In Mahasweta Devi’s fiction, the dispossessed told their own truths

Mahasweta Devi. She with the pen. The passion. For words. Words that cut. To the core. She with the passion of a knife. Sharpened over a lifetime of throwing herself into the fray.

Written by Naveen Kishore | Updated: July 30, 2016 10:24 am
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“A billion moons pass. A billion lunar years. Opening her eyes after a million light years, Draupadi, strangely enough, sees sky and moon. Slowly the bloodied nailheads shift from her brain. Trying to move, she feels her arms and legs still tied to four posts. Something sticky under her ass and waist. Her own blood. Only the gag has been removed. Incredible thirst. In case she says ‘water’ she catches her lower lip in her teeth. She senses that her vagina is bleeding. How many came to make her?”
– From Draupadi by Mahasweta Devi, translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Mahasweta Devi. She with the pen. The passion. For words. Words that cut. To the core. She with the passion of a knife. Sharpened over a lifetime of throwing herself into the fray. I’ve had to fight all my life to be the person. I am by throwing my body into the fray each time. ‘Body phele debo’ is my war cry. This fight, this war, is not only for human rights, it is about the right to be human.

“How hard is it to find a word?” I once asked.

“Whenever I come across an interesting word, I write it down. All these notebooks. Koto katha. So many words, so many sounds . . . I’ve just been collecting them. For example. Parnanar. A man made of polash leaves. Say a man has died in a train disaster. His body couldn’t be brought home. His relatives then, using straw . . . using leaves, make a man. Subhhikshma. You’ve heard of durbhikshma. Or famine. When one describes a year as being subhhikshma, it means there was no crop failure that year. Sumeans good. Paap purush. Doomed to eternal life. He has not sinned himself. But he keeps account of everybody else’s paap. Ceaselessly. Walking the earth. Taking note.”

Yes she found the words. Till she couldn’t. Till she lost them in the fog. So she carried crumbs. Breadcrumbs. In every conversation. Like puzzles. To solve. To help her find her way home. Later. Much later. When the mist would begin to rise. And cling to things. In and around her. Those were the markers in her treasure hunt. Planted hints. Concealed moles. The advance guard. In a war that would surely take place. In her innocence she had failed. To realise. The first casualty would be the power lines. Short circuited. The enemy would cut off her ability to recognize. To recall her masterplan. Even the very signs she had so diligently put in place. Now they were part of an alien landscape. A geography lesson. Of her own making.

She who hated middle-class morality. Dismissed it as sham. “Everything is suppression,” she said. Often. “Writing is my real world, in which I have lived. And survived.”

Since the 1980s, she has been vocal about the injustices faced by the dispossessed of our population. The indigenous peoples, the landless rural poor who then turn into itinerant labour or pavement dwellers in cities. Through reports in newspapers, petitions, court cases, letters to the authorities, participation in activist organisations and advocacy, through the grassroots journal she edited, Bortika, in which the dispossessed tell their own truths, and finally through her fiction.

“I have sought to bring the harsh reality of this ignored segment of India’s population to the notice of the
nation, I have sought to include their forgotten and invisible history in the official history of the nation. I have said over and over, our independence was false; there has been no independence for these dispossessed peoples, still deprived of their most basic rights. How to save and protect one’s culture in these circumstances? When there is no home to return to?

Whose culture is it anyway? Yours? Mine? Theirs? After all there are many ‘theirs’ in the land of my birth who have
nothing but the harsh landscape of surviving from day to day. The dispossessed remain with us after six decades of becoming possessed of a freedom we all fought for. They all fought for . . . I claim to have always written about the ‘culture of the downtrodden’. How tall or short or true or false is this claim? The more I think and write and think some more, the harder it gets to arrive at a definition. I hesitate. I falter. I cling to the belief that for any culture as old and ancient as ours to have survived over time there could only be one basic common and acceptable core thought: Humaneness. To accept each others’ right to be human with dignity. This then is my fight in my life and in my literature.”

“What inspires you,” I asked.

“Oh, everything,” she said.

The woman was an artist. Not a painter. And yet the anemic white paper would turn into a rainforest or a blooming garden in spring – complete with an army of caterpillars waiting to transform into butterflies under her persuasive glance. A wordsmith too. One who could chisel the alphabet into forms that glittered like language at its resplendent best. Or transform seemingly isolated words into poetry. She found suitable and amiable company for lonely sentences that longed to be strung together into heart-rending prose.

And let me not forget her mind.

Like a river in the mountains. Great river. Eternal and dark.

One fine day suddenly and without warning it overflows.

Flooding the world.

The writer is publisher and managing trustee, Seagull books which has brought out Mahasweta Devi in English.

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