oppression and exploitation of its own people masked a deep love for the country.
The way she eulogised India at the 2006 Frankfurt Book Fair was a case in point: “… Dil (heart) is always Hindustani (Indian)… My country, Torn, Tattered, Proud, Beautiful, Hot, Humid, Cold, Sandy, Shining India. My country.”
And she was extremely satisfied with the way her life had panned out. “Life has been too absorbing,” she would say.