Mahasweta Devi: Voice of the Margins

Writers and artistes remember Mahasweta Devi, eminent writer and activist who fought for the rights of the marginalised

Published: July 29, 2016 1:05:35 am

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‘Her priorities were very clear’

Santanu Bose
The Dean (Academics), National School of Drama, Delhi

I first first met Mahasweta Devi in the book Hajar Churashir Maa, which I read in class eight. What I remembered after the first reading was the absolutely graphic sequence of violence — how a bullet, hit from a close range, can burn the skin and leave a blue imprint. How entrails are taken out and the Naxalite’s body is put on a cycle rickshaw and taken out in a procession throughout the city. I grew up during the Naxalite uprising of the mid-Seventies in West Bengal, and the fear and trauma that I felt in the book only enlivened with subsequent readings. How anybody describes violence with such a non-sentimental and documentary precision engulfed me and set me on the path of creating political theatre, in which the genres of art and life overlap and substitute each other.

I met her in person several times, the same way most people met her — with great nervousness. I remember the time she was being interviewed and the journalist asked her about feminism. She snapped back and said that women should not be defined by their bodies but actions. In her own direct way, she considered gender to be beyond the physique.

I visited her apartment in Kolkata to seek permission to stage a play on Hajar Churashir Maa and she agreed as soon as I asked. There was no talk of money, negotiations or credits. She just said, ‘Okay, do it.’ The apartment was small and full of books and papers, the table was loaded with writings and she lived with a helping woman only. Sometimes, she stayed in a mess at the centre of the city.

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I joined National School of Drama in 2010 and staged 1084 ki Maa the same year. My biggest observation about Delhi theatre was that it was a beautiful object rather than an experience. I wanted to do a play that stood out as an emotional experience and a political discourse. I remember that when the Naxalite movement was taking place, the bourgeoise intellectual sat silently and watched the political upheaval play out. In our play, we put the scenes of violence in the face of the audience — men holding flaming torches ran around the seats as the audience became metaphors of those silent intellectuals.

When I called Mahasweta Devi to invite her for the premier, she was very busy. She said that the government was not giving blankets to the tribal people of Purulia and she had to go there and ‘didn’t have time to come to Delhi to watch a play’. Her priorities were very clear.

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There is an iconic performance of a Mahasweta Devi work by H Kanhailal in Manipuri, called Draupadi, about Army oppression in Manipur. This was another historical text that I had read as a child, but I will never forget the heart-stopping eight-minute walk after the rape scene of Draupadi, which was played by the legendary actor H Savitri. She walks from the back of the stage to the foreground — it is a long walk — and the forces of resistance build up inside her and ultimately result in the final strike through nudity. It is powerful how Mahasweta Devi’s literature opened up the possibility of going beyond the written word.

(As told to Dipanita Nath)

‘She never wrote with pity’ 

Govind Nihalani 
Filmmaker and director of the 1998 film Hazaar Chaurasi ki Maa

The death of Mahasweta Devi feels like a very personal loss to me. I had read many of her stories, especially her widely available Hindi translations, much before I made the film, Hazaar Chaurasi ki Maa. What impressed me was how simple and straightforward her writing was. There was no literary jugglery of any kind. It was all straight from the heart and powerful.

She wrote about the adivasis and forest communities in the region of Bengal and Bihar, and she had tremendous empathy for them. Never pity. She never wrote with pity. She never looked at them as “becharas” who have had injustice done to them. But there was a tremendous amount of empathy. She could get into and under their skin because she had spent so much time with them. So her understanding was very deep and personal and not based on reports. This is why her writings were able to reach out to readers so effectively. She didn’t indulge in any melodrama. Everything she wrote was simple and this was what made it so touching.

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I was keen to make a movie on her book, Hajar Churashir Maa, because it concerned middle class characters. These were characters I could identify with and it was set in the city of Calcutta, which was accessible to me. The whole journey of the main character, how she discovers her son after his death and how this changed her — all this moved me. I liked those stories about adivasi communities, but I would have approached them as an outsider.

I wanted to meet her after I decided to make the film and I was warned that I should approach her with caution because she’s strict and temperamental. So I was very cautious initially. All of that changed after the first 10 minutes. She was such an affectionate, good-natured lady, with a tremendous sense of humour, and we got along famously. We had a very good relationship and she was very supportive and happy with the film I made. That is why I say that this loss is very personal for me.

(As told to Pooja Pillai)

‘Her life and literature were one and the same’

K. Sachidanandan
Malayalam  poet and critic

I’ve known Mahasweta Devi personally for three decades, although I read her works in translation much before. Every major work by her is available in translations. In fact, Malayalees love her as one of their own. She had also travelled to Kerala many times. She was one of those rare geniuses who combined literary creativity with genuine activism. I particularly remember our journey together to Gujarat after the genocide, talking to the refugees and addressing the Gujarati writers. When I was the editor and executive head of the Sahitya Akademi, she had a deep association with it. She was undoubtedly the best female Bengali writer after Ashapoorna Devi.

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Her oeuvre was rare; she wrote fiction, stories for children and memoirs — all of which reveal her great concern for the marginalised people of India, especially the adivasis. I have seldom seen a writer with such humility. She was a down-to-earth person, who did not even want to tell people that she was a writer. I had the opportunity to listen to her talks, conversations and readings; she always came across as a sincere writer whose life and literature were one and the same.

(As told to Pallavi Pundir)

The Meaning of Jijibisha

It was in the late ’60s that a prisoner named Manoranjan Byapari was released from a Kolkata jail. Growing up in a poor Dalit family, with hardly any food to eat and barely enough clothes for his mother to cover herself with, he ran away and joined the Naxalite movement which was at its peak then. Byapari was soon caught by the police for being a constant brawler. A few days in the jail, however, made him a changed man. He decided to educate himself inside the jail library. After he was released a few years later on account of good conduct, Byapari decided to make an honest living by ferrying people in tana rickshaws (hand-pulled rickshaws) in Kolkata, before becoming a successful writer discussing Dalit issues.

Of the numerous rickshaws in Kolkata, Byapari’s came with books in the back peti. On a hot summer day, he refused to take a woman to her destination because he was engrossed in reading Agnigarbha, a book of short stories by Mahasweta Devi, about caste, class and gender.

One word that surfaced through various stories in the book was “jijibisha”. “It had only been a few years since I began reading and writing, many words were difficult to understand,” Byapari had said in an Indian Express interview. He finally agreed to take thewoman to her house after the next rickshawwallah, too, refused and the woman came back and requested him to take her home.

On the way, Byapari asked the woman the meaning of “jijibisha”. She said, “Jeene ki ichha (The will to live)”. He told her that he enjoyed reading. She got off and scribbled her name and number on a piece of paper and told Byapari to contact her if he wanted to learn more. The piece of paper read ‘Mahasweta Devi’. Byapari fell at her feet and wept. “I was asking her the meaning of a word that she had used in her book. This incident turned my life around,” he’d said. Byapari wrote more than 100 short stories and nine novels after that incident about issues faced by Dalits in West Bengal.

by Suanshu Khurana

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‘She was as transparent as her prose’

Amol Palekar
Actor and filmmaker

She was the last of her kind. There was such courage and conviction in her. I was privileged to have met her not once but quite a few times. She was as straight, down-to-earth and transparent as her prose is. And to have the kind of command over the language so as to translate thoughts and experience into something creative like she did, was incredible. She didn’t just inspire me as a person but also as an artiste. She was courageous enough until her last breath to be able to take on the system. That kind of conviction stands before us an ideal to emulate as people and as artistes.

(as told to Pooja Pillai)

‘Her work went beyond just writing’

Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay
Contemporary Bengali author

I consider Mahasweta Devi as the most iconic figure of our times. I say this not only because of her writing, but also because of her way of life. This comprises her enormous contribution in the life of Indian tribes. She had been influencing us for more than 40 years now, and was one of the last, most elite creative souls of our soil. What I mean is that she hailed from one of the most creatively credible families of Bengal. That said, she also took it to that level where she herself stands as an example. I read her for the first time when I was very young and in school. I read her short stories collection first and then moved on to reading Hajar Churashir Maa. What inspires me about her writings is that while working on the Shabors and various other tribes of India, she engaged herself with working for their betterment too. She became an activist, a reformer for their welfare and fought all her life for the marginalised. Legendary writers are not limited by pen and paper. Her work went beyond just writing; it was living a whole life out of passion and faith.

(As told to Pallavi Chattopadhyay)

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