Perhaps one needs to rephrase the dictum, “the pen is mightier than the sword,” when one encounters the world of Mahasweta Devi. She was mighty both in holding the pen in one hand (artistic production) and the sword in the other (activism). Mahasweta died at the age of ninety on July 28, 2016, and over the course of her long life she became one of India’s leading writers of fiction in Bengali. She won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1979 (for Aranyer Adhikar), the prestigious Jnanpith Award in 1996 and the Ramon Magsaysay Award the following year, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2009, and counted Gayatri Spivak among her translators. She had written more than hundred books, including fiction and nonfiction about India’s tribal communities, Maoist insurgents and women. Whether she contributed to postcolonial literature or her works garnered literary responses mattered little or nothing to her. Unlike her famous playwright husband Bijan Bhattacharya, Mahasweta deliberately veered away from orthodox Marxism. She went beyond political agendas and set out for a greater cause of voicing those repressed by the state machinery.
Mahasweta Devi has left a legacy --- one of dissent, fiery rage and defiance against the atrocities that accompany “govermentality”i. Out of that flame another phoenix, Manaranjan Byapari, is born whose outcry is heard far and wide particularly against the inhuman treatment of Jharkhand’s dalit. Byapari pays a befitting tribute to Mahasweta, a mother to countless underdogs like him: “And thus bade farewell the great tree- the ‘Yggdrasil’ which reached the firmament, whose roots lie deep into underground, a very dear ‘Marang Dai’ to the Adivasi vanajatis who seethe in rage equal to that of the sun, holding the pen as the pointed sword for the sake of the poor, the dalits and the working masses. All these people fighting against the system of exploitation lost an uncompromising, fearless warrior. And I lost my mother.”
Born in Dhaka (of undivided Bengal) in 1926, Mahasweta witnessed the horrors of partition from close quarters. Her husband Bijan Bhattacharya was an active member of IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association), the cultural wing of the Communist Party of India. Her son Nabarun Bhattacharya also shared his father’s communist leanings. But Mahasweta refused to be a parliamentarian left all her life. Although her activism came to limelight during the Nandigram movement, she was already a sensation in the late 70s when she protested against the bonded labour of Palamau region (Choupal Movement).
Mahasweta Devi’s writing often engages with the much ignored tribal population of regions like Tejgadh and Palamu. She traveled far and wide like a keen anthropologist who would go to any length to be a part of the community’s life. She managed to transcend the politics of suspicion and mistrust that looms large on our communication with the “other.” Mahasweta also made several organizations to protect the rights of indigenous communities like Kheria Sobors, Munda, Lodhas and countless others. Ganesh Devy recounts with nostalgia in his essay “Kikiyario”: “Every time, I have felt that there are centuries of silence between the tribals and us and that they are offering the ‘Kikiyario’ as a bridge for us to cross that vast silence. Many times, I have been transposed to that other world of ecstasy and pain like a character in a Mahasweta Devi novel…”iii Kikiyari is a Gujrati term which is an “extremely sharp exclamation…a somewhat divine sound…This unscriptable cry…always tribal…[is] the most public expression of the most elemental substratum of their being.”iv Such tribal memories have no place in the hegemonic, state-authorized narratives. Tribal history is often treated as apocryphal and un-real. But such un- real narratives never become imaginary in Mahasweta’s writings. They shine like glow-worms in the jungle, lonely but steady. Their history lives with the likes of Birsa Munda, Dhani Munda, Chotti Munda, Mary Oraon, Bashai Tudu and others. Mahasweta has sharply derided mainstream colonialist history which hardly gives these aboriginals their due. One of her lasting achievements includes her untiring efforts to de-criminalize tribal communities who were systematically persecuted since the British Raj under the Criminal Tribes Act (1871).
Mahasweta’s multi-faceted activities resist any attempts at categorization. Her legacy continues to burn bright in our collective memory. “She seemed immortal,”v blurted Gayatri Sivak after hearing about Mahasweta’s death, for her death is a mere interruption, not a resolution to her eternal struggle for humanity’s sake. To quote Ganesh Devy: “What is the source of her remarkable memory, the frightening economy of her words, that great simplicity which having distributed life between the necessary and the unnecessary? Is she an adivasi taken to literature, or a writer drawn to the adivasis? Do I know Mahasweta Devi? Perhaps. Perhaps not.”vi
i “Governmentality” is a term coined by philosopher Michel Foucault, and refers to the way in which the state exercises control over, or governs, the body of its populace.
ii Manaranjan Byapari, July 29, 2016. Translated by self.
iii G. N. Devy, “Kikiyario: Adivasi Voice and Violence,” in A Nomad Called Thief: Reflections on Adivasi Silence (Orient Blackswan, 2006), .