Samik Bandyopadhyay (the critic) introduced us in 1979. She was vibrant, beautiful, magisterial, and full of advice. She was ensconced in a raised chair behind a large secretarial table covered in paper and files. The walls were covered floor to ceiling with shelves, stuffed with books and papers. There was a midway space where cooking was done, and then a bedroom, I think. Beyond that a room where one encountered her partner, chairbound by paralysis. You approached the flat by a spiral staircase. It was located near Ballygunje station. I later found out that you could approach the flat by a separate set of normal stairs that led to a separate room and, I believe, one could climb up from or down into this room from the tiny landing of the spiral staircase.
I give a detailed description of this flat because it spelled Mahasweta for me. I did visit her a number of times in her more opulent Golf Green flats, but our relationship had changed by then.
She was spellbinding, what Emily Post describes as a female in the public sphere (not Post’s words, I am in an Accra guest house): a combination of force and charm. She broke into song often, frequently and creatively obscene; but also and frequently IPTA material. I sang for her, Kali songs, Hindi film songs. She was my ideal of a leftist feminist Bengali intellectual. She did not like what I wrote about her work and offered a liberal and guarded comment, more than once in public: “She has the democratic right to offer her opinion . . .”
This year is poet Samar Sen’s centenary, and I will soon be writing about him. A very different kind of man. In 1983, four years after I met her, he introduced me to Ranajit Guha, the brilliant historian, whose personality shared some of her flamboyance. It was he who set me to translating her. First Draupadi, then Stanodayini. She liked my translation of Stanodayini, commenting that she felt she was reading her own Bengali as she read my English. This was her only remark on my translations, but it was such high praise that I will cherish it forever.
I think Pterodactyl is her best piece of writing, and Mary Oraon her best character portrait. (She told me she had known someone like her in real life.) Otherwise, tremendously influenced by the great Bengali novelists of the 19th and early 20th centuries, her tribal characters are too much the noble savage. (The only influence she ever mentioned to me was Howard Fast, for Chotti Munda.) This would have marred Pterodactyl, but the strength of that novella is in its uncanny stylisation, and Shankar and Bikhiya remain within its scope. The characterisation of local self-government folk, the idealist enclave of civil servants and journalists is rich and persuasive.
About two years before she wrote Pterodactyl, she asked me if I knew anything about pterodactyls. Of course, I did not and I promptly forgot about it. The text hit me like a body blow, and it took me many years to taste its subtlety fully, perhaps not yet. The locale of the story is Chhattisgarh, but you would not know it if you did not recognise the name Abujhmar. It is a profound critique of the kind of self-destructive middle-class leadership-induced violence that superficial leftists call “Maoism.” And it is written for a reader who can read.
I think the first thing she asked me to do with her was to give secretarial help for her plan for an Adim Jati Aikya Parishad. She introduced me to Bernard Bagwar, the quietly uncompromising Santhal activist, and, of course, to Gopiballabh Singh Deo of Rajnowagarh, a former landowner who had become conscientized in jail during the freedom movement. He fought relentlessly for the local Kheriya Sabar community’s legal well-being. Mahasweta worked to bring support from the police department, and acquired funds through ceaseless investigative journalism.
Gopida worked with UNDP and Mahasweta with the central government’s tribal welfare board. Gopida attempted to establish agricultural habits into this semi-nomadic community and to control their occasional violence. Mahasweta brought interested people — I remember a retired professor from an agricultural university — to assist in this effort. In the Sixties, a group of concerned rural gentry had founded the Paschim Banga Kheriya Sabar Kalyan Samity. Gopida held his diwan-e-aam every day under a big tree in the entry yard. During my time there, he put up a four-story building, a house for Prashanta Rakshit, his second-in-command, a small office building and more.
The Kheriyas contributed Rs 10 a month to the Samity so that they had a credit fund for their future. Mahasweta made sure that they learned to make handicrafts and sold them in Calcutta, that they got orders to decorate Durga Pujas in the city. Every other year, she organised an elaborate three-day Sabar mela, where the locals staged their creative talents, both traditional and contemporary. It was a thriving enterprise and it was my good fortune to have been a part of the effort for a couple of decades.
In 1986, at Prashanta’s request, I opened four elementary schools in four Sabar hamlets. Mahasweta raised money from Peerless, from Shell, from Mithun Chakraborty and many others to build four simple schoolrooms, with a tiny bedroom for me. I wish I could talk about my mind-changing learning experience trying to teach there. But this is not my story.
Mahasweta would sometimes come visit the villages. But she never did see the schools at work. Gopida’s UNDP schools never got off the ground. When the students from my schools were ready, Gopida would take them into the high school established in the neighborhood by his father. The boys stayed in the school hostel. The upper two floors of the new building became the girls’ hostel. I was able to arrange for high school teachers of repute to do English and mathematics tutorials for the boys and girls. Again, Mahasweta was not a part of this. She looked after the adults with her whole soul. She did not, therefore, specifically know Shamoli Sabar, the very best female student I ever saw there, or that she died of encephalitis in first year of high school. She also did not know Meghnath Sabar, the best male student, who complained to me that he felt he was being stuffed with information rather than being educated (Paulo Freire’s distinction) in Gopida’s high school because his teachers wanted to establish a record: a tribal boy coming first in the secondary exam from a regular Hindu-Muslim school. He was unhappy, he wanted to go to a school where all the students were tribals. I went to such a school operating in the vicinity. Gopida took it politically and closed all the schools the day after I left the area. Mahasweta could not break with her old ally, and so the bond between her and me was broken.
Before the break, she took me to Baroda — where she worked with Ganesh Devy’s project in Tejgadh and created public awareness of the history of the tribes that had been notified as “criminal” by the British in 1871. And she took me to Ahmedabad to meet the Chharas. She was always devoted to bringing the Adivasis of north and south together.
I treasure the fact that I was in such close contact with such a rare spirit for so many years. Her sincerity and energy were unparalleled. I am sorry our friendship broke in the end. And I am sorry she did not think to build the Left back in West Bengal from inside. I saw her at the end of May. It was as if we loved each other again. And that is the memory I will keep. When Naveen Kishore gave me the news of her death, I blurted out: “she seemed immortal.” Yes, headstrong and childlike, Manish Ghatak’s favourite daughter, Ritwik Ghatak’s favourite niece, Maitreya Ghatak’s favorite sister; but also — immortal.