Mahasweta Devi, Champion of the Underdog Who Took on the Left Front in Bengal

Despite her popularity and her solidarity with the oppressed, the Left and the avant garde writers of West Bengal never really liked the celebrated author.

Celebrated Bengali author Mahasweta Devi. Credit: PTI

Celebrated Bengali author Mahasweta Devi. Credit: PTI

By the time Mahasweta Devi died on July 28 at the age of 91, people had taken her presence in the public sphere of Bengal as natural and eternal. She had grown old and could no longer write the kind of novels that had made her famous years back when the embers of revolution were still there in Bengal’s air, but her occasional appearances and statements in support of various social and other public causes were by now taken for granted. Her support for the Trinamool government, in particular for Mamata Bannerjee as the public voice in Bengal for the lower classes, made the Left and leftist intellectuals of Bengal wary of her. They did not speak ill of her openly, but in private conversations the derision was evident.

At the same time, the literary avant garde also rarely spoke of her works. For them, hers was an old conventional style; her fiction and non-fiction writings were too straight, too direct, and with less acrobatic intellectual and linguistic feats how could her writings be considered fit to be placed on the high literary table? Of course there were exceptions. Cultured readers took note of the physicality of her stories like Draupadi and the characters there, but in general her writings were not the stuff of which high literary theories could be concerned with. Possibly that was why, when our Gramscians discussed the intricacies of what constituted organic intellectuals, they could not bring themselves to think that there was one right in front of them.

Mahasweta Devi was born on January 14, 1926 in a distinguished family in Dhaka. Her father, Manish Ghatak was a poet and a novelist and a member of the avant garde literary movement in the 1930s, the Kallol (thunder or sound of waves). Her mother Dharitri Devi, was a writer and a social worker, whose brothers were Sankha Chaudhury the sculptor and Sachin Chaudhury the founder-editor of the Economic and Political Weekly. Manish’s brother was the famous filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak.

Initially schooled in Dhaka, she enrolled in Tagore’s Visva Bharati in Santiniketan to complete a B.A. in English. She finished her education with an M.A. in English from Calcutta University. In 1947, she married the renowned playwright Bijon Bhattacharya, who was a founding member of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). Their son, Nabarun, born in 1948 was to go on to become a radical critic, and one of the foremost innovative writers of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century Bengal. Mahasweta went on to write a large number of novels, short stories, pieces of reportage, essays, and editorial pieces. Awards and honours came to her in similarly large numbers, though she remained unimpressed.

Typically direct and spartan, Mahasweta remained an odd person in the high cultural circles of Bengal during the long period of Left Front rule. The Left could not abuse her (also because of her family pedigree and Left connections and affiliations, including her own) but it also could not digest her fulminations against the LF’s goons bent upon grabbing the land of the adivasis in the name of development. They had to also tolerate her indignation at the neglect of Dalit students by the Left.

It was probably from the late 1980s and early 1990s that Mahasweta began to be recognised as the public voice of protest against land grab, neglect of the Dalits, industrial closures, and state repression of people’s rights. Protest writings incessantly flowed from her pen. Probably her early stint as a journalist when in the early 1960s she was teaching in Bijoygarh College, a suburban educational institution where women from lower class backgrounds came to get an education, helped her in this. It was also during those years that she began creative writing. Yet, what was striking was the enormous amount of research into the lives of communities like the Lodhas and Shabars, and in general women and Dalits that she put in before she would sit down to write. It will be important for any future biographer to find out how she came to know intimately so many individual lives belonging to indigenous communities, but also Dalits, oppressive upper-caste landowners, moneylenders, and government officials.

She travelled through the countryside a lot and penned series of reports in Bengali and English. There must have been something deeply inspirational for her in these visits; as she said once, “I constantly come across the reappearance, in various forms – of folklore, ballads, myths and legends – carried by ordinary people across generations. For me, the endless source of ingredients for writing is in these amazingly noble, suffering human beings. Why should I look for my raw material elsewhere, once I have started knowing them? Sometimes it seems to me that my writing is really their doing.”

Probably again, her early life of working in a post office – from where she was fired for her communist beliefs – and doing odd jobs like selling soap and writing letters in English for illiterate people, had to do with the way she looked at the world. Remarkably, and unlike some other creative writers, she did not sentimentalise the theme of refugee-hood, which she could have done easily.

She had joined and led along with others the movement against the industrial policy of the Left Front regime in West Bengal that revolved around forcible acquisition of land, on behalf  of big industrial houses at throwaway prices. In the same way, she had opposed the policy of commercialisation of land around Santiniketan. The policy had been in the interests of the rich and affluent of Bengal, who longed for a metropolis outside Kolkata.  Today, if the struggles in Singur and Nandigram are known all over India, it is because her stance contributed to the mobilisation of intellectuals, writers, and activists.

She began supporting the Trinamool Congress in this background, and remained through the last years of her life Mamata’s ally and inspiration. It was not without reason that Mamata Bannerjee said on her death that while India had lost a great writer, Bengal had lost a glorious mother, and she a personal guide. The government decided to accord her a state funeral, and she was put to rest with full police honours and a gun salute.

Yet understandable as the desire of the government was, could the chief minister not have arranged to have had her last rites in a place inhabited by the indigenous communities, perhaps in the Junglemahals, and laid her to rest there? Would it not have been a more befitting tribute to her memory? And what shall we say of public tastes in West Bengal, where, after Mahasweta Devi’s death, two of the most well known dailies gave more prominence to the death – by murder or suicide – of a well-known society figure.

Ranabir Samaddar is Distinguished Chair in Forced Migration studies, Calcutta Research Group. He can be contacted at [email protected].