Champion of the tribes
One of the most celebrated names in Indian literature, Mahasweta Devi not just fiercely wrote about the lives and struggles of the country’s tribal communities but also actively worked towards their welfare, says A Choudhury
“This is truly the age where the joota [shoe] is Japani [Japanese], patloon [pants] is Englishtani [British] and the topi [hat] is Roosi [Russian]. But the dil [heart] is always Hindustani (Indian). My country – proud, beautiful, hot, humid, cold sandy – is shining India. My country.” This impassioned speech by Indian literary icon Mahasweta Devi, with lines taken from a popular Hindi song ‘Mera joota hai Japani’, moved the audience to tears at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2006.
Clad in a humble cotton saree, with a pair of round framed spectacles and greying hair – Devi was a figure and a force to reckon with in Indian literature, specially in her mother tongue Bengali. Her sharp observation and clear narration of the lives of people, particularly of the country’s indigenous tribal communities, in the last few decades of the 20th century, were hailed remarkable. Born on January 14, 1926, in Dhaka (now in Bangladesh), she was a champion for the rights and causes, and a voice for these communities. What made her works strike a cord with readers (which they still do) was the use of tribal dialects that she picked up when she spent time with them during her research. A Padma Shri awardee, she toured extensively and lived with tribal communities in villages of West Bengal, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh for several years,and embodied their struggles and sacrifices. Two of her most unforgettable elaborate Bengali fiction in the genre are Aranyer Adhikar (The Right of the Forest or The Occupation of the Forest) and Hajar Chaurasir Maa (Mother of 1084). The latter is a poignant tale ofa grieving mother’s discovery of how and why her son, who is identified as corpse number 1084, lay dead in a police mortuary. The narrative was set against the backdrop of West Bengal during the Naxalite uprising of the 1970s that also stirred the tribal belts in parts of central and eastern India. Published in 1977, Aranyer Adhikar tells the story of the life of Birsa Munda, a freedom fighter and folk hero who, at the turn of the 20th century, stood up against the British for possession of forest land.
Devi felt that “a creative writer should have a social conscience… A duty towards society”. Following her own dictum, the identification with the community had not remained confined to her writings alone; she had rendered active support to the cause of tribal communities. Till her death in 2016 at the age of 90, she kept working for the people of Purulia (West Bengal), where she ran a welfare centre. The writer’s tryst with tribal issues began when she travelled through Palamau district in Bihar and came face-to-face with the profundities of tribal life. Realising how they had been denied the benefits of development, Devi’s mission had been to see that tribal citizens get social justice. Not just tribal welfare, the litterateur also wrote courageously about women – one of the most celebrated being Rudali (a short fiction portraying the life and struggles of Sanichari, who becomes a rudali, women who are hired to cry during the death of someone from a wealthy family).
A remarkable feature of her writing was that despite the strong undercurrent of political scenario of that time, her works neither had been didactic nor did they suffer from prevalent ideologies and motifs which characterised literary writings of her time. Weaving history, myth and current political realities, she brought to light icons of modern India through the narratives of the tribals. For her outstanding contribution to the enrichment of Indian literature she was bestowed with the Bharatiya Jnanpith in 1996. The following year she was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay that is touted as the ‘Asian Nobel Prize’ for her compassionate crusade through art and activism to fight for the rights of the tribal people. Also recognised with the Padma Vibhushan, Devi’s works are honest documents of the times she lived in, centered around the tribal communities. It is by this virtue, coupled with the author’s keen yet blunt opinions weaved in with an almost innocent realism that her works continue to find readers even today.