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Mahasweta Devi: Writer, Activist, Conscience-Keeper of Our Times

Kolkata: File Photo of noted author and social activist Mahasweta Devi who died at a Hospital in Kolkata on Thursday following prolonged illness. PTI Photo(PTI7_28_2016_000234B) *** Local Caption ***

Noted author and social activist Mahasweta Devi
1926-2016 

This is one obituary I wish I did not have to write.

The writer Mahasweta Devi breathed her last in Kolkata on July 28 but the activist in her wanted to live ‘for ever’. On many occasions we got talking about death; and invariably, in every such conversation she stated with firmly uttered words and as an absolute non-negotiable pronouncement, ‘I want to live forever.’ Yet, this was not her craving for immortality.

She had her own assessment of her literary works, and she never asked for praise from another. If anyone tried to praise her writings, she deeply detested it. If at all she had to listen to any praise, she used to remain completely silent and just keep staring at the speaker with a mix of a smile and a ‘not me’ sort of self-effacing gesture. The desire to live was for fighting injustice. There was no instance of injustice that did not leave her infuriated. Her activism did not spring from ideological positions. Though profoundly political, she did not swear by any known political philosophy or movement. Her activism sprang out of an instinct that is difficult to pin-point.

Born on January 14,  1926, Mahasweta was schooled at Gurudev’s Santiniketan and absorbed both the cultural strands in the environment there as well as the fervour of the freedom struggle. Married to Bijon Bhattachrya, an avowed Communist, she knew the entire range of IPTA and understood what Communism meant. In her more mature years, she had been involved in various movements in Bihar, Jharkhand, Bengal, Rajasthan and Manipur; but it was difficult for any of these movements and trends of thought to keep her ideologically straight-jacketed. Mahasweta Devi chose when to act, and she acted out of her own analysis of what justice was in a given case. Her analysis was quite often driven by a deep compassion for the silenced, the marginalised.

In the midst of turbulent times, as she was claimed by struggle after struggle, she retained four traits that were peculiarly hers. First, an unsettling sense of humour that she would display gently when she happened upon a stray comment.  Then, she had in her the innocence of a teenage village girl, a naivety that was difficult to diagnose. She also had a temper impossible to match, an impatience with snobbery which quickly unmasked even those with the greatest reputations. And, finally, she had an unusual weakness for old Khurshid songs.

It was difficult to say when she would start singing and render an entire song like “Mere Bachpan ke saathi, mujhe bhul na jaana.” It was impossible to predict when in the middle of the most polite conversation with persons she had not previously met, she would curtly dismiss civility and tell the person that he was a fraud. The station and degree of someone did not deter her. But, it was her innocence that stood out the most.

Nobody needs to be told anymore that she was one of the most remarkable writers of the 20th century. Her reputation had already spread in several countries outside India. With Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s translation of her stories, it became more firmly established. Apart from Tagore, I am not aware of any other Indian author whose complete works were translated in Italian, German, French and several other major languages. Major films were made from her stories by some of the greats in Indian cinema like Govind Nihalani and Kalpana Lajmi.

Kolkata: A file photo of noted writer, Jnanpith, Padma Vibhusan, Magsaysay award winner and social activist Mahasweta Devi who died at a Hospital in Kolkata on Thursday. PTI Photo(PTI7_28_2016_000250B) *** Local Caption ***

File photo Mahasweta Devi at a demonstration in Kolkata. Credit: PTI

I had known her through her work before I met her personally. After getting to know her, I had numerous opportunities to listen to her lectures and conversations. There was something strange about her ability to use the spoken word. Often she addressed audiences outside Bengal in Hindi. If one went by the rules of grammar, most of her sentences could be faulted. Yet, she managed to mesmerise audiences. She combined humility and an unbreakable determination, simplicity of words and complexity of ideas, leaving those who listened to her completely changed. I know so many individuals whose lives were shaped by just a few words coming from Mahasweta Devi. Some 15 years ago, we travelled across Maharashtra meeting adivasis as part of our campaign for the rights of denotified and nomadic tribes. Mahasweta, I wrote soon after, “brought to those poor and harassed people a boundless compassion, which they instantly understood though could they neither speak her language nor she theirs. She has a strange ability to communicate with the silenced, her best speech reserved for those to whom no one has spoken.” Today, it is clear that she had a presence, perhaps in the way that Mahatma Gandhi had. It changed you altogether by a nameless force beyond words.

I first met her when she was 72 and already a legend in India and beyond, with a Magsaysay award, a Jnanpith and a Padmashri. Yet, as we came closer, as she developed the practice of spending a week or ten days in Baroda with my wife and me, we realised how difficult her life had been and still was. For instance, even at the age of 75, Mahasweta Devi did not have a house of her own. She continued to stay in rented accommodation near the Ballygunj station and had to climb a flight of winding stairs to get into her flat. Her marriage had not been easy, and later her relationship with her son, a remarkably gifted poet, had not exactly been what it could be. When she was with us, in the anonymity and privacy of her new found home in Baroda, she came across as a lonely and a hugely misunderstood woman, much sinned against. Yet, she did not succumb to self-pity, nostalgia or fantasy. She was a realist to the core, and a crusader first and a crusader ever.

Her last visit to Baroda was when she was 85. She was still a bundle of energy with a will that could inspire her literary and activist admirers. But, after that, her bones started showing signs of fatigue.

Writers and artists live on beyond their time. Mahasweta’s work is so phenomenal that for centuries together it will continue to have an audience. Yet, that wonderful sense of humour, that fondness for song, that touching innocence which went into the making of a great literary phenomenon are gone out today. Mahasweta Devi’s demise leaves India with a void at a time when in quick succession we have lost several important public intellectuals K.G. Subramanyan, Narayan Desai, U.R. Ananthamurthy. The vacuum is far too big in times that are critical. Mahasweta’s departure makes it more glaring.