Mahasweta Devi (1926-2016)

Wide Angle is our books and films segment at continnect.

On continnect, we remember the Indian author and activist Mahasweta Devi. She passed away on July 28th 2016. She is best known for her works such as Hajar Churashir Ma (Mother of 1084), Rudali (both were made into movies) and the Breast Stories

Family

Mahasweta Devi was one of the leading contemporary Bengali writer from India. Born in 1926, in Dhaka now in Bangladesh to a family of writers and artists. Her father Manish Ghatak was a poet and mother, Dharitri Devi, was a social worker and a writer. Famous filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak was her uncle. Her family moved to India after the 1947 partition. Mahasweta did her graduation and post-graduation in English. She married renowned Bengali playwright Bijon Bhattacharya and had a son Nabarun Bhattacharya, who is also a famous novelist.

Literature and Politics

During her lifetime, Mahasweta witnessed India’s struggle for independence, its partition in 1947 and the violent riots that ensued between the Hindu and Muslims. During the 1960s, she saw the birth and rise of the Naxalbari Movement. 1971 saw the Indo-Pak war which resulted in the creation of Bangladesh.

Mahasweta never shied away from politics. She was not just a writer. She was a journalist, a teacher and an activist, who highlighted the struggles of the tribal people in India, especially in the states of West Bengal, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. ‘She chose to work among the poorest of the poor’ in India. Mahasweta wrote about farmers, women and tribals, those who were marginalised, those who were oppressed and treated as outcastes by those in power. ‘She wrote extensively about the Lodha and Sabar people in Bengal in her novels, essays and journalistic pieces.’ She was even an active critic of the current political situation in West Bengal. While in 2011 she ‘supported West Bengal Chief MInister Mamata Banerjee’s promise of “poriborton” (change)’, Mahasweta soon criticised the Bengal CM for her intolerant nature.

We spoke with Nupur Sen, an avid reader of Bengali iterature. She shares her thoughts on Mahasweta’s writing. “As a writer, Mahasweta Devi has made her place in the hearts of many Bengali readers with her works on the lives and hardships of tribal women in West Bengal. Almost all her books and short stories deal with such social topics in order to empower the downtrodden communities. She has the ability to beautifully narrate an incident and bring it to life while keeping the language simple. “Hazar churaasir maa” for instance is one such book where the story takes us back to the Naxal hit zone and brings to life an ordinary incident. She is one of those writers who makes me want to go back and read a story over and over again.”

Works

Mahasweta leaves behind an enormous body of work including several novels, plays and short stories. Her work has been translated into English and several Indian Languages. Here’s a listof her literary work. Several of her works have been immortalised into movies. Mahasweta Devi has received numerous awards and recognition for her literature and social activism.

One of Mahasweta’s widely recongized story is ‘Draupadi’. Draupadi is the name of one of most famous woman protagonist from the Indian epic Mahabharata. But Mahasweta’s protagonist is a lower caste woman, not a high born. She is called Dopadi in the tribal dialect. She is hunted down, taken into to custody and repeatedly raped by the soldiers. But instead of being filled with shame, Draupadi stands tall.

Here’s an excerpt from the story

“Draupadi stands before him, naked. Thigh and pubic hair matted with dry blood. Two breasts, two wounds.
What is this? He is about to bark.
Draupadi comes closer. Stands with her hand on her hip, laughs and says, The object of your search, Dopdi Mejhen. You asked them to make me up, don’t you want to see how they made me?
Where are her clothes?
Won’t put them on, sir. Tearing them.
Draupadi’s black body comes even closer. Draupadi shakes with an indomitable laughter that Senanayak simply cannot understand. Her ravaged lips bleed as she begins laughing. Draupadi wipes the blood on her palm and says in a voice that is as terrifying, sky splitting, and sharp as her ululation, What’s the use of clothes? You can strip me, but how can you clothe me again? Are you a man?
She looks around and chooses the front of Senanayak’s white bush shirt to spit a bloody gob at and says, There isn’t a man here that I should be ashamed. I will not let you put my cloth on me. What more can you do? Come on, counter me-come on, counter me-?
Draupadi pushes Senanayak with her two mangled breasts, and for the first time Senanayak is afraid to stand before an unarmed target, terribly afraid.”

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