Books Heroes & Inspirations

RIP Mahasweta Devi, a combative humanist

Mahashweta Devi’s biggest turnaround came with the Bengali intelligentsia questioning the lack of detail in her iconic Hazaar Chaurasi Ma (Hajar Churashir Maa), sending her into rural Bengal to understand their stories. MONOJIT LAHIRI chronicles the life and times of writer-activist Mahasweta Devi (1920-2016), a tireless crusader who moved from sight to memory.

Mahasweta Devi’s biggest turnaround came with the Bengali intelligentsia questioning the lack of detail in her iconic Hazaar Chaurasi Ma (Hajar Churashir Maa), sending her into rural Bengal to understand their stories. MONOJIT LAHIRI chronicles the life and times of writer-activist Mahasweta Devi (1920-2016), a tireless crusader who moved from sight to memory.

(Photos courtesy Bishan Samaddar / Seagull Books)

Mahashweta DeviThe wise men were right.

Life never plays out in a social vacuum…nor do game-changers who script life-transforming narratives designed to enrich and empower lives of disenfranchised children of a lesser god.  In an age when rabble-rousers gain easy access to people’s minds, promoted hysterically by a dumbed-down media as starry totems, when in reality they are nothing more than sharp manipulators in a terrifying reality show, thank God for glowing exceptions powered with minds that outright reject manufactured truth and glib answers with a barrage of insightful, uncomfortable questions; minds that keep the conversation going in a space where noise-makers are mistaken for opinion leaders and commentators sold out on the autonomy of ideas redolent with vested interest.

It is in this setting that the dynamic and tireless champion of the oppressed and a feisty writer who wrote to change the lives of the marginalised’s passing away must be reviewed and remembered. My personal interaction with Mahasweta [mashi] Devi, resides in the dusty alcoves of the faraway and long ago.  She was my aunt’s [Kaki/Chachi] eldest sister and during our annual trips to Kolkata—we lived in the Mumbai of the 50’s-60’s—remember meeting her at my grandparents’ home in Wellington Square quite often. Warm, friendly, affectionate, I remember her seeking advice from my father regarding some personal problems that plagued her at that time. Thereafter, I lost touch totally. However, her reputation as a writer was gaining momentum and the daughter of the noted poet Manish Ghatak and niece of the iconic film-maker Ritwik Ghatak, soon carved her very own niche as a literary force who impacted both lovers of quality writing as also those sensitive, socially-conscious people, to whom there was a world where first among equals was unacceptable!

Mahashweta Devi-2Mahasweta Devi was truly one of a kind.  Her narratives predominantly focused on the trials and tribulations of the have-nots, either used as pawns or flung dismissively by the wayside.  Unlike many writers, she went beyond social commentary to hit the ground running. The dispossessed, tribals, Dalits, landless farmers, dreamers of a just and fair world, she mothered them all with ferocious protectiveness and passion, unprecedented in the annals of Bengal’s—maybe even India’s—literary and activism history. An in-your-face crusader, especially of the de-notified tribes of Bengal (Keria Shabors and the Lodhas), she fought for their cause across several parameters through her writing, collecting donations, battling court cases, setting up voluntary organisations, going the distance with all cylinders firing. She even edited Bortika, a magazine articulating the life and times of this dispossessed lot in their own words.

Renowned and respected Art & Culture critic Samik Bandopadhyaya, who was very close to her and presently a Tagore scholar-in-residence at Delhi’s JNU, is of the opinion that most Mahasweta Devi-watchers have missed one critical point while covering her achievement graph. “Admittedly, she was a fearless activist in her agenda of upliftment of neglected creatures from nowhere-land, but her greatest achievement lay elsewhere. It came as a corrective to the reaction of a section of Bengal’s literary intelligentsia who believed that while the intent in her novel ‘Hajar Churashir Maa’ was unquestionable, she seemed clearly out of her depth in terms of insight and details. An individual with zero-ego-hassles, she immediately recognised the truth behind these statements and for the next several years went into rural Bengal, determined to explore and understand their story. What emerged was her greatest achievement, an invention of a language, their language and its entry and acceptance in and to the mainstream. It is with this very language that her amazing Majhi, Basai, Tudi and Chotu Munda stories came alive.

Unfortunately, ‘Hajaar Chaurasiar Ma’ and ‘Rudali’ being adapted to stage and screen remain most associated with her name for non-Bengalis, but that comes with the territory. Serious readers know that she represented something much more universal, powerful, unique …”

A battle-scarred veteran who never gave up in a world where justice has been hollowed out and emptied of meaning; a world where a complacent and self-absorbed consuming middle-class is punch drunk on the new wealth and the respect that comes with it; a world where hubris is the new fashion-statement; a world obsessed with the price of everything and value of nothing… Mahasweta Devi was that rare, fearless conscience-keeper who forever raised her hand side to side with all that is real, true & just.

RIP, great lady. The world is a poorer place without you.

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