Mahasweta Devi (1926-2016) is one the foremost writers in Bengali. Devi was an ardent fighter and her weapons were fiction and her political writings. She is well known for her prolific writings. Her impressive body of work includes novels, short stories, children’s stories, plays and activist prose that she published between 1981 and 1992.
Mahasweta Devi is not only known for her political writing style but her immense contribution towards communities of landless labourers of eastern India where she worked for years. Her intimate connection with these communities allowed her to understand and begin documenting grassroots-level issues, thus making her a socio-political commentator of the marginalized community.
This led to her editing a Bengali quarterly Bortika – a forum for the poor peasants, tribals, agricultural labourers, industrial labourers and even the rickshaw pullers who had no voice and no such space to represent themselves. Devi used the imaginary space of fiction to begin a conversation about and a conversation with the very real people on the ground that had been neglected all this while.
Life and Work
Mahasweta Devi’s writing life can be divided into significant phases and the graph of her activities can be mapped beginning with her first book, Jhansir Rani (The Queen Of Jhansi) in 1956, a biography of the woman ruler in a princely state against the British in 1857. Despite lacking a research background, Devi did meticulous research in order to write this book. She was able to do so with help of friends and well-wishers who generously supported her travel to the place to draw from archives, as well as documenting oral traditions of lore and legends transmitted through generations. She wrote voraciously, publishing 96 titles after this first book – not including her non-fiction and political writings, children’s books and the other editing work that she was involved in throughout her lifetime.
If 1956 was the start of Devi’s calling as a writer, she wrote in four phases. For the reader to understand the corpus of work, the four phases are as follows: 1956-65 she published 19 titles; 1966-75, 9 titles; 1976-85, 27 titles, and her final phase was the 1986-95, 39 titles. The second phase seems to be the leanest amongst her writing phases. However, it is during this very phase that she produced some of the sharpest and critical writing. The titles were Kavi Bandyoghoti Gayiner Jivan a Mrityu (The Life and Death of Poet Bandyoghoti Gayin), depicting the struggle of a low-caste boy in 15th century Bengal. It is during this phase that she wrote her very well known and prolific work which was later on adapted as a motion picture, Hajar Churashir Ma (Mother of 1084), a story about the radical-left Naxalite movement that took place in the 1970s.
The third phase of Mahasweta Devi’s career is a marker of major changes in terms of her creative writing as well as her political activities. It is during this phase that she was awarded the state sponsored Sahitya Akademi Award for her work titled Aranyer Adhikar (Rights to the Forest). From then on, her fiction subjects were the socially marginalized, the poor and neglected tribals and their struggles. Her intimate knowledge of what transpired on the ground allowed her to weave stories to bring these struggles into the mainstream. Among Indian languages, her work has been translated into Marathi, Hindi, Assamese, Telugu, Malayalam, Punjabi, Oriya, Gujarati and Ho, a tribal language. She has also been translated into English, Italian, French and Japanese.
The third phase of Devi’s work was more expansive. Though she was traveling profusely to the tribal regions of Bihar and West Bengal, she felt the need to communicate to a wider audience to speak of what was happening to people in countryside in the name of development. She wrote in newspapers and journals during this period, because fiction was no longer an adequate medium to convey the political and social struggles she was witnessing during her travels and her interaction with the people of marginalised communities. The various areas she wrote on included the identity and dignity of the poor, their struggles of survival, ecology, and environment, informal sector and minimum wage, and literacy and education.
The fourth phase of Mahasweta Devi’s work kept growing and she was rigorously involved in activism and continuously writing for the causes she believed in. She was preoccupied with the issues of mainstream development and the consequent marginalization of certain populations and the environment. While genteel Bengali literature glossed over the problems of Dalits and Adivasis, Mahasweta Devi used her position of privilege to actively amplify their voices and struggles. So dear was she that was called ‘Ma’ (mother among the Kheria tribals) or ‘Marang dai’ (sister among the Santhals).
Mahasweta Devi started writing at the age of 13, but only got recognized after her first book was published, by which time she was 30 years old. This is the milestone from where Devi began her journey as a writer and activist – not just chronicling social reality but consciously documenting exploitation.
An important question one could ask is – Do the people she writes about in her stories read these stories? And to this question, there lie a plethora of anecdotes where one can see instances of these people reading her work and getting inspired. One such anecdote is of a rickshaw-puller who asked Devi the meaning of the Bengali word jijibisha (the will to live) that he had read in one of her books. Mahasweta Devi was intrigued by this rickshaw puller’s enthusiasm towards reading and she invited him to work with her on Bortika, her Bengali quarterly magazine. This rickshaw puller was Manoranjan Byapari, a distressed man who was an ex-Naxalite, who had taught himself to read while imprisoned in Alipur Jail. He eventually became one of Bengal’s most famous Dalit writers and went on to write more than 100 short stories and 9 novels about the lives of Dalits in Bengal.
Devi’s writings are peculiarly devoid of sentimentality. She does not tug at her readers’ emotions and is rather straightforward with her approach to talking about the lived experiences of the marginalized. Her language is simple – an ironic juxtaposition to the complexity of the issues she talks about. In fact, it is precise because she is talking about complex realities that she uses simple language to reach the reader. Her fiction allows the reader to look at cultural practices, social institutions, identity formations, sexual roles and how they operate in spaces with different power dynamics. The arrangement of all these in her narratives come together to display the exploitation of differences in caste, class, and gender.
Devi’s work hints at a particular kind of change in the discourse of sexuality where it no longer oppresses the marginalized women but becomes the very ground of political liberation. In her famous short story Draupadi, about the rape and mutilation of a tribal woman called Dopdi, the protagonist threatens the masculinities of her oppressors by refusing to be ashamed of her mutilated body – forcing them to survey her nakedness with a defiance that exhibits her power and autonomy.
Mahasweta Devi was awarded the Padma Shri, not for her work as a writer but as an activist working with the tribal groups of the Purulia and Medinipur districts of West Bengal.
Devi wrote profusely on the issues of mainstream development and critiqued the trickle-down theory. Her work is important to understand subaltern politics and their struggles to visiblize their invisiblized exploitation. She was associated with several organisations and founded several others. She is as comfortable leading the processions of the people fighting for the rights of bounded labourers as she is behind her desk writing about these struggles. Mahasweta Devi, the activist, has been constantly involved in varied struggles and was a part of several associations in spite of the demands of her increasing age. She played these varied roles throughout her life and the activist in her was alive and resisting till her last breath.
1979: Sahitya Akademi Award
1986: Padma Shri
1996: Jnanpith Award
1997: Ramon Magsaysay Award
2006: Padma Vibhushan
2010: Yashwantrao Chavan National Award
2011: Bangabibhushan – the highest civilian award from the Government of West Bengal
2012: Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Sahityabrahma
The Queen of Jhansi
Hajar Churashir Maa
Chotti Munda Evam Tar Tir (chotti munda and his arrow)
Dust on the Road (activist and political writings)
Our Non-Veg Cow
Of Women, Outcasts, Peasants, and Rebels
The Book of the Hunter
Till Death Do Us Part
The Why-Why Girl
Mahāśvetā, D., & Ghatak, M. (1997). Dust on the road: The activist writings of Mahasweta Devi. Calcutta: Seagull Books.
The Hindu: Refections: Mahaswetha Devi Is Not Dead – Vidya Venkat
Scroll: Mahasweta Devi Was A Fighter All Her Life
Mid-Day: Mahasweta Devi: The Autobiography That Remains Unpublished