Great fiction, once come in your ken never leaves you. If I were asked to pack up and carry only one story with me to an imaginary world, I would cling to Pterodactyl of Mahasweta Devi. It transformed my dreams.
Pterodactyl is a mythical bird, ominous to the sceptic and epiphenic to the believer. Mahasweta brought it in to depict the truth about adivasis, to lash out at our failure to understand them. Gayatri Spivak translated it from Bangla and, together with Draupadi put it in a collection called Imaginary Maps.
When I first met Mahasweta, she was 72 and already a living legend. A Jnanpith, a Magsaysay and a formidable global fame as writer to her credit, she was already more of an idea than a person. Every feminist, political activist, aspiring writer swore by her. Therefore, when she agreed to visit Baroda, I had expected to meet with a difficult person, a female Che or a contemporary Laxmibai.
She was to come for the Verrier Elwin lecture of Bhasha Centre. When I asked where she would like to be put up, she replied with a single word, “home”. Her flight was to arrive at Ahmedabad. I requested Tridip Suhrud to receive her, feed her and bring her to Baroda. The flight was delayed. Tridip called me from Ahmedabad to say that she refused to eat. I knew that by the time they get to Baroda all restaurants will be closed. My wife Surekha was away in the US on a research assignment. I was not enough of a cook to feed a legend.
I kept calling friends who had already arrived in Baroda to listen to Mahasweta the next day. There was the folklorist Bhagwandas Patel, the rebel writer Laxman Gaikwad, historian Ajay Dandekar and poet Kanji Patel. Out of our collective courage, we put together some oranges, boiled eggs and peanuts as a possible meal. I knew how disastrous the results would be.
Close to midnight, the guest arrived. Mahasweta stood at the entrance tentatively. Neighbours had gathered to have a glimpse of her. After an uncertain moment, she held my hands and said nothing. I was thinking of the meal that we had concocted for her. Not knowing how to put across the difficulty, I asked, “Do you have teeth?” She laughed. That was a sterling laugh. She replied, quite unexpectedly in Hindi, “kuchh bhi de do, I don’t care.” She stepped inside and sat with all of us. The neighbours brought some daal and rice. I made tea. She asked for more. We talked of adivasis, struggles and her stories. By the time, the dawn broke out, we had become friends for life. What energy she exuded!
That was in March 1998. Over the next 15 years, she made Baroda her second home. Her visits stopped when, beyond 85, her body rejected the idea of long journeys. During those years, we travelled together to villages, towns and cities, meeting nomadic communities and listening to them. We travelled to all parts of India, in trains, cars, buses and planes. As part of our campaign for the rights of the de-notified tribes, we met prime ministers, home ministers, judges, police officers.
This was when I was trying to create the Adivasi Academy at Tejgadh. Mahasweta developed a great affection for the campus. There, in the old caves, she saw the pre-historic rock paintings for the first time and was surprised to see how the images resembled her depiction of the pterodactyl. We went to rivers, where she swam. We went to relief camps after the earthquake, after the riots. We shared people’s grief, agony and anger.
She spent long spells in Baroda talking to Surekha and Bhupen Khakhar, the painter, for who she had developed a keen admiration. She sang old Hindi songs and in return Bhupen sang Gujarati bhajans. She talked to him about her stories. In response, he painted epiphenic elephants. She would talk to us about her mother, her time in Shantiniketan, her uneasy marriage and son Nabarun Bhattacharya, a poet, of whom she was mightily proud. When she was not in Baroda, she sent hand-written letters to me, copies of various petitions she had filed, copies of Bortika, the journal she used to edit, lists of things that she wanted Surekha to get for her. She became a mother, a sister and a daughter to us, found her home in our home.
The Adivasi Academy became for her the Shantiniketan of her childhood; my colleagues became her adopted children. She repeatedly said she wanted to live on as a tree there. We cried thinking of her affection for us. At the Jaipur Festival, she said that sleep under the majestic tree at Tejgadh would bring her eternal peace. Her pterodactyl! This is the most extraordinary of endings she created in her fiction!