Would Mahasweta Devi have been happy with the direction India’s fortunes seem to be taking?
Like many great authors, Mahasweta Devi was many things to many people. In a literary career spanning six decades, from the publication of her first novel Jhansir Rani in 1956 to the yet-unpublished autobiography she was working on at the time of her death, she wrote a vast amount of fiction and huge chunks of non-fiction, including some superb reportage from largely unrecognised and unacknowledged parts of the country she loved, and much else besides.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to sum up a writer as prolific and protean as her in the space of a single article, yet it might be possible to ask: what would she likely have said about the path her beloved country is traversing now?
In one of my few meetings with her, decades ago, I had asked her, with the cheekiness and arrogance of youth, “Mahasweta-di, what do have to say about the fact that the people you write about – the poor, the illiterate, adivasis and so on – will never read what you have to say about them?” Since this conversation was taking place in Santiniketan, a place she loved and hated in equal measure, but could never ignore for the effect it had on her life – she did not, as I had feared, cut me short with her famous dismissive curtness. (Much later, I came to know this was not the first time someone had asked her this question, she must have had an answer ready on the tip of her tongue.) Instead, she looked at me, peered intently at my face for what seemed a lifetime, and said, “Why don’t you answer that question yourself?”
Mahasweta Devi, I realised, did not write for the people in her stories, she wrote about them for you and me – the urban, educated, relatively privileged, affluent and empowered so-called middle-class into which she had been born and within (both ‘with’ and ‘in’) which she remained all her life. For all her forays into the world of tribal emancipation and uplift, she remained a proud Bengali from Kolkata, someone who held dear those values which she felt formed the backbone of the middle-class, whose members she was most interested in addressing. After her death last year I also realised that though many people said many things about her, that she was a fighter, a fiery champion of the marginalised and downtrodden, an inspirational writer-activist; a romantic at heart, a funny and warm person, a public intellectual and so forth and so on, virtually no one stated the obvious: that she was what she had done for decades for her living – a teacher.
If one makes this fairly obvious connection, much of what she wrote, said and did becomes clear. Like all experienced teachers, she knew (and said so to me in one of our later conversations, which was ostensibly about Rabindranath Tagore) that one could not really teach anyone anything, one could only hold up (tuley dhora jay) something to show a person – and it was entirely up that person to learn something if she so desired. The best teachers are those who remain curious and enthusiastic learners all their lives. This desire to learn, and to communicate the joys of acquiring knowledge/insight/what-have-you to others made Mahasweta-di a lifelong teacher (and a lifelong student too, of course).
She was also, in the best sense of the term, a sophisticated cosmopolitan intellectual who enjoyed but did not covet the good things in life (good food, good drink, a laugh with good friends, a good movie and so on) – when I see how she is sometimes represented as a dour, anti-bourgeois feminist, I don’t quite know whether to cry or laugh (I think Mahasweta-di would have done the latter).
Finally, she was also an extremely proud Indian – those who see stories like Draupadi and Giribala or works like Aranyer Adhikar as somehow anti-national (as the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad apparently does), fail to see the point Mahasweta Devi keeps making over and over again in her writings – that to be a true patriot, one must constantly re-examine and, if necessary, reformulate one’s most dearly held and cherished beliefs and values. In this, she was echoing one of her heroes, Rabindranath Tagore, who spent a lifetime creating things only to critique them and go on to make other things that he felt were better, only to find fault with them and go on to… well you get the idea.
In a revealing but little-watched interview with Rajiv Mehrotra, Mahasweta Devi mentions someone who asked her if she would accept a national award if she was nominated for one, “I am an Indian and if it’s a national award I would be proud to accept it,” she says, patriotism and pride shining through every syllable of her voice. So yes, she was critical of the many failures of the Indian state and of certain sections and classes within it. But Mahasweta never lost faith in the idea of India that was a syncretic organic whole – one where there was space for diversity and difference, where there was justice and equity and no one was discriminated against on the basis of creed or caste or political affiliation, where everyone got a chance to make a decent honest living and enjoy the simple pleasures of life.
To get back to the question I had started with: Would she have been happy with the direction India’s fortunes seem to be taking? I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t have been happy and equally certain that she wouldn’t have hesitated a moment to make her displeasure amply clear, through her fiction, her essays and speeches and, perhaps most of all, through the way she led her life and hoped, even if she did not always expect, others to lead theirs. This is, perhaps, the one lesson we can take away with us as we look back on a year without Mahasweta-di.
Samantak Das teaches literature at Jadavpur University, Kolkata.