Body of Work

People, power and prophecy in the writing of Mahasweta Devi

01 September, 2016

SOMETIME IN 2000, I watched the actor Sabitri Heisnam play the eponymous protagonist in a stage adaptation of Mahasweta Devi’s 1976 story ‘Draupadi.’ Set against the backdrop of the Naxalite movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, ‘Draupadi’ tells of a woman Adivasi insurgent in the fictitious but recognisable forested belt of “Jharkhani” on the Bengal-Bihar border, working in tandem with a group of communist guerrillas from the city. Draupadi gets caught by the military, and is serially raped as part of a ritual chastisement session. Then, in a throwback to the public shaming of Draupadi from the Mahabharata, to which Mahasweta adds a defiant twist, the woman casts off her sari, refusing to cover up the wounds inflicted on her by the state.

The audience gasped in disbelief as Heisnam stood completely naked on stage, her slight frame suddenly grown bigger against the dark backdrop. Then, like a predatory bird, she unfurled her arms, taking slow, measured steps towards her uniformed attackers. The soldiers recoiled in horror as Draupadi thrust her mangled body towards them, wearing her scars like weapons more powerful than their bayoneted guns.

The play attracted its share of controversy for showing a woman actor nude on stage. Four years later, in July 2004, members of a women’s social movement group in Manipur stripped down to their bare skin to protest the custodial rape and death of the 34-year-old Thangjam Manorama. A few days earlier, on the night of 10 July, Manorama had been picked up by the Assam Rifles, a state paramilitary unit, from her Imphal home, for her supposed links to the banned People’s Liberation Army. Around forty women demonstrated in front of the Assam Rifles headquarters, naked, holding up banners saying “Indian Army Rape Us.” The radical protest made media headlines, but probably not that much difference to the lives of women in Manipur, where the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which allowed the Assam Rifles to act with such impunity, still prevails.

Many remarked on how Mahasweta seemed to have anticipated the future. Since then, there have been other such instances of foresight, just as remarkable, though the connection between them and Mahasweta’s writing may be less obvious.

Earlier this year, Rohith Vemula, a Dalit PhD candidate at the University of Hyderabad, hanged himself, leaving behind a note that included the line, “My birth is my fatal accident.” Vemula’s death stirred memories of 1992, when Mahasweta ran a sustained campaign in support of 27-year-old Chuni Kotal, the first woman university graduate from the Lodha-Shabar community, an Adivasi group from rural West Bengal. The Lodha-Shabar people, listed as a criminal tribe in British India, have since been “de-notified,” but the stigma still sticks—or, at any rate, did in 1990s Bengal. During her Masters’ course at Vidyasagar University, 150 kilometres west of Kolkata, Kotal was systematically harassed by professors and administrators, who openly challenged an Adivasi woman’s aspirations to higher education. As it became clear that the university-appointed commission of inquiry set up on the basis of her complaints would do nothing to restrain her bullies, and her dream of attaining a postgraduate degree might never materialise, Kotal took her own life on 16 August 1992.

Afterwards, a state-appointed commission of inquiry reported that only Kotal herself was responsible for her death. Mahasweta found this unacceptable and resolved to have the case reinvestigated. She wrote scathing articles in the Economic and Political Weekly, and in the Bengali magazine Bortika, whose editorship she had taken over in 1980, turning it from a journal of poetry to a platform for communities largely ignored by the media. In 1982, Kotal herself had published an account in the magazine of her journey—from a poor Adivasi family to clearing her school-leaving exams against seemingly insurmountable odds. Mahasweta criticised the government’s apathy, questioned the indifference of Kolkata’s intellectuals to Kotal’s death, wrote to the state’s chief minister, Jyoti Basu, and did everything she could to initiate a Central Bureau of Investigation or judicial inquiry, which never happened. Kotal became yet another statistic in the history of prejudice towards India’s Dalits and Adivasis, but not before, or so Mahasweta wrote in EPW, she had “ripped off the mask” of a supposedly tolerant, liberal, aesthetically inclined and egalitarian West Bengal.

MAHASWETA DEVI, who passed away on 28 July this year, was born to two writers, Manish and Dharitri Ghatak, in 1926. In an article in Anandabazar Patrika, Mahasweta reminisced about growing up in Dhaka surrounded by a library of several thousand titles, maintained by her maternal grandmother, Kironmoyee Devi. She went to study at Tagore’s Shantiniketan, and at 21 married Bijon Bhattacharya, a playwright, actor and frontman of the Indian People’s Theatre Association—the cultural wing of the Communist Party of India. Sachin Chaudhuri, the founder-editor of the Economic Weekly, which later became EPW, was her maternal uncle.

Given such a background, it is not surprising that Mahasweta would go on to write politically charged fiction. Still, having full-on, parallel careers as a writer and a social activist was unprecedented, not only in her illustrious family but also for a Bengali woman.

Since the publication of her first novel in 1956, Mahasweta produced about a hundred novels and collections of stories, along with scores of essays, newspaper articles and columns, as well as plays, translations and children’s textbooks. The prolific output has partly been in aid of paying the bills. She would often take long, unpaid leaves from teaching English at Kolkata’s Bijoygarh College to do research and write, at a time when the remuneration for writers was paltry and irregular. In 1984, she quit the post to write full-time.

“In all my writings I have tried to present the subaltern point of view,” Mahasweta said in an interview published as an appendix to the English translation of her first novel. RENUKA PURI / INDIAN EXPRESS ARCCHIVE

Despite her deep commitment to writing, unlike many of her fellow litterateurs, Mahasweta has never been only a writer. Her compassion for the marginalised and dispossessed communities she wrote about led her to participate directly in their lives. The dividing line between creative space and social concern did not exist in Mahasweta’s world.

As her long-time research associate Maitreya Ghatak writes in his introduction to Dust on the Road, a set of Mahasweta’s essays that he translated and collected,

Mahasweta Devi is a one-person resource centre for people in distress, a role that started demanding a considerable part of her time in 1981 and still continues, with no signs of abating, sometimes leaving her little privacy or time for other activities, particularly creative writing. A large number of people from many parts of the state, mostly remote villages, approach her with their problems … Many of them stay with her during their visits.

Although, in an interview a few years ago, Mahasweta insisted that she did not set out to be a writer with a social agenda—that she just “felt compelled” to write about the inequities she saw around her—from the 1990s onwards she produced less fiction than she used to because most of her time was taken up with activist writing. Then again, perhaps the difference between literature and journalism is in this case irrelevant. Mahasweta was, at the end of the day, a seeker of truth. Urgency and passion underlie each piece of her writing, whatever form it takes.

In her teens, Mahasweta rejected the advances of a cousin who tried to court her. To an emerging Left-leaning intellectual with friends in the Communist Party of India, the notion of middle-class romantic love seemed at odds with her politics. Successively, her commitment to social activism took precedence over family, relationships and personal time, gradually elbowing out writing that was not necessarily meant to serve the less privileged. The attention she started giving to her ever-growing family of people in distress meant that she no longer had time to write voluminous historical novels such as the 1964 Amrita Sanchay, or the achingly beautiful short stories about the adventures of teenage protagonists, which she published in Sandesh, a magazine edited by the filmmaker Satyajit Ray, in the 1980s. Until a few years ago, she would be seen at handicrafts fairs selling decorative items made from grass and bamboo by Adivasis from the Kheria-Shabar community. Naveen Kishore, a close confidant of Mahasweta’s and the publisher of most of the English translations of her work, mentioned while introducing her at a literary festival in 2013 that when she decides to put her weight behind a social cause, her favourite slogan has always been “Body phele debo” (I will serve with my body for as long as it holds together).

In 2006, 80-year-old Mahasweta travelled with the social activist Medha Patkar to Singur, a village in the Hooghly district of West Bengal, in a show of solidarity with a peasant resistance against the state government effort to redistribute land. Nearly a thousand acres of fine agricultural land were seized by force from peasants and turned over to the Tata group, which wanted to set up a small-car factory. Mahasweta was, at the time, writing a daily column in Dainik Statesman, criticising West Bengal’s ruling Left Front alliance for its “extreme arrogance and anti-people policies.” She felt it was important to be physically present alongside Singur’s dispossessed peasants, to demonstrate her support for the unregistered sharecroppers, who were not eligible for compensation for the land they were set to lose.

I remember watching her speak on 14 November the following year, standing on a makeshift platform in Kolkata’s Esplanade area. Nearly a hundred thousand people were out on the streets for a spontaneous citizens’ march after villagers in Nandigram—like Singur, marked for land acquisition as part of the state government’s industrialisation drive—opposed the setting up of a Special Economic Zone and were forcibly evicted. Addressing the rally, Mahasweta said, “Today, we are all called Nandigram,” bringing to mind 1970s Kolkata, where the slogan “Amaar naam, tomaar naam, Vietnaam” (My name, your name, we are all called Vietnam) was often raised in solidarity with Vietnam’s anti-imperialist resistance against the US invasion of the country.

One of Mahasweta’s most widely read novels, Hajar Churashir Ma (Mother of 1084), published 1974, is set in that era of dissidence and repression in West Bengal. In 1971, after Naxalite rebels started annihilating class enemies, many young people with tacit or suspected Naxalite connections were rounded up by the police, maimed during interrogations and murdered en masse in staged encounters. The Naxalites approached Mahasweta to write a tell-all account of the state’s actions. She chose to present the story through the viewpoint of a grieving mother, who learns of her son’s revolutionary links only after he is killed by the police. Overnight, Sujata, a society hostess and self-assured career woman, is reduced to being the mother of corpse number 1084, made to deal with a set of new realities in her life. She must visit the morgue, answer calls from the police at ungodly hours, step inside a slum to meet the family of her son’s dead colleague. These jarring experiences, signifying the end of the world as Sujata knew it, also bring into focus the fragile nature of her affluent and therefore apparently secure life. The pent-up anguish of having to put up with an unfaithful husband and grown-up children eager to hush up rather than mourn the death in the family eventually bursts out.

The politically unstable, violence-prone and morally coruscating milieu in West Bengal’s cities and small towns in the 1960s and 1970s appears again in stories such as ‘Dheebar’ (Fisherman), ‘Chhuri’ (Knife) and ‘Shareer’ (Body), included in the collection Bait, translated by Sumanta Banerjee. In these urban noir tales, peopled with gangsters, prostitutes, desperate policemen, debauched politicians and fresh-faced revolutionaries, Mahasweta recreated the tensions between an aspirational middle class and an emerging underclass often engaged in dodgy occupations, as both tried to make a living in post-Partition West Bengal. She observed with an unsparing gaze how the former, earlier revolted by the very idea of having anything to do with the latter, began grudgingly admitting them into their own spaces. Her stories about the collapse of the old social order and changing middle-class values were told in a precise and direct, if somewhat uneven, language.

Around the same time, in films such as Meghe Dhaka Tara, Komal Gandhar and Jukti Takko Aar Gappo, Mahasweta’s paternal uncle, the maverick filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak, was tackling similar themes about the Bengali middle-class intellectual, caught in an existential crisis. Both Ghatak and Mahasweta evolved their own aesthetic vocabularies, which were rather similar in ethos. Ghatak filmed with handheld cameras, using unconventional framings and low-angle shots, sometimes reducing his protagonists to heads pushed down to the bottom of a panoramic screen, or fragmenting and exaggerating their unbeautiful features in extreme close-ups. Mahasweta, too, did not shy away from admitting the imperfect into her work. She wrote in a rough-hewn Bengali, full of terse, stichomythic dialogue. The strategic juxtaposition of academic jargon, media-speak and the language of the street, peppered with mangled derivatives of English words (such as “bodar” for “border”) and colloquialisms (such as “controller,” meaning a local mafia don) creates a postmodern world of sounds and images, challenging the reader’s assumptions about standard, literary Bengali. It is as if Mahasweta wanted to mock the urban Bengali bhadraloks’ tendency to theorise and quote from books, while remaining alienated from the ground realities.

IN 1956, Mahasweta’s first novel, Jhansir Rani (The Queen of Jhansi), offered a peek into the inner courtyard of a spirited leader of India’s first war of Independence, in 1857. Lakshmi Bai, who ruled the state of Jhansi, went down fighting, trying to defend Gwalior against the British, in June 1858. Having read several accounts of her life in English and Marathi (with help from Maharashtrian housewives living in Kolkata), Mahasweta tried to imagine the private world of the woman who was a single mother to an infant son, and who also rode a horse and fought on the front lines of battle. Looking to write an alternative biography of Lakshmi Bai—who was either lionised as a nationalist hero, or relegated to the footnotes of history by historians such as RC Majumdar, who held that the 1857 uprising suffered from a lack of leadership—Mahasweta travelled to Gwalior and Jhansi. To her pleasant surprise, most people she met in the region seemed to have inherited memories connected to Lakshmi Bai. This included a bunch of women hairdressers and manicurists whose ancestors attended on the queen. They showed Mahasweta the spot where Lakshmi Bai hosted the Haridra Kumkum festival, to which each woman in Jhansi, regardless of caste or class, was invited. Under the queen’s watch, the ritual, traditionally observed by women to wish each other a long, uninterrupted married life, turned into a celebration of happy sorority.

“In all my writings I have tried to present the subaltern point of view,” Mahasweta said in an interview published as an appendix to The Queen of Jhansi, translated into English by Sagoree and Mandira Sengupta. “To evaluate a war in history one has to take into account the views of the people who pay for that war; emotionally, physically and financially.”

Mahasweta’s connection with grass-roots India intensified when she travelled to Singhbhum, in Bihar, to do the groundwork for Aranyer Adhikar (Right to the Forest), published in 1977. This is a work of historical fiction based on the life of the Adivasi leader Birsa Munda. In the 1890s, Munda spearheaded an uprising against a British attempt to replace the traditional subsistence farming system practiced by Santhals with commercial agriculture. An expert in guerrilla warfare, Munda gave his mighty adversaries a hard time until his capture and somewhat mysterious death in a Ranchi jail in 1900, at the age of 25. The extensive research and travel Mahasweta undertook to write Aranyer Adhikar inspired her to go even deeper. Travelling across large swathes of India’s Adivasi hinterland, in Bihar and West Bengal, she stumbled upon unlikely heroes, who did not have the mythical aura of Birsa Munda. A whole new world of narratives, myths, rituals and ethnocultural experiences opened up, and Mahasweta felt a moral responsibility to bring these to a wider audience. This she did, in a number of her subsequent works.

“I believe in documentation,” Mahasweta writes in her introduction to Bitter Soil, a collection of four stories set in Bihar, translated into English by Ipsita Chanda. “After reading my work, the reader should be able to face the truth of facts, and feel duly ashamed of the true face of India. ... I say ‘India’, though the location of these stories is Palamau. Palamau is a mirror of India.”

Bengali writers had been there before her, but Mahasweta came away from the Adivasi belts with very different stories from theirs. Palamau, an extremely readable 1882 travelogue by the writer and journalist Sanjibchandra Chattopadhyay, an older sibling of the more widely known novelist Bankimchandra, is still regarded as a remarkable study in cultural anthropology. But Mahasweta’s take on the lives of Adivasi women is the antithesis of Chattopadhyay’s gentleman-tourist marvelling at the strangeness and beauty of the bare breasts of dark Kol women etched against the moonlit sky. Chattopadhyay would probably have baulked at the scarred naked breasts in Mahasweta’s stories, where they are often reduced to expendable, truncated body parts on which men have left the imprints of their power and ownership. The theme of tortured, lacerated breasts figures in ‘Draupadi,’ and again in the 1987 story ‘Stanadayini’ (Breast-giver). Jashoda, the main character of the latter story, is used like a milch cow, to suckle the children of her rich employers—and a sizeable brood of her own, as she has to keep breeding children to continue to lactate. This goes on for 30 years, until she gets breast cancer. The woman once venerated as a miracle for perennially supplying milk is reduced to a revolting mess of burst capillaries and putrefaction, dying alone in a hospital, shunned by her family and her long line of “milk-sons.”

In the 1996 short story ‘Choli ke Peeche’ (Behind the Bodice), a high-profile photographer, Upin, clicks Gangor, a wage labourer in a brick kiln in a fictitious small town, possibly in Bihar, breastfeeding her baby. When the photos are published, Gangor is taken to be a loose woman—and so becomes easy prey for the local policemen. She gets gang-raped over and over again, until only “two dry scars” are left where her breasts used to be. When Gangor meets Upin again, she forces him to look at the ruin he has brought upon her. Overwhelmed by guilt and remorse, Upin loses his mind, running amok until he meets with a gory end.

Aranyak, a novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, serialised in the magazine Prabasi from 1937 to 1939, offers another telling comparison. Bandyopadhyay was one of Bengal’s finest exponents of modernist prose, replete with tender descriptions of the minutiae of daily life. He mined his own experiences as a land dealer’s agent in forested, Adivasi areas of Bihar to create Satyacharan, the novel’s protagonist. Satyacharan, like Upin, suffers from guilt over his inability to protect the vulnerable, but his romantic brooding at being complicit in the rampant deforestation of a pristine, virginal landscape would be out of place in Mahasweta’s unsparing fictional universe. His utopian fantasy—he imagines the home of an Adivasi princess in a clearing deep inside the forest, protected, as if by magic, from the tentacles of the realtor—is very different from what Mahasweta’s urban characters would take home from a brush with Adivasi life.

The city-bred, do-gooder protagonists of Mahasweta’s stories who arrive, armed with university degrees, in the primordial world of unmitigated hunger, deprivation and blind faith, are usually far more down to earth than the dreamy-eyed Satyacharan. In ‘Draupadi,’ the Naxalite leader Arijit is quick to rationalise sacrificing his Adivasi colleague when he senses the military dragnet closing in on her. “If Comrade Dopdi arrives late, we will not remain,” he says. “No comrade will let the others be destroyed for her own sake.”

Of course, the inscrutable ways of India’s indigenous cultures can baffle even genuinely well intentioned outsiders. In the 1987 story ‘Pterodactyl, Puran Sahay and Pirtha,’ Puran Sahay, a journalist, arrives in a famine-riddled Adivasi pocket of Madhya Pradesh, intent on “putting Pirtha on the map.” Through his reports, Puran hopes to draw the attention of the powers that be, and so bring aid to Pirtha’s suffering population. But he gets distracted by mysterious drawings on a cave wall, depicting a giant winged creature. The drawings seem prehistoric, but could just as well be the work of a young lad from the village. Unable to decode the images, a restless Puran—exasperated at the failure of his university education to provide useful leads—turns to his friend, the local sub-divisional officer, who helps to put the situation in context, asking, “You will understand them with your urban mentality? You will fathom the Indian Ocean with a foot-ruler?” Puran leaves Pirtha, still confounded, wondering if there was anything to infer from the strange images in the first place, or if they weren’t their own footnote, “at once both myth and analysis.”

The scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak writes in her introduction to Imaginary Maps, a collection of her translations of Mahasweta’s stories that includes ‘Pterodactyl,’ “I have no doubt that we must learn to learn from the original, practical, ecological philosophers of the world, through the slow, attentive, mind-changing singularity that deserves the name of love.”

Indeed, Mahasweta’s band of unlettered repositories of wisdom, those men and women who seem to have issued out of the rough, unfarmed soil of India’s Adivasi outback, are sometimes capable of not just changing how we see, but also ushering in a new world order for us to experience and acknowledge. Like Draupadi, who has the “black blood of Champabhumi” coursing through her veins, endowing her with an intuitive ability to interpret cues provided by nature, being unconstrained by the baggage of book learning, the unlikely Adivasi heroes in Mahasweta’s stories bring about drastic changes in the old dispensations that have allowed the unmitigated dehumanisation of the marginalised. These dramatic reversals are sometimes achieved through acts of violence.

Mary Oraon, in the 1978 story ‘Shikar’ (The Hunt), is twice marginalised, being the offspring of unmarried parents, a Santhal woman and an Australian man. She is an Adivasi and a bastard. Mary’s cold-blooded murder of a timber smuggler, who lusted after both her body and the natural resources of the aboriginal landscape she inhabits, helps her transcend these twin, imposed social identities. She takes a ritual bath in a canal after the assassination, and sheds the last traces of the humiliations she has suffered as she walks, alone and unafraid, towards a new life, following railway tracks under a starlit sky.

The story ‘Bicchan’ (Seed), from 1977, focusses on Dulan Ganju, who comes from a tribe that has traditionally made a living skinning dead animals. Dulan, like Mary Oraon, goes through a cathartic experience, in his case after executing his upper-caste landlord to avenge the killing of his son Dhatua. Earlier, the shrewd landlord had palmed off to Dulan a sterile, arid plot of land. Post-murder, Dulan revisits the patch, which is now growing tall, healthy rice plants, its soil apparently made fertile by the bones and flesh of assassinated peasants, including Dhatua.

Slowly Dulan climbs up to the machan. A tune in his heart. Stubbornly disobedient. Returning time and again. Dhatua made up the song. Dhatua, Dulan’s voice trembles as he says the name. Dhatua, I’ve turned you all into seed.

As Mahasweta wrote in her introduction to Bitter Soil, these stories were written, primarily, to expose the failure of successive governments in India to create an equitable society. Told with virtuosic precision and control, they anticipate a world in which the poor and oppressed people of India, whose existence often goes unnoticed, will arrive to claim their rightful place at the centre of the nation’s consciousness. Like the image of a naked Draupadi, spotlit against a dark backdrop, arms outstretched like the wings of an albatross, the progeny of India’s original people assume larger-than-life dimensions in Mahasweta’s stories, waiting for the arrival of a day that will be different.