Eminent Writer Mahasweta Devi Dies At 90

When India was guest nation of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2006, Mahasweta Devi, already frail at the age of 90, was the natural choice for keynote speaker. Though the Sahitya Akademi had sent over 70 writers representing the major Indian languages – including some of the most respected writers in English – her voice was the most credible for listeners from the publishing houses of the West. It spoke in a register which resonated with them, and told of the cicatrice of extraordinary inequalities and exclusions which disfigures Indian society, and of the exploitative structures on which Indian society and culture stand.

Ten years after, the world of Indian literature mourns her loss. Her ability to communicate, across languages and cultures, the simplest, starkest realities of the lives of India’s dispossessed left many in awe. She did receive a strong impetus from postcolonial criticism – her translator Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak was an important figure of the movement – but while her stories were locally inflected, her concerns were universal. Interestingly, the realities of everyday rural life which moved her to start writing in the Sixties, when she taught at a college in the outskirts of Kolkata, were largely those which moved the youth of the city to join the armed agrarian revolt at Naxalbari. Indeed, the setting of her most famous novel, Hajar Churashir Ma (of 1974, filmed by Govind Nihalani in 1998) is the Naxalite movement.

When India was guest nation of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2006, Mahasweta Devi, already frail at the age of 90, was the natural choice for keynote speaker. Though the Sahitya Akademi had sent over 70 writers representing the major Indian languages – including some of the most respected writers in English – her voice was the most credible for listeners from the publishing houses of the West. It spoke in a register which resonated with them, and told of the cicatrice of extraordinary inequalities and exclusions which disfigures Indian society, and of the exploitative structures on which Indian society and culture stand. Ten years after, the world of Indian literature mourns her loss. Her ability to communicate, across languages and cultures, the simplest, starkest realities of the lives of India’s dispossessed left many in awe. She did receive a strong impetus from postcolonial criticism – her translator Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak was an important figure of the movement – but while her stories were locally inflected, her concerns were universal. Interestingly, the realities of everyday rural life which moved her to start writing in the Sixties, when she taught at a college in the outskirts of Kolkata, were largely those which moved the youth of the city to join the armed agrarian revolt at Naxalbari. Indeed, the setting of her most famous novel, Hajar Churashir Ma (of 1974, filmed by Govind Nihalani in 1998) is the Naxalite movement.

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