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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 34 August 13, 2016 [Independence Day Special 2016]

Mahasweta Devi : Quintessential Humanist

Monday 15 August 2016


by Vijay Kumar

Writing is a career of death in a sense; it signifies the absence of the author, and great writing is certainly a gateway to immortality. This is the single greatest and lasting solace for a writer. Mahasweta Devi is no more, but her writing will endure and her place is firmly secure in history.

What makes Mahasweta Devi different from other writers is that she combined her writing with activism anchored firmly in the most sublime dimension of humanism. In this sense, Mahasweta Devi was not only a great writer but also a committed activist and sanguine humanist.

The writing of Mahasweta Devi went much beyond what is described as magical realism. By espousing the cause of poor people like bonded labourers and tribals with indefatigable energy, almost till she breathed her last, she inaugurated the subaltern literature a la subaltern history pioneered by the Cambridge trio of Ranjit Guha, Shahid Amin and Gyan Pandey. In the process, Mahasweta Devi became the voice of the lowly, lonely and lost; dispossessed and disadvantaged and disenfranchised and defeated. In this way, Mahasweta Devi became for Bengali literature what Munshi Premchand and Charles Dickens were for Hindi and English respectively.

Just as the bucolic beauty of the countryside of England and Scotland provided the manna for romantics like Keats, Shelly and even Hardy and the kaleidoscopic Himalayan view of Kausani for Sumitranandan Pant for penning their immortal poems, the life and existence of poor people; their sorrows, sufferings and struggles and trials, tribulations and tragedies became afflatus for both the writing and activism of Mahasweta Devi.

Despite the neglect and exploitation of the downtrodden in general, and the adivasi in particular, Mahasweta Devi remained an inveterate idealist and optimist and never lost her faith in ethical humanism.

After the espousal of the cause of tribals by their great leader Jaipal Singh in the Constituent Assembly during the framing of the Constitution, it was Mahasweta Devi who lent her entire power behind their welfare. Dr B.R. Ambedkar, as would be evident from the Constituent Assembly debates, confined himself to the suffering of Scheduled Castes alone and it was left to Jaipal Singh to argue for the Scheduled Tribes. Mahasweta Devi, throughout her life, fought for the tribals when their causes did not constitute a vote-bank like the Scheduled Castes. Precisely, for this reason, all political parties took up the issue of Scheduled Castes but did not raise the issue of Scheduled Tribes. The real legacy of Mahasweta Devi lies in fighting for the cause of tribal peoples even when it was neither fashionable nor politically productive to do so for the political parties.

Dubbing Mahasweta Devi as a Left liberal would not do justice to her colossal persona. She was much beyond ideology. She was too vast to be cabined and cribbed by any ideology. She realised that no ideology could capture the entire complexity of human lives. The very fact that her loud opposition to acquisition of lands for Tata Motors in Singur and Nandigram in West Bengal became the rallying point for opponents of the erstwhile CPM Government in West Bengal would show that she was not the one who was a prisoner of any ideology.

She was humanist rather than an ideologue, and thus could be compared with humanists like Ruskin, Emerson and Tolstoy. For Mahasweta Devi, her writing symbolised the relentless human struggle and moral dilemma. Like Premchand, she exposed the hypocritical morality of the society. In her Draupadi, she poignantly brought to the fore that miracle happened only in epics in the form of intervention by Lord Krishna to save the dignity of the queen, but in day-to-day quotidian life, miracles did not happen, and when women got disrobed, there was no saviour.

Mahasweta Devi was an optimist to the core. Despite widespread injustice around the poor, she remained hopeful and the plight and predicament of these people became the source for her literary creativity and craftpersonship. Mahasweta Devi’s oeuvre is not confined to literature but provides intellectual resources for the social scientist and both the practitioner and theorist of human rights; and copious references to her works by the most authoritative human rights scholar, Prof Upendra Baxi, speak for it. On July 28, 2016 only the physical body of Mahasweta Devi left for astral world, but her spirit of humanism would become the folklore for inspiration for generations to come.

The author is an advocate of the Supreme Court.