Hindu civilization is so old, deep, and
pervasive, one easily forgets that one-sixth of India's population today is
formed by the indigenous descendants of an even older civilization. In their
forest habitat, India's so-called tribals evolved apart from the Hindus, who
viewed them as beneath civilization. The colonial British labeled them
"criminal." When the economic juggernaut of modern times depleted the
forests, the stigmatized tribals were left to survive on the stingy fringes
of India's colonial and post-colonial economy, often in relationships of
cruel dependency. As a result, says Bengali writer and activist Mahasweta
Devi indigenous people today are "suffering spectators of the India that is
travelling towards the twenty-first century."
Born in Dhaka to a family of poets, writers, and artists, Devi was molded as
a child in the rich milieu of Bengali high culture. She studied at
Rabindranath Tagore's famous open university at Santiniketan and, in the
decade after India's independence, began seriously to write.
With her first book in 1956, she established a modus operandi. To
reconstruct the life of a nineteenth-century female chieftain who died
bravely resisting the British, Devi plumbed historical records and traversed
her heroine's erstwhile kingdom collecting myths, legends, and ballads.
Using similar techniques in over a hundred original works that followed, she
created a distinctive personal style by interlacing literary, bureaucratic,
and "street" Bengali with tribal idioms and by calling upon an eclectic
array of classical and modern images.
In 1965, 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 of absentee landlordism and
debt-bondage on indigenous society, especially on women. In India's other
tribal districts, too, she subsequently observed, people led a "sub-human
existence." There was no education, no health care, no roads, no income.
This exposure focused Devi's work. A watershed novel in 1973 was Mother of
1084 in which a grieving mother comes to understand why her murdered son
joined a violent uprising. In a stream of subsequent stories, Devi cleverly
fused indigenous oral histories with contemporary events to explore the
bitter and oftenbloody relationship between tribal communities and India's
domineering classes and systems. In her stories, real women and men who rose
defiantly to confront oppressors are transformed into mythical heroes.
Alongside her creative writing, Devi bombarded the government with complaint
letters and published a profusion of articles documenting abuses by police,
landlords, politicians, and officials against tribal communities.
Passionately, she made their cause her cause.
Beginning in the 1970s, Devi intervened directly. She helped indigenous
Indians lodge grievances, set aside tribal rivalries, and achieve their own
development. Through the Kheria-Shabar Welfare Society, one of several
organizations she helped to launch, members of West Bengal's poorest tribal
community are now planting trees, irrigating parched fields, producing
handicrafts, accumulating savings, improving their health, and learning to
read and write. At annual fairs--Devi's idea--they showcase their new
products and celebrate in ceremonies and plays the values of literacy,
sobriety, and self-assertion.
Devi's searing stories and novels not only give voice to India's forgotten
tribals but also stress the profound subordination of women in Indian
society. In 1996, she was accorded India's highest literary prize. "She has
given us great literature," says a fellow writer. "It makes us question
ourselves." This is Devi's goal. For too long, Bengali literature "has been
plagued by an atrophy of conscience," she says. "A conscientious writer has
to take a firm stand in defense of the exploited."
In electing Mahasweta Devi to receive the 1997 Ramon Magsaysay Award for
Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts, the board of
trustees recognizes her compassionate crusade through art and activism to
claim for tribal peoples a just and honorable place in India's national