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

Mahasweta’s Last Wish Remained Unfulfilled

Saturday 24 September 2016

TRIBUTE

by Chandrasekhar Bhattacharjee

It was a scorching summer noon of mid-April, 2010. Mahasweta Devi landed at Birsa Munda Airport, Ranchi, from Delhi after receiving the Manavata Bikash Award, conferred by the IIPM. She was trying to find a statue of Birsa within the airport, but in vein.

A wellbuilt middle-aged person (Mahasweta called him ’Lalji’) received her at the airport. As the car comes out of the airport, a huge statue of Birsa at Birsa Munda Chowk greets her. The octogenarian author of Birsa Munda’s story in Áranyer Adhikar points out to her companions: “See, Birsa is still chained, even if India has won freedom. We have failed to unshackle heroes like Birsa. No statue at the airport is named after him. A larger-than-life statue means your gratitude is zero, showingoff is a thousand times.”

Her destination is Ulihatu under Erki tehsil of Khunti district, where the legendary icon of tribal uprising, Birsa Munda, was born and lived. Ulihatu still reels under severe poverty and underdevelopment. If another Birsa were here, another uprising could have been possible. Mahasweta Devi formed a trust and decided to adopt Ulihatu. For that, she has already awarded the larger chunk of the IIPM’s Rs 5 lakh award money, even before she received it. The money helped the Birsa kin to set up an oil extraction unit. It will use the local mahua, kusum and other seeds.

These oils are edible and as cost of production will be low and raw materials hugely available, people may add value to their lives. She has never dreamt once that the State Government of Jharkhand (earlier part of Bihar) had done nothing for either the village or even for Birsa’s family. The kin of Birsa and the villagers turned their ancestral home into ‘Bhagawan Birsa Mandir’ where a small blackstone statue is erected. That’s all. No trace of any government activity at Ulihatu on the hillock. The author of Hajar ChurashirMaa (her novel, often branded as the same Mother of 1084) told this scribe: “I wrote the book on Birsa in my early literary life but this is my first ever visit to his village.” Often she used to advise young writers to have direct experience and extensive study on any subject he or she chose to write on. When she was reminded of this, she quipped: “I studied Birsa from several books and historical studies so much, that I visited his house and the village in my dream. Today is the day to fulfil that dream.”

That was Mahasweta Devi, often called as Mahasweta-di by the city intellectuals and ‘Maa’ by the adivasis. She was the last Ashramik of Santiniketan who had the rare privilege of being nurtured directly by Gurudev Tagore. ”He gave me a book to read as I told him I couldn’t understand what he writes by going though his books bought by my father (Manish Ghatak),” she told this scribe in another interview on Tagore. She was a writer of a different genre, perhaps inspired by Tagore’s life and work. Her mould as an author developed from her association with the IPTA through her husband, eminent theatre personality Bijan Bhattacharya, and uncle Rittwik Ghatak. Her pen was razor-sharp but her language and her selection of theme were the subaltern’s.

Tagore was all praise for tribals and initiated Basantotsav following their rituals of SSalsai, the tribal new year festival on Basant Purnima. Mahasweta portrayed the spirit of the tribals throughout her life with pen. She authored Birsa Munda, Basai Tudu, Etoa Munda, Draupodi or Dopadi Mejhen as legendary characters. Long after she authored Draupadi in 1978, Sabitri Heisnam of Manipur Kalaskhetra, staged a part of it where Dopdi Mejhen expresses her wrath against patriarchy, challenging: “Kapa aar ki habe? Kapo aar? Lengta korte paris, kapor porabi kem on kore? Marad tu? ... heth a keo purush lai je laj karbo. kapor more porate dibo na. ar ki korbi? (What to do with saree? Saree? You can denude me but how can dress me? Are you a man?... No man is nearby to feel ashamed. I will not allow you to dress me up. What can you do?)” Later Dopdi came into real life by the aggrieved nude mothers of Manipur in front of Imphal’s Kangla Fort after the rape and brutal killing of Thangjam Manorama.

In fact, her Draupadi was the first voice of Dalit women against social oppression. Like a Jahuree, she always looked into the society to pick up and promote jewels. Manoranjan Byapari is one of such writers, already awarded by the Bangla Academy of West Bengal and several other organisations and academies. Manoranjan, a Dalit, who never stepped into any school for education but committed almost all types of crimes, turned into an acclaimed author by her motherly affection and inspi-ration. Manoranjan can be called today’s Balmiki. But whenever the issue of Marxism or communism was under discussion, she used to say: “Ï have never read a book on Marxism or communism, but read it from the lives of the downtrodden Dalits and adivasis, who practise communism.”

She was more an activistwriter than the middle class intellectual writers. She initiated and led several movements against the govern-ments of the day—be it after Chuni Kotal’s suicide, murder of a tribal youth (Basai Tudu in her story), Save Khowai (of Santiniketan) Movement, Amlasol starvation death, police action against farmers of Singur and Nandi-gram, Lalgarh, etc., and seeking justice for Rizwanur Rehman’s mother, defending Taslima Nasreen’s right to live in Kolkata and writing freely, supporting Birbhum adivasi Gaonta’s struggle against illegal stone-mining and quarries and what not. She also stood by the demand of renaming the Silchar railway station as the Vasa Shaheed Smarak Station and shot a letter to the then Railway Minister, Mamata Banerjee.

A fearless and indefatigable champion of human rights, Mahasweta Devi could not reconcile herself to the murder of Kisanji, in what she termed as ‘fake encounter’, and called Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee a ‘fascist’, despite being her admirer.

Her demise is a loss not merely to the literary world, but an irreparable loss to the the human rights activists, leave alone the Adivasis and Dalits. Everyone of Adivasi samaj, who are against ‘Dikus (non-Adivasis)’ acclaimed her as their ‘Mother’. One by one, she formed the Kheriya Shabar Kalyan Samiti, then the Lodha Kalyan Samiti. And since then she had initiated or got involved with the day-to-day activities of the Bandhua Mukti Morcha of Swami Agnivesh, Kiriburu Adivasi Mahila Samaj, Majhgeria Adivasi Gaonta, Munda Samaj, Saowar Jamla, Sahis Jati Kalyan Samiti, Adivasi Harijan Kalyan Samiti and several others. The greater part of her writing table used to be occupied by files of these organisations as she had to write tens of letters for them daily.

Her several wishes are still to be fulfilled, several demands remain unfulfilled. The Bhasa Shahid Smarak Station movement is still going on. Political prisoners like Chhatradhar Mahato, Sukhshanti Baske are behind bars in West Bengal. The government has done nothing to protect the Khowai river in Santiniketan. The people responsible for Chuni Kotal’s death are still unpunished. Rizwanur’s mother is yet to get insaaf or justice though the persons responsible for his death joined Mamata Banerjee’s party.

Mahasweta was the first to stand by the people of Singur with Medha Patlkar. They are yet to get back their land. No enquiry was done on Kisanji’s murder, despite her strong demand. Her ‘Dopdis’ have made West Bengal the State with the highest number of crimes against women. Her last wish was to be cremated under MahuaShalSegun trees of Rajnoagaon of Purulia. It is from here that she became the Mother of all Adivasis. But, the West Bengal Chief Minister’s determination to give her a State funeral deprived the nonagenarian of her last wish being fulfilled. The adivasis of Rajnoagaon decided to perform her last kriya by planting a Maha Segun tree, her love, on the eleventh day of her death to pay their last respects to their ‘Mother’.

The author, a senior journalist, is the Assistant Editor of the Bengali weekly periodical, Janaswartha Barta.