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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 40 New Delhi September 24, 2016

Remembering Mahasweta Devi

Saturday 24 September 2016


by Nirupam Hazra

I met Mahasweta Devi when I was a student at Visva Bharati. It was my first interaction with her. In an informal gathering at a tribal village near Santiniketan, she was talking to a young tribal girl. She was so engrossed in conversation that she was quite oblivious of the the people around her. When the conversation ended she turned back, smiled at me and asked in Bengali: ‘bhalo aacho?’ (literal English equivalent will be ‘are you doing well?’) I was surprised by the vibe of familiarity with which she greeted me. She did not know me, nor did I meet her before, yet I was no stranger to her. This was one of the most enduring images of Mahasweta Devi that I have. Later, I heard her speaking at many cultural events and literary gatherings. But this particular incident, in retrospect, has been the most significant to me. It helped me, to a great extent, to understand both her art and her activism.

Her recent demise made me look back to her works and to my first interaction with her. Mahasweta Devi was always known as an author-activist; even most of the obituaries celebrated her literary contribution and social activism as two parallel journeys. Undoubtedly she was one of the shrillest voices that tirelessly spoke in the interest of the oppressed and the dispossessed. At the same time, she was one of the most eminent literary figures of our time. But the hyphenated epithet like author-activist creates a disjunction in our understanding of Mahasweta Devi. The author and the activist were not only intertwined, rather they together formed a singular self. Throughout her life, she wrote about what she fought and her fight was the source of her literary inspiration.

The insidious march of civilisation that divides humanity into narrow and selective nomenclature of class, caste, colour and gender to perpetuate the unending ritual of otherisation was a subject of her perennial contempt. She questioned, criticised and challenged every mantle of exclusion and exploitation both in her authorship and in her activism. Hence, it is virtually impossible to differentiate the one from the other.

Interpretation of Dream

One may wonder what it was that motivated her to take such a journey of life that she had. The answer is: dream. Dream was the force that inspired her to do what she had been doing. Dream was so dear to her that she always believed that the right to dream should be the first fundamental right. It was no literary hyperbole or spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; when she spoke of dream she actually referred to the reality teeming with innumerable instances of inequality and injustice. The oppressed and powerless keep their dreams locked up in a box, lest they come out, but sometimes they come out breaking the jail like the Naxalites, she explained. Her dream was not her individual dream; it was a shared dream, the dream of a just and egalitarian society, a society where the underprivileged can also dare to dream. But her dream rarely matched the reality. This mismatch had been more obvious to her, she could easily identify those contradictions between the dream and the reality; she could readily diagnose the dystopic elements of a diseased unjust society.

The dream-metaphor of Mahasweta Devi is not merely an abstract literary exuberance. In the realm of reality, it takes a more concrete shape. What Mahasweta Devi referred to as dream, Amartya Sen would define as capability or expansion of freedom. When a large section of the society is denied the right to dream, they are also deprived of development. In Indian society, if one comes from a tribal community or belongs to a so-called lower caste, she is not allowed to dream like others, her rights are susceptible to the generosity of those sitting above in the social pyramid. So, the capability to pursue the ‘meaningful doings and beings’ is essentially linked with one’s ability to dream, one’s audacity to challenge the status quo with all its exploitative and exclusionary paraphernalia.

Her World and Our Worlds

Her writing, like her life, traversed through many worlds. Sometimes these worlds were irreconcilably ignorant of each other’s existence and sometimes they were contemptuously close to each other. Brati’s irreverence for the class-conscious bourgeois life-style in Mother of 1084 to Dopdi’s act of defiance against the repressive state and its misogynist mode of subjugation in Draupadi tell the story of the ‘other’ worlds and ‘other’ people. They are ‘other’ because of their class, gender, skin colour, language and ideology. They are ‘other’ also because they would not always accept the complacency of compliance, hegemony of hierarchy. Mahasewta Devi observed and explored both the worlds—‘the world of order’ and ‘the world of other’ —with deep interest. The world of order is run by dominance and deception. In this world, a bereaved mother is not allowed to grieve, a ‘prestigious’ father disowns his son because his death was not respectable and a dead son is bereft of an identity, his dead body is reduced to a number—‘1084’. It is a world where a deep decadence is veiled with external extravagance and semblance of order, where male infidelity is considered to be the insignia of manhood, but resistance against injustice is treated as a supreme act of defiance and it is also the world where democracy is preserved using the most brutal and undemocratic forces.

But there is another world beyond the world of order inhabited by ‘others’. In this world of others, life is free of its civilising artefacts and language is free of exclusionary vocabulary. It is a world where people are more willing to be united by a cause, rather than by pretentious class-consciousness. The existence of this other world is felt only when the order is disturbed, the impositions are defied or simply when the dwellers of this world start to dream. When a tribal girl starts to dream, she would not allow her forest to be encroached, when a Dalit boy starts to dream he would not accept the traditional caste hierarchy and when a woman starts to dream she would not acquiesce to patriarchal persecutions. Mahasweta Devi explored both the worlds with equal ease and insight. She knew about the dreams of the world of others and she also knew the diseases of the world of order. For her the world should be the place where everybody has the right to dream—there was no difference between a tribal girl and a university-educated student. Similarly there was no difference between Mahasweta Devi, the author, and Mahashewata Devi, the activist. In her world every stranger was greeted with earnest familiarity.

The author is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Social Work, Bankura University, West Bengal. He can be contacted at e-mail: hazra.nirupam[at]gmail.com