The 1997 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts
BIOGRAPHY for Mahasweta Devi
She is certainly, as a noted critic puts it, "one of the most important writers writing in India today." It is fulsome praise and yet more can be said of Mahasweta Devi. She stands with few equals among todays Asian writers in the dedication and directness with which she has turned writing into a form of service to the people.
Mahasweta Devi was born to a privileged, middle-class Bengali family on January 14, 1926. Force of custom had it that she was born in Dhaka where her maternal grandfather was a practicing lawyer, since it was tradition in the family for daughters to give birth in their parents house. (Dhaka was part of British India before the partition of Bengal in 1947, when it became part of Pakistan; it is now the capital of Bangladesh.) While Devi briefly attended Eden Montessori School in Dhaka, it was in West Bengal that she grew up in the midst of a large and intellectually stimulating family.
It was a family with a long tradition of civic spirit and high literacy. Devis grandparents were involved in various movements aimed at the promotion of Western education and social reform, initiated or inspired by Rammohun Roy (17721833), who has been called the Father of Modern India, and such leaders of the nineteenth-century Bengali Renaissance as Iswarchandra Vidyasagar. These were men who played important roles in shaping early Indian nationalism as well as modern Bengali literature, perhaps the richest and most dynamic of the literary traditions in India.
The eldest of nine children, Devi was raised in the rich milieu of Bengali high culture. Her father, Manish Chandra Ghatak (19021979), was a renowned poet and prose writer. In the 1920s, he was part of a group of young writers who broke new ground by writing a new type of realist stories that dealt with slum life and the seamier underside of Indian society. Devis mother, Dharitri Devi (19081984), was a writer who loved Pearl Bucks novels about old China and translated some of her works. (She met the famous American author when the latter visited Bombay in 1934 and was gifted with a copy of one of Bucks books.) Dharitri was also a social worker who, like her own mother, devoted a great part of her time to promoting literacy among underprivileged children. Assorted aunts and uncles won prominence as artists, journalists, actors and filmmakers, among them the pioneering, British-trained cinematographer Sudhish Ghatak, actor and film director Ritwick Ghatak, journalist Sachin Chowdhury, and sculptor Sankho Chowdhury.
Together with her sisters and brothers, Devi was raised to love books and develop an interest in music, theater, and films. Her parents instilled in their children a curiosity for new things and other places and enjoyed taking them to the cinemas in Calcutta (called Kolkata since 2001) to watch British and American movies. Devi was brought up in an atmosphere "where everyone read and read and read." "There was no bar on my reading," Devi recalls. Thus, while still quite young, she became acquainted with Western authors such as Charles Dickens, Honoré de Balzac, and Anton Chekhov, as well as such Bengali classics as the sixteenth-century Chandi Mangal by Mukundaram Chakravarty (more popularly known as Kavikankan), narrative poems that stirred her interest in fiction and history.
While she enjoyed the benefits of a middle-class upbringing, Devi was also exposed to the values of egalitarian concern for those less fortunate. The women in her family were deeply involved in volunteer work to spread literacy among the poor, and Devi recalls that on visits to her parents ancestral village in eastern Bengal her grandparents always admonished them, the children, against wearing expensive clothes, insisting that they wear what the poorest in the village wore.
Devis family moved around a lot, because her fathers job as a government income tax officer meant periodic reassignments to new districts. Hence, Devi picked up her education in various places. She finished her elementary education at Medinipur Missionary Girls School in West Bengal in 1935, attended middle school in Santiniketan (19361938), and finished high school at Beltala Girls School in Calcutta (19391942).
Santiniketan left a deep impression on the young Devi. The school in Santiniketan was an experiment in education started in 1901 by Rabindranath Tagore (18611941), the leading light in Bengali literature and winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize for Literature, the first Asian to receive this honor. Devis father was an admirer and friend of Tagores and her uncles, too, either attended Santiniketan or moved in the same circles as Tagore. It is not surprising that, at the age of ten, Devi would find herself partaking of the heady atmosphere of Indian cultural nationalism.
Santiniketan (which, in 1921, came to be called Visva-Bharatiits founders vision of a "world university") embodied Tagores ideas of education: open-air classes, freedom from traditional restrictions, students of all countries coming together to participate in a life of creative harmony. Here Devi came in contact with students from all over India and came to think of herself not just as a Bengali but part of a larger country. She listened to well-known Bengali writers, watched Tagores dance dramas performed, cultivated her love for literature and the arts, enjoyed outdoor games, and learned the value of independent study. She was fortunate as well to have sat "at the feet" of Tagore himself in his final years. Tagore spent a lot of time in Santiniketan and, once, briefly took over as teacher in Devis class in Bengali. Tagore left quite an impression. Devis first published piece of writing was an essay on Tagores My Boyhood Days for a Bengali childrens magazine, written when she was thirteen.
Santiniketan, however, was an idyll rudely interrupted by the momentous crises India went through in the years that followed.
Her years after high school thrust Devi into a new and troubled stage in her life. She attended Asutosh College of Calcutta University (19431944) and then returned to Santiniketan to earn a bachelors degree (with high honors) in 1946. Tagore had passed away and Devis memories of her second stay in Santiniketan are not as vivid as her first. Now older and restless, she felt that Santiniketan had lost something of its old, pastoral charm.
This was a time of great social upheaval in India. The world was in the grip of the Second World War. The nationalist "Quit India" campaign of 1942, after the Indian National Congress voted to expel the British from India, led to the arrest of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and thousands of Indian nationalists. The suppression of the nationalists triggered widespread violence. (Among those arrested was Devis uncle, Sankho Chowdhury.) It was the time of the Great Bengal Famine (19421944) caused by the cutting off of the Burma rice supply and administrative bungling during the war. In 1946, the Great Calcutta Riots broke out as communal rioting among Hindus and Muslims took place in Calcutta and elsewhere in the Punjab and Bengal, unleashed by the intensifying conflict between the Hindu-dominated Indian National Congress and the Muslim League.
On August 15, 1947, the British Indian empire ceased to exist and India achieved its independence. The triumph of freedom, however, was diluted by the tragedy of partition as two nations were born, India and Pakistan. Eastern Bengal became part of Pakistan. Splitting many families (including Devis) between the two new countries, the Partition was marked by violent, large-scale communal disturbances, a toll of many thousands of casualties, and the migration of several million persons. The cities, recalled Devi, were "bathed with blood." Passions were so inflamed that, on January 30, 1948, Gandhi was assassinated by a young Hindu extremist.
It was a tumultuous and violent time. As a young college student during the famine, Devi joined her classmates in relief work: distributing food, picking through the dead bodies in the streets to find those still alive, feeding them, and bringing them to the relief centers. She remembers one particular instance when they found a baby still alive beside her dead mother only to discover, as they carried the infant to the center, that she, too, had died.
The sight of so much suffering and death deeply affected Devi. In her teens, she felt that, inside her, something was changing. It was during this time of uncertainty and violence, Devi said, that she came out of her relatively protected middle-class life.
After her college graduation in 1946, she married Bijon Bhattacharya, a playwright who acted in her uncle Ritwick Ghataks films and was one of the founding members of the Indian Peoples Theater Association. He was also a member of the Communist Party of India (CPI). Though her family had advised against the marriage, Devi could not be dissuaded. Even as a young woman, she was already quite headstrong and independent-minded.
Founded in 1928, the CPI was ascendant at the time Devi was in the university. The party had legal status and was active in organizing, propaganda, and electoral work. It was an important influence on Devi and her generation, though she herself never joined the party. At the time Devi married Bijon, however, the party was in deep crisis. During the war, the CPI had alienated the Indian nationalist leadership by supporting the British war effort against the call for noninvolvement in the war by the Indian National Congress. It was expelled from Congress in 1945 and was badly defeated in the 1946 elections. When India became independent in 1947, the party adopted a policy of insurrection, carrying out a series of violent agitations.
Devi and her husband briefly stayed with Bijons family and then lived on their own in a one-room apartment on the outskirts of Calcutta. In 1948, they had a child (Nabarun, who would become a poet, actor, and novelist). It was a difficult time for the family. Communists and their sympathizers were harassed and Bijon could not find a job. To help support the family, Devi sold dye powders and even became involved in a friends failed venture to supply thousands of research monkeys to laboratories in the United States. She also worked as a teacher in Puddopukur Girls School (19481949), did private tutoring, and then gained employment as an upper division clerk in the regional office of the Deputy Accountant General of Post and Telegraph (19491950). Accused of being a communist, she was retrenched from her government job after someone planted books of Marx, Engels, and Lenin in her office drawer.
It was at this time that she began to turn her energies to writing. To augment her income, particularly after she lost her government job, she wrote for Sachitra Bharat, a Bengali weekly, under the pen name Sumitra Devi, producing light fiction ("romantic stories, ghost stories, family stories"). In 1956, however, came her first major work. This was Jhansir Rani (The Queen of Jhansi), a fictionalized biography of the woman ruler of a princely state in north India who fought against the British in 1857 in the first war of independence by the Indian people. Devi had first learned of this remarkable woman from books given to her by her uncle Sachin Chowdhury. She was quickly beguiled by the figure of a woman warrior who was able to inspire and unite the common people to wage a war of resistance against the British. She resolved that this was a story she had to write.
In preparing to write the novel, in 1954, she demonstrated uncommon seriousness and tenacity. She scraped together enough money from relatives and friends to travel to the Bundelkhand area in the then United Province (now Uttar Pradesh) to collect archival data and oral history. She traveled on foot through remote villages and desert plateaus, collecting scraps of legends and folk ballads, getting firsthand knowledge of the places where Rani of Jhansi fought the British. She had always been interested in history and the research she did for Jhansir Rani was to characterize her working style as a writer.
Jhansir Rani earned for her a reputation as a writer. It was quickly followed by other worksNati (1957), Madhurey Madhur (1958), Yamuna Key Teer (1958), Etotuku Asha (1959), and Premtara (1959)romances and novels that formed a virtual kaleidoscope of Indian lives. While many of her writings during this period, she said, were impelled by the need to earn money for the family, they also demonstrated an appetite for chronicling social realities that would mark her body of fiction.
In 1962, her marriage came to an end when she divorced Bijon, leaving her fourteen-year-old son with his father. She lived on her own in the remote southern outskirts of Calcutta and went through a terrible spell of depression during which she attempted suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills. The attempt failed. She woke up, she said, and the first image she had was that of the face of her son. Surviving death, she recalls feeling "a tremendous surge for living."
In 1963, she finished her masters degree in literature at Calcutta University and, from 1964 to 1984, served as a lecturer in English at Bijoygarh Jyotish Roy College, a small private college that served poor students in a refugee area. During this time, she married an aspiring writer but this marriage did not work out either and came to an end in 1975.
Devi had begun to focus on what she wanted to do with her life. Like a dam of creativity that had burst open, she wrote furiously, publishing novels, stories, and articles. She wrote plays, textbooks, and childrens fiction; adapted folklore for young readers; translated works in other languages; and even did biographies of her own father, Manish Ghatak, and the famous Chinese writer Lu Xun.
It was at this time that there was a marked intensification of social purpose in her writings. Devi says, "I was born in a family with strong literary traditions and was fortunate enough to attend Santiniketan when its founder, Rabindranath Tagore, was alive. Writing came early, though not with any special purpose. What people call social activism came much later."
A turning point came in 1965 when Devi visited Palamau, a remote and impoverished district in Bihar that she calls "a mirror of tribal India." Moving from place to place on foot, she witnessed the savage impact on indigenous society of absentee landlordism, a despoiled environment, debt bondage, and state neglect. In Indias other tribal districts, she subsequently observed the same dismal conditions. There was no education, no health care, no roads, no income. Exploitation and neglect had reduced people to a subhuman existence. Devi had for long been dimly aware of the presence of tribal people, but it was the Palamau experience that brought her face to face with the misery of a people largely excluded from official, mainstream history.
This exposure focused Devis work. This can be seen in the novels Kavi Bandyoghoti Gayiner Jivan 0 Mrityu (The Life and Death of Poet Bandyoghoti Gayin, 1966), which depicted the struggle of a low-caste boy in fifteenth-century Bengal, and Andharmanik (Jewel in Darkness, 1966), which dealt with the upheaval in Bengals social life caused by the Bargi (Maratha cavalry) raids during the mid-eighteenth century.
A deepening social awareness and literary maturity converged in her watershed novel of 1974, Hajar Churashir Ma (Mother of 1084), which is one of Devis most widely read works. Written in 19731974, it charts the emotional struggles of a mother as she tries to understand her sons involvement in the Naxalite Movement, a rebellion that began in 1967 in the village of Naxalbari, northern West Bengal, and soon spread to urban areas in the region until the mid-1970s. The journey of discovery carries her to an understanding of her sons death as well as her own alienation, as a woman and wife, from the complacent and hypocritical bourgeois society her son had rebelled against.
The plot is condensed into the scenic space of a single day through the device of the mother recalling, a year after, the events that followed the morning when she was summoned to identify her son lying dead in the police morgue. Through this device of dramatic condensation, Devi achieves an admirable concentration of effect. Hajar Churashir Ma, the critic Samik Bandyopadhyay says, reveals "a passion that has rarely emerged so unashamedly in the Bengali novel." On another plane, it can also be said that the novel is significant in personal terms. It enacts Devis own passage from urban middle-class domesticity to the larger sphere of what would be her focal subject and concern, the agelong exploitation of the tribals and the landless peasantry in rural eastern India.
In the succeeding years, she would return to the Naxalite Movement in works such as Agnigarbha (The Fire Within, 1978), four long stories about the Naxalite tribal unrest, and the novel Bish-Ekush (1986). In a career of sustained creativity, she would produce a stream of narratives, fusing indigenous oral histories with contemporary events to uncover the bitter and often bloody relationship between tribal communities and Indias dominant classes and systems.
Her work has gravitated around certain topics and themes. History has always fascinated her. She says, "I think being conscious about history is a primary condition of being a writer." Devi has used fiction not only to resurrect forgotten episodes of Indias tribal and feudal past but to highlight acts of local resistance to aggression and oppression. Her historical fiction includes Aranyer Adhikar (Right to the Forest, 1977), a meticulously researched novel on the life and struggles of Birsa Munda and the famous Munda Rebellion against the British in the late nineteenth century; Chotti Munda 0 Tar Teer (Chotti and His Arrow, 1979), which records the history of one of the tribes of eastern India in the first seven decades of the twentieth century; Subhaga Basanta (1980), two novels set in Bengal on slavery in the eleventh century and the Sati system in the eighteenth century; and Sidhu Kanhur Daakey (1981), a novel on two heroes of the Santhal tribal rebellion in 18551856.
Her interest in history is not backward-looking but strongly contemporary. She renders scenes of the past "in their immediate physicality, as if they were nothing less than contemporary" and creates characters evolving through their interactions with a historical process. While she turned to the past for materials, her vision is not exotic but historical. It is always trained on the realities of the present. In an interview in 1983, she said, "It is my conviction that a story writer should be motivated by a sense of history that would help her readers to understand their own times. I have never had the capacity nor the urge to create art for arts sake."
Devi has critically reflected on her own class position in works exploring the dilemma of the bourgeois intellectuals social loyalties. These works include Gharey Phera (1983), which treats of the degeneration of a once politically committed writer, and Srinkhalito (1985), a novel about a writer torn between an easy life and one of social engagement. The drama of divergent class realities is powerfully communicated in the characters of the Naxalite tribal hero and the Communist journalist in the novelette Bashai Tudu (part of the 1978 Agnigarbha collection). A martyred tribal hero, Bashai Tudu, assumes the power of myth as he periodically appears to succor the landless farm laborers when they are driven to crisis. He gets killed and then appears again at another point of crisis. As counterpoint to the myth, Devi creates the character of the middle-class journalist who must wrestle with his shame, helplessness, and guilt, as he is called upon, time and again, to identify Bashai Tudus martyred body.
Devi has written on the profound subordination of women in Indian society in such works as Bioscoper Baksho (1964), about the condition of women in tradition-bound, middle-class society; Swaha (1977), on bride burning; Daulati (1984), three interlinked stories on the Palamau bonded labor movement; Iter Parey It (1987), stories about tribal women exploited in brick fields; and Prothom Paath (1988), a novel based on a true story of an illiterate tribal woman who strives to found a school in her village. Leading scholars see her powerful tales of exploitation and struggle as extremely rich sites of feminist discourse. However, Devi (who dislikes labels) declines to be called a feminist. She acknowledges that a woman tends to be more vulnerable to exploitation because of her body, but asserts: "I write as a writer not as a woman. . . . I look at the class, not at the gender problem."
Indeed, a pronounced class consciousness informs Devis writings. While she professes little interest in ideological abstractions and theorizing, Devi is clearly influenced by the Marxist ideas ascendant in India during her formative years. Almost from the beginning of the twentieth century, Bengal has been a center of leftist intellectualism. Though Devi kept her distance from party politics, she appropriated from the Left something of its ideological fervor as well as the tools for understanding the social and economic problems of her country. Speaking of the highly politicized 1940s, she says, "In retrospect, I think that my understanding of the people and their struggles came from those days."
What joins all these topics and themes in Devis fiction is a passionate opposition to realities of social exploitation. Her fiction is driven not only by a strong sense of identification with the oppressed and the excluded but by a faith in their capacity for self-emancipation.
The cause of the tribals of India has become Devis life mission. She has chosen the cause in part because the lot of the tribals has been, for her, the most emblematic of social oppression in modern India.
As noted in the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundations citation recognising Devi: "Hindu civilization is so old, pervasive, and deep, outsiders easily forget that one-sixth of Indias population today is formed by people of an even older civilization. In their forest habitat, Indias so-called tribals [a word commonly used in India though it has fallen into disfavor elsewhere] evolved apart from the Hindus, who viewed them as beneath civilization." The British labeled them "criminal" because they were at the margins of colonial society. Being labeled a people with "criminal propensities" also marked them out as targets of social prejudice and state violence. "When the economic juggernaut of modern times depleted the forests, the stigmatized tribals were left to survive on the harsh fringes of Indias colonial and postcolonial economy, often in relationships of cruel dependency. As a result, Devi says, the indigenous peoples today are suffering spectators of the India that is traveling towards the twenty-first century."
Underreported in official censuses, tribals are estimated to number eighty million today and are found in several regions of the country. Together with the so-called scheduled castes that constitute 17 percent of Indias population, they live at the bottom of Indian society. In Devis own home state of West Bengal alone, there are thirty-eight tribal communities with a population of ten million.
Devi has used her writings to render the plight of this population visible to Indias mainstream society. She has explored in her fiction the history of the Santals, Hos, Oraons, Kurunis, Mundas, and other tribal communities. Since 1976, she has been actively involved in the struggles of tribal and underprivileged communities in the border areas of the three adjacent Indian states of Bihar, Orissa, and West Bengal, especially in the districts of Mayurbhanj, Medinipur, Purulia, and Singhbhum. As Samik Bandyopadhyay said of this stage in Devis career: "The subjects of her stories have become the subject of her life."
In her introduction to Agnigarbha (1978), Devi explained her mission thus:
Restless, feeling that writing fiction was not enough, she pursued other avenues of engagement. In 1980, she founded Palamau (Bihar) Zilla Bandhua Samiti, Indias first bonded-labor organization, with the help of a local journalist, Rameshwaram. The organization raised public awareness of the bonded-labor system and drew together thousands of bonded laborers in common action to call for an end to bonded labor and demand a program of land-to-the-tillers.
The year after her father died in 1979, Devi started editing the Bengali quarterly Bortika, an obscure literary periodical her father had edited. She turned it into a forum where tribals, small peasants, agricultural laborers, factory workers, and rickshaw pullers wrote about their life and problems. Impatient with abstract, theoretical, and academic research, Devi turned Bortika into a publication that gave precedence to the view-from-below and the documentation of social and economic conditions through surveys and reports done by the local people themselves.
In 1982, she took a two-year leave of absence from the Calcutta college where she had been teaching English literature since 1964 and joined Jugantar, a Bengali newspaper, as a roving reporter. This gave her greater opportunity to travel and learn of conditions in the countryside. Increasingly involved in the lives of the people she met, she resigned from her teaching job in 1984 and became a full-time writer and activist. She wrote for a Bengali daily, Dainik Basumati, for about a year and then joined Bartaman, another Bengali daily, for which she wrote a weekly column until 1991.
She has done articles and investigative reports for English-language periodicals such as the Economic and Political Weekly (founded by her uncle Sachin Chowdhury), Business Standard, Sunday, Frontier, and New Republic. Written in English and Bengali, her journalism mapped her passionate commitments. She ranged through such topics as police atrocities, failures in the implementation of government programs, exploitation of sharecroppers and miners, unemployment and landlessness, environmental degradation, and the need to protect and foster tribal languages and identity.
Her practice of journalism is an integral part of Devis lifework. She has embraced journalism as social advocacy instead of as a trade or profession. Her practice of "journalism-from-below" is quite innovative. She has located herself, marked out her vantage point at the peripheries, in the rural districts, instead of writing out of the capital or metropolis. She does not just collect information from "informants," she identifies with the people she writes about and works side by side with them for the redress of their problems. As her experiment with Bortika shows, she believes "that the people I write about should themselves write about their own problems."
These are writings, she says, "based on real life experience, facts and figures. I sometimes help them with questionnaires and guides for conducting surveys in their own areas, about which they themselves write. For many of the writers, it is the first time that they can project their own problems to a wider audience, in their own way."
She has pursued journalism side by side with active grassroots organizing and advocacy. In 1983, she founded Paschim Banga Kheria Sabar Kalyan Samiti (Kheria-Sabar Welfare Society) with the help of other social activists, such as Gomasta Prasad Soren and Gopiballabh Singh Deo. The welfare society is an autonomous organization of the Kheria and Sabar tribes, among the poorest of the poor in India. Aimed at defending the rights of tribals and promoting their material and cultural well-being, the organization has undertaken such initiatives as handicraft and farming, irrigation and water, afforestation, health and savings, and literacy projects. At least ten thousand, out of a population of about sixteen thousand constituting the two tribes, have directly benefited from the various projects of the organization.
Recognizing the value of collective action, Devi pioneered in forging a common voice for tribals by founding, in 1986, Adim Jaati Aikya Parishad (Ancient Tribes Union), a forum of thirty-eight West Bengali tribal groups. Formed to enable tribes to claim their rightful socioeconomic and civil liberties, the forum promoted cooperative action among both big and small tribes and reduced the incidence of intertribal violence.
In 1990, Devi instituted the Shabara Mela, an annual fair based on traditional Indian country fairs, held after winter harvest in Rajnagar, some thirty kilometers from Purulia, West Bengal. Featuring crafts exhibits and contests and theatrical performances dealing with social themes such as literacy and antialcoholism, the yearly fair has grown into a celebration of values of tribal dignity and autonomy. It has been duplicated in other rural areas.
Devi has been involved with numerous other initiatives in grassroots organizing, even serving as president of the Berhampur Municipal Sweepers Association in her home district of Murshidabad. Among the other organizations she is associated withshe took the initiative in founding a few of themare Paschim Banga Munda Tribal Samaj Sugar Ganthra (Mighty Union of West Bengal Munda Tribal Society); Paschim Banga Lodha Sabar Denotified Tribe Kalyan Samiti (West Bengal Lodha Sabar Denotified Tribe Welfare Society); Paschim Banga Bhumij Tribal Samaj Kalyan Samiti (West Bengal Tenanted Tribal Welfare SocietyMedinipur and Purulia districts); Paschim Banga Oraon Tribal Kalyan Samiti (West Bengal Oraon Tribal Welfare Society); Paschim Banga Sahis Scheduled Caste Kalyan Samiti (West Bengal Sahis Scheduled Caste Welfare Society); Paschim Banga Harijan Kalyan Samiti (West Bengal Harijan Welfare SocietyNorth 24 Parganas district); Bharat Ker Adim Jaati Tribal Samiti (The Indian Ker Aboriginal Tribal SocietyNorth 24 Parganas district); Adibasi Kalyan Samiti (Adibasi Welfare SocietySouth 24 Parganas district); and Paschim Banga Baul Fakir Sangha (West Bengal Baul Fakir UnionMurshidabad district).
She lives with the people she writes about, participates in their struggles, and gives voice to their lives in her writings. She calls them "her own people" and they call her, in turn, Didi (Elder Sister). Her reputation as an advocate is such that she has become a "one-person resource center" for people in distress. People, mostly from remote rural areas, come to her house in Calcutta daily with their problems. Some even stay in her tiny apartment. They approach her with their problems: a job for the unemployed, violation of government norms for jobs reserved for tribals and other eligible people, inaction or unjust action of the police or the administration, government recognition for running a school, someone needing admission to a hospital immediately, land, irrigation, drinking water, or SOS from a small tribal group fearing violent attacks. The list can go on and on.
She listens and gives advice, makes referrals to her extensive network of contacts, or personally intercedes for them by bringing their grievances to the attention of state agencies and officials. Each year, she tirelessly writes several hundred letters of complaint or petition addressed to the government and publishes columns and articles documenting abuses by police, landlords, and politicians. She has made the cause of the tribals and the poor her own, and her reputation as an advocate has spread far and wide.
Having been raised with the education and other privileges of a middle-class Indian family, Devi feels a certain complicity in the marginalization of millions of her compatriots. Although her own family followed a Spartan lifestyle and devoted much time to projects of civic amelioration, she believes that her social activism is a matter of expiation and duty. What she is doing, she often says, is partly an atonement for Indias exploitation of tribal groups in the last thousand years.
Fiercely independent, Devi is critical of the failure of political parties from both the Left and the Right to change the system. Expressing her impatience with "mere party politics," she says, "Life is not arithmetic, and man is not made for the game of politics. I believe that it should be the object of every kind of politics to fulfil mans craving to live with all his rights intact. . . ."
While she has cooperated with government and external agencies on certain projects, she is a firm believer in self-reliance, in people taking hold of their lives and joining together in addressing their common problems. For this same reason, some of the organizations she is involved with decline foreign assistance as a matter of policy. The policy may have its drawbacks, but it is also an important corrective and lesson in a time when "development work" is increasingly monetized and bureaucratized.
Devi sees herself as a catalyst rather than a leader. She spends as much time (if not more) listening to people rather than talking to them; she dances with them in their tribal festivals; she marches with them in their protest demonstrations; she tries to mold her voice to theirs in her writings.
There is a unity to her many interests and roles, a living continuity between artistic creativity and social activism. Combining literature, journalism, and grassroots action, she has indefatigably championed the cause of the exploited and the marginalized. She says, "My writing and other activities are part of an organic whole that can neither be fragmented nor compartmentalized."
Some people feel that her activism detracts from her strength as a literary writer, but her admirers believe her commitment gives more force to her work. An Indian writer says, "She has given us great literature. Her work leaves even hard-nosed readers disturbed and shaken; it makes us question ourselves." A literary critic adds, "There may be people who write finer prose, whose expression is elegant, the treatment more subtle. But that does not detract from the sheer power and depth of her oeuvre."
Devi takes sides. She is impatient with hypocrisy, complacency, and indifference. Deeply stirred by how the tribals and the poor have been pauperized and abused, she set for herself the task of savagely exposing the realities and structures of social and economic exploitation. In refusing to mystify what she sees, she shocks her middle-class readers into confronting a social cancer in Indian society. Devi says, "Bengali literature has been far too long a field for retraction from objectivity and an atrophy of conscience. . . . A responsible writer, standing at a turning point in history, has to take a stand in defense of the exploited. Otherwise history would never forgive him."
She works from firsthand knowledge. Questioned in 1993 about the harsh, often shocking content of her stories, Devi firmly rejected the idea that she is out to shock or sensationalize. If the stories shock, she curtly says, it is because the urban middle class is ignorant about rural conditions. She says, "In Kalahandi they are selling their children. You have not seen it, but it is real. I cannot help it, it happens to be a fact that my readership is middle class. If they do not know about these things, what can I do about it?"
Her commitments give life to her distinctive qualities as a writer and artist. She studies the history of the peoples she writes about by examining archival documents; by collecting myths, legends, and ballads; and by direct observation in her frequent travels through the countryside. Her empirical research into oral history as it lives in the cultures and memories of tribal communities was the first of its kind among Indian writers. It has allowed her to create fiction rooted in history and folk myth as well as in contemporary reality. Combining narrative with segments of oral history and social critique, she moves between past and present as she presents characters formed in the thick, time-shaped materiality of their social existence.
Her innovative use of language has expanded the conventional borders of Bengali literary expression. She calls upon an eclectic array of classical and modern images and interlaces literary, bureaucratic, and "street" Bengali with tribal idioms. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak believes that it was with Aranyer Adhikar (1977) that Mahasweta Devi began "putting together a prose that is a collage of literary Bengali, street Bengali, bureaucratic Bengali, tribal Bengali, and the languages of the tribals." In crafting this style, Devi has succeeded in melding the often discordant realities of modern Indian life. Transgressing the boundaries of language, she has broken down the barriers of class as well.
She creates the effect of a documentary realism by representing reality with precision and economy of detail. Using irony and satire and avoiding romantic clichés, she desentimentalizes what would otherwise slide into the realm of melodrama. By grounding her fiction in the particularities of the actual, her stories acquire the authenticity of lived experience at the margins.
She described her instincts as a writer in the preface to the story collection Shrestha Galpa (1985): "I have found authentic documentation to be the best medium for protest against injustice and exploitation. . . . I have a reverence for materials collected from folklore, for they reveal how the common people have looked at an experience in the past and look at it now. . . . To capture the continuities between past and present held together in the folk imagination, I bring legends, mythical figures and mythical happenings into a contemporary setting, and make an ironic use of these. . . ."
Her use of folk symbolism and political irony in wholly contemporary contexts is illustrated in the stories adapted as plays and translated into English in Five Plays: Mother of 1084, Aajir, Bayen, Urvashi and Johnny, Water (1997). In one of these stories, a traditional water diviners instinctive understanding of the processes and movements of nature is turned into a medium for the rise of a new consciousness that empowers a community to contest a dominant, class-defined system. In another, the cancer of the throat that afflicts a local ventriloquist becomes a metaphor for the suppression of democratic rights during the period of Emergency in India. In still another story, the tragedy of a mother who is branded as a witch and separated from her son until the latter acknowledges the dead woman as his mother inscribes the larger story of the cruelties of superstition and of a male-dominated system that has erected barriers between mothers and sons. In another collection of stories, published in English as Breast Stories (1997), Devi constructs a human as well as national parable in the story of a woman who becomes a professional wet nurse to support her family and dies of painful breast cancer, betrayed alike by the breasts that for years became her chief identity and the dozens of "sons" she suckled.
The uncompromising realism of her fiction has led critics to see her work as a critique of the Bengali Renaissance. Devi departs from the high diction and musicality of Renaissance writing by immersing herself in the non-Sanskritic idiom of the tribal world and by assuming the terse, direct style of modern journalism. She also goes beyond the humane, universalizing lyricism of Tagore and the Renaissance writers in her violent, mythopoeic depiction of class conflict in Indian society.
Santiniketan schooled her in love for humanity. It was, however, in the ideologically conflicted and violent world of the 1940s that she forged the anger at humanitys violation as well as the weapons to defend it.
Devis work has not gone unrecognized. She has won various literary honors, among them the highest state-sponsored literary award in India from the Sahitya Akademi (National Academy of Letters), which she received for Aranyer Adhikar in 1979. In 1986, she was honored with the Padmasree (awarded to distinguished citizens by the Government of India) for her activist work among tribal communities. In 1996, for lifetime literary achievement, she was given the Jnanpith Award in ceremonies in New Delhi attended by Nelson Mandela. In handing her the award, Mandela honored her work by saying that Devi "holds a mirror to the conditions of the world as we enter the new millennium." (She donated the Jnanpith prize money for the uplift of tribal groups through the tribal welfare society she established and heads.) In the same year, the Rabindra Bharati University of Calcutta conferred on her an honorary doctorate in literature.
Her achievement as a writer and activist has carried her beyond India. She traveled to Paris in 1985 as part of a cultural exchange program between India and France, and went to Frankfurt in 1986 as part of a delegation of Indian writers to that citys famous Book Fair. In 1988, she visited Pittsburgh University in Pennsylvania on the invitation of the Marxist Study Circle and then returned to the United States in 1990 as a Visiting Fulbright Lecturer. In 1992, nominated by Indias First Lady, Devi attended the Geneva summit conference on "Economic Development of Women in the Agricultural Sector in the Third World." In the same year, she visited France again on the invitation of the French cultural affairs ministry.
Some of her works have been translated into English, Italian, Japanese, and French. Although her work may not conform to the cosmopolitan "Indian fiction" currently fashionable among Western readers, she is slowly gaining an international readership, in part because of the admiring attention given to her work as sites of postcolonial and feminist discourse by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, one of the worlds foremost literary theorists.
Nothing, however, has given Devi as much fulfillment as having her voice heard in India, and through her the voice of the people she cares about.
A literary writer in India does not have a large and ready readership. The literacy rate in Bengal is only 38 percent as of the 1970s, and a serious novel in Bengali sells about five thousand copies in three years. Devis best-known books, however, have run to over twenty editions. Her writings have also circulated beyond the confines of print and a single language. She has been translated into Hindi, Assamese, Telegu, Malayalam, Marathi, Oriya, Punjabi, Gujarati, and two tribal languages, Ho and Santhali.
Devi is deeply engaged in issues of language and audience, and the problem of whom one addresses, how, and for what purpose. She tries to communicate to her own people by drawing from local idioms and traditional folk forms and then recirculating them, in new contexts and forms, among the people themselves. In a 1986 interview, for instance, she said:
Devi has widened her audience by writing in many forms and media in both Bengali and English. Her fiction has been adapted as theatrical performances in various Indian languages, and Devi herself has adapted some of her works for the stage. Rudali, an adaptation of her short story about a poor, low-caste village woman, has been staged a hundred times to packed houses in both Bengali and Hindi since it was first performed in 1992. Devis other stories have been dramatized and performed in towns and villages in Bengal. Here they are appreciated by audiences closer to the experiences in which her works are rooted.
In her visits to the villages, Devi has also made it a point to discuss and narrate her stories to the people about whom she writes. Her stories have entered into the oral tradition of the places where her books and plays circulate. The social researcher Maitreya Ghatak, for instance, relates how she met a young tribal boy while she was visiting a village in the Medinipur district of West Bengal. The boy was carrying a copy of an abridged version of Devis Birsa Munda, written specifically for young readers. It was a book read by everyone in the community, the boy said.
Devis works have become part of the living tradition that she herself had drawn from. She says, "I have taken from oral tradition, used it, and now my work is going back to oral tradition . . . yes, this kind of give and take is something that is bound to happen and it should be like this."
One of the most prolific writers in Bengali, Mahasweta Devi has published over a hundred titles of fiction in addition to a large body of journalistic and other writings. She continues to write to this day. Her more recent works of fiction include Byadh Khanda (1994), Prosthan Parba (1995), and Krishna Dwadoshi (1995). She is also finishing her autobiography, which began to be serialized in a Bengali magazine in February 1996.
Devi is in her late seventies, yet her dedication to her mission and craft has not dimmed. Ailing from diabetes and low blood pressure, she continues to visit different tribal belts. She speaks of devoting herself to improving her art, writing more, and seeing to the more effective circulation of her works. She normally writes from ten to twelve hours a day, sitting in her bedroom-cum-study in a tiny first-floor apartment in Calcutta. (This has been her place since she gave up her job as lecturer in a Calcutta college in 1982.) She has simple personal needs and lives from her modest royalties as a writer.
In an interview, she made it clear she was not about to abandon her causes for less stressful pursuits. "An escapist culture of consumerism is fast replacing the tradition of mass struggle. Writers are obsessed with the loves and the lives of the urban middle class. These are bad times, these are the times to work."
A Bengali novelist has remarked of Devi: "She is perhaps the only living author [in India] whose literary activities cannot be separated from her day to day living." Both in and outside India, there are few writers who offer as clear an example of writing as an act of social conscience and a function of individual will. Her life is a lesson in the idea that, indeed, one person can make a difference.
On August 31, 1997, at age seventy-one, Mahasweta Devi was conferred the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts. The award, the most prestigious in Asia, was given in recognition of her compassionate crusade through art and activism to claim for tribal peoples a just and honorable place in Indias national life.
Accepting the award in ceremonies in Manila, Devi said: "I will have a sense of fulfillment if more and more young writers took to unbeaten tracks. My India still lives behind a curtain of darkness. A curtain that separates the mainstream society from the poor and the deprived. But then why my India alone? Cannot one say the same for so many countries and societies today? As the century comes to an end, it is important that we all make an attempt to tear the curtain of darkness, see the reality that lies beyond and see our own true faces in the process."
Resil B. Mojares
Works by Mahasweta Devi (English Translations)
Imaginary Maps: Three Stories. Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Calcutta: Thema, 1984; New York: Routledge, 1995.
Bashai Tudu. Translated by Samik Bandyopadhyay and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Calcutta: Thema, 1990.
Paschim Banga Kheria Sabar Kalyan Samiti: An Outline. [Calcutta]: Paschim Banga Kheria Sabar Kalyan Samiti, 1994.
Dust on the Road: The Activist Writings of Mahasweta Devi. Calcutta: Seagull Books, 1997.
Mother of 1084. Translated by Samik Bandyopadhyay. Calcutta: Seagull Books, 1997.
Breast Stories. Translated Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Calcutta: Seagull Books, 1997.
Five Plays: Mother of 1084, Aajir, Bayen, Urvashi and Johnny, Water. Translated by Samik Bandyopadhyay. Calcutta: Seagull Books, 1997.
Rudali--From Fiction to Performance. With Usha Ganguli and translated by Anjum Katyal. Calcutta: Seagull Books, 1997.
Works by Other Writers
Chaudhuri, Amit, ed. The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature. London: Picador, 2001.
Contemporary Indian Literature: A Symposium. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1959.
Devi, Mahasweta. Interview by James R. Rush. Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, Manila, September 2, 1997.
Katyal, Anjum. "The Metamorphoses of Rudali," STQ: Seagull Theatre Quarterly 1 (January 1994): 524.
Nyrop, Richard F., et al. Area Handbook for India. Washington DC: American University, Foreign Area Studies, 1975.
Schermerhorn, R. A. Ethnic Plurality in India. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1978.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.
_________. In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. New York: Routledge, 1988.
Various interviews and correspondence with individuals familiar with Mahasweta Devi and her work; other primary documents.
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