She was born on 14 January, 1926 in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The creator of the characters like Sanhichari, Mary Oraon, Rudali, Choti Munda, Dopdi Mejen and many more, she is the recipient of Sahitya Akademi Award for Bengali Writing, Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Jnanpith Award and had been honoured with the titles of Padma Vibhusan and Banga Vibhusan. She is none other than Mahasweta Devi, one of the greatest luminaries of Bengal.
A scholar from Viswa-Bharati first and then at Calcutta University, Mahasweta Devi pursued her career in English literature, started teaching in a college but later shifted to journalism. The disempowered position of the subaltern, addressed by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in her famous essay Can the Subaltern Speak is triggered by Mahasweta Devi through her agency and recognisable speech dealing with the lower-caste tribals in different parts of Bengal in general and India in particular.
The desire to speak for someone else is the regular exercise she had pursued throughout her life. However, in the evolving discourse of feminism and that pertaining the marginalised, Mahasweta Devi’s upper-caste, upper-class position is one of privilege and what has increasingly been recognised in today’s times as taking up space.
Mahasweta Devi navigated to social activism and had a strong commitment towards the tribal population in India. As per 2001 Census, about tribal and indigenous people form about 8.6 percent of the total population of India. The position of this population has been more precarious than the others in many ways. Mahasweta Devi played a significant role in eliminating and minimising their exploitation. Under the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871, many tribal people were branded as criminals by the British government during the colonial period and their rights to forest were curtailed. The tribal person emerges as an archetypal subaltern whose voice has been gagged through centuries. The distillation of the agony of the tribes has recurred in Mahasweta Devi’s works. She pointed out how the privileged communities never tried to know and respect the tribal communities and as a result, the former have often tried to destroy and obstruct the life and living of the latter.
Throughout her life, she was closely associated with the common people. Her line of action followed a pattern which begins and ends with the poor, downtrodden and deprived communities. She has exposed repeatedly the brutal oppression of the untouchable tribal communities by the upper-caste landlords. They are deprived of the dignity to live and Mahasweta Devi provided constant support to them. Kol, Bhil, Munda, Oraon – are among the scheduled tribe communities who found their mother in Devi. Her limitless contribution to the tribal community of the Shobors of Purulia made her the “Mother of Shobors”. Writing and activism were her territories. During the Bengal famine, she helped the affected not only by the mere distribution of food packets; instead she had an empathetic feeling towards all of them. She rendered her service to West Bengal Welfare Oraon Welfare Society and All India Vandhua Liberation Morcha. She was the founding member of the Aboriginal United Association.
Mahasweta Devi’s writings originate from the grounding realities. A diverse range of issues are found in her writings, including deprivation and degradation of life and environment, exploitation and struggles of the labouring poor and the underprivileged. The landless and the small peasants, sharecroppers, bonded labour, contract labour and miners of West Bengal and Bihar were the communities she focused on throughout her life. Her contribution to the field of writing ranges from short stories to novels to dramas to protest writings and what not? Some of her works although much discussed by many needs to be repeatedly mentioned. Such writings include Hajar Churashir Maa, Bashai Tudu, Aranyer Adhikar, Rudali, The Queen of Jhansi, Choti Munda and His Arrow, Breast Stories, Titu Mir, Bitter Soil, Old Women, Imaginary Maps. These works contain short stories and critical essays which delve deep into the psyche of the deprived marginalised communities. She had a passion to explore the oral and folk traditions of the tribal communities.
The essays written by Mahasweta Devi not only explores the exploitation of the oppressed, they also represent another significant aspect. They express the degradation of the eco-system. The forestation policy of the government has been highly criticised by Devi. She argued against such policy which destroys the natural habitat of the tribal peoples, affects their primitive life and which leads to deforestation to meet the basic amenities of modern urban life. She repeatedly appealed against the destruction of forests and critiqued the concept of sustainable development in its close association to deforestation. The close relation between man and nature has been addressed by Devi in many of her writings which reveal that ecological devastation increases pollution and tells upon life expectancies. Rather than usurping the Mother Nature for human beings’ personal profit, she stressed on the preservation of the forests.
Her narratives of the accounts of tribal communities covered 150 different tribes of 25 million tribal people. The reference of the Kheria Shobors of Purulia district, Doulotis of Palamou and their intimate relation with nature has always secured Devi’s attention and has further fuelled her fire to create the discourse of the subalterns. In the author’s preface to Bashai Tudu translated and edited by Samik Bandopadhyay, Mahasweta Devi expressed her disgust to the lack of sensitivity of the contemporary writers to save society in various ways,
“…What can be more surprising than that writers living in a country bedevilled with so many problems – social injustice, communal discord and evil customs should fail to find material for their work in their own country and people? Such indifference to people is possible only in a semi-colonial, semi-feudal country like India, still suffering from the hangover of foreign rule.”
Throughout her dynamic life of writing and activism, she believed in documentation. Although Mahasweta Devi is no more between us but her works contain an eternal appeal to everyone. She did not belong to any feminist school, but her works predominantly contained the narratives of the exploitation of tribal communities, especially women. She explicitly portrays the rape culture prevalent among men from all societal spheres. The rape of Dopdi Mejen and Devi’s way of representing it to the readers is one of her means of protest, wherein she addressed the plight of Draupadi from the epic Mahabharata with her depiction of Dopdi Mejen. An author can best be identified through her works- whether alive or dead. Mahasweta Devi would remain eternal to everyone. She could no more be the alive mother of Sanhichari to listen to her pains and pangs but, then again, mothers never die.
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