Mahasweta Devi, the formidable literary talent and relentless fighter of many causes, talks to Anosh Malekar about the inequity in our society and why it’s necessary for every Indian to raise a voice against injustice.
It was a pleasant winter morning in Ahmedabad and I was awaiting my first meeting with Mahasweta Devi with a great deal of curiosity and a fair amount of dread. To begin with, I had read very little of her vast and unique contribution to literature as a fiction writer in Bengali. Then there was the reputation of her radical social activism, her incessant battles against the exploiters of tribal communities and the denotified tribes (DNTs), and her raging protests and criticism of callous governments. As I waited, I could feel the sweat on my palms.
This was in December 1998, six months after Mahasweta Devi had delivered the Verrier Elwin Memorial Lecture in Baroda and set up the Denotified and Nomadic Tribes Rights Action Group (DNT-RAG) along with fellow writer-activists Ganesh Devy and Laxman Gaikwad. The three had also started publishing a bulletin named Budhan, after Budhan Sabar, a tribal belonging to the denotified Kheria Sabar community of West Bengal, who was brutally murdered in police custody on February 17, 1998. Mahasweta, as the founding president of the Paschim Banga Kheria Sabar Kalyan Samiti, had fought his case in the Calcutta High Court, ensuring action against the erring police officers and a compensation of Rs 100,000 for Budhan's widow.
She was now in Ahmedabad to meet municipal officials on the issue of Chharanagar, a pre-Independence era resettlement site on the outskirts of Gujarat’s commercial heart, Ahmedabad, where the Chhara community has lived ever since their notification as ‘criminals’ by the British.
Mahasweta Devi and Ganesh Devy were warned by the police against entering the ‘criminal ghetto’, but they insisted and pushed their way through. Mahasweta asked the young Chhara boys and girls what it was that they needed most. On being told they wanted books to read, she had spent money from her own pocket and bought them some books.
The young boys and girls in Chharanagar were overjoyed and in gratitude composed a play on the life and death of Budhan Sabar. The first performance took place before Mahasweta, at the first national convention of the denotified tribes held in Chharanagar in August 1998. A new experimental theatre, Budhan theatre, was born that year and the young Chharas from Ahmedabad have since performed across India and abroad. The library and theatre proved a rallying point for Chharanagar’s struggle to break out of the centuries-old stigma.
As Mahasweta made her way out of the municipal commissioner’s office and my moment seemed to have finally arrived, I realised there was going to be more sweating. Mahasweta was surrounded by many people and remained constantly on the move. By the time we settled down for an interview, she had walked some distance to a small restaurant near the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation for a cup of coffee.
I thought it better to admit my ignorance of the Chharas and their issues at the beginning and excused myself by telling her that I had arrived in Ahmedabad only recently. To my surprise Mahasweta broke into peals of laughter, which she later explained.
“You must have heard a lot of things about me. But you may not have heard this before: when I was perhaps your age and struggling to make a living, I had tried my hand at exporting monkeys to the US for medical research without knowing anything about the business. There was a person I knew in Calcutta who got a few thousand monkeys from Madhya Pradesh and sent them directly to Bombay. But something went wrong and the monkeys were never exported. I never got to see the monkeys but I heard they were released in the ghat area between Bombay and Poona! Have you seen any of my monkeys?” she asked me, trying to control her laughter.
The ice was broken, and Mahasweta turned to the serious topic of the Chharas in Ahmedabad and what needed to be done to improve their lot.
After that memorable encounter, I had no occasion to meet Mahasweta till December 2009, when she was in Pune to release the book Women’s Literature in Indian Languages by the Sahityapremi Bhagini Mandal. She was now 84, but still a rebel, and with a formidable memory: she could belt out her favourite Tagore poem ‘Proshno’ (Question) extempore from beginning to end. She had difficulty walking but that did not stop her from flying down from Kolkata and moving around Pune in a car, talking freely to people at the venue of the function and in the lobby of her hotel.
“You have become 'Didi' (elder sister) or 'Maa' (Mother) for hundreds of thousands of common people like the tribals across India, and to those opposing the controversial SEZ policy and its implementation particularly in West Bengal,” I began.
“Oh, I do very little. I do not do everything. But I try to make them do things,” Mahasweta replied. "I keep saying, the struggle never stops, and we must remember this at every breath. We must keep trying."
She usually avoids any reference to her writings or awards unless there is a specific and sensible query about her work. What enlivens a conversation with her are her references to her incessant wanderings in the forests, villages, towns and cities, small and big, to be among the exploited and suppressed people and understand their fight for survival.
“It is very important and necessary that you travel,” she says. “I travelled a lot for Jhansir Rani, my first published work. I went to all the places the young Laxmibai was associated with. Since then I have been travelling, meeting people, every time feeling the necessity of a struggle for restoring their dignity and rights as humans.”
That is also from where she draws her language, the language of common folk which she is credited to have brought to Bengali language and literature. “There are writers who write for language. I cannot. Language is important. But writing is a far more serious business for me.”
What is she working on right now, I ask.
“Mahabharata, it is very contemporary. It must be treated as contemporary. That is what I am doing.” Though it’s a passing reference, every sentence uttered by her carries the weight of someone at the centre of tumultuous change spanning the British colonial era, Partition and Independence, and the past 50 years of postcolonial turmoil leading to the current era of globalisation.
Mahasweta was born in Dhaka in January 1926, was educated at Shantiniketan and Calcutta University before choosing to live off her writing. Her creative journey began with Jhansir Rani (The Queen of Jhansi) based on the life of the young queen Lakshmibai during the revolt of 1857. Since then she has authored more than 100 books that include classics like Hazar Churasir Maa (The Mother of 1084), Aranyer Adhikar (The Right to the Forest) and Chotti Munda Aar Taar Teer (Chotti Munda and his Arrow) to name just a few. Apart from these acclaimed novels there are hundreds of short stories and essays on social and cultural themes. All her works have been widely translated into different languages and also made into popular films – Rudaali, Hazar Chaurasi ki Maa and Aranyer Adhikar, about the rebel Birsa Munda who resisted the British at the turn of the 19th century. The latter book won her the Sahitya Akademi award in 1979.
Awards and recognition have followed Mahasweta: the Ramon Magsaysay Award, the Padma Vibhushan, the Jnanpith and many others before. The prize money generally goes to the welfare society she founded in the ’70s for the denotified tribes of Lodha, Shabar and Kheria Sabar, or some other worthwhile cause close to her heart.
Politically she is believed to be close to the revolutionary life in Indian politics and many of her books are said to bear testimony to her explicit sympathy with the Naxalites. But Mahasweta firmly disagrees that her work reflects sympathy for this type of revolutionary idea.
In Hazar Churasir Maa the killing of her youngest son, a Naxalite, forces a mother to turn away from her affluent middle class life and try to feel and touch the dream shared by her son and many others. "I just tried to keep a record of those turbulent times, nothing more. Even in my first published work, Jhansir Rani, I tried to show that 1857-58 had taken shape as a mass struggle in all of central India fired by Rani Lakshmibai's heroic battle.”
What is her view of the current violence in the name of mass struggle by the Maoists?
“We do not know if Maoists are representing the people. Naxalism in the 1970s had some ideology. They made some positive contribution to society. But Maoism is not Naxalism. Using violence has to be stopped.”
I ask if she is against development. Her answer is sharp and clear: “I am against the corrupt policies of governments. Governments take taxes from people; they have a responsibility to provide them decent living conditions. The corrupt policies ensure that there is development only for a few…what about the vast majority? Everywhere in this country there are areas where there is no water, no food, no roads, no medicines, no hospitals, no schools, nothing. The government talks of BPL (below poverty line) cards, but there are no supplies at ration shops; they cannot reach the people, they cannot teach the people, they cannot treat the people. Governments are total failures.”
But Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is said to be a good man, I venture.
“Manmohan Singh is no good,” she says, not mincing her words. “His policies are no good. He is the one who signed the proposed nuclear power project at Haripur in West Bengal, against the will of the people of the area. The people of Haripur are angry. A nuclear power plant they don’t want is being thrust on them and their land is being taken away.” (Though not much is known about the proposed power plant, Haripur is expected to have six nuclear reactors each of 1650 MW-- a total installed capacity of 10,000 MW of electricity -- located in the coastal area of East Midnapur district, roughly 170 km from Kolkata. Some 80,000 fisherfolk and farmers are expected to be affected by the project.)
Mahasweta has issued a call in West Bengal to writers, activists, students, scientists, fishermen, farmers, housewives, to one and all: “Say no to the Haripur power plant.” The National Fishworkers’ Forum (NFF) is fighting against the proposed displacement of the farmers and the fishermen of Haripur. “But others need not be quiet. I appeal to all Indians to send postcards to the prime minister simply saying ‘no to Haripur power plant’. In fact Indians should oppose nuclear power plants everywhere in the country because they are not good for our environment. Sending postcards is absolute non-violent ladai.”
She continues to make her point forcefully over breakfast. “Governments have remained non-performing for years and years in a vast country like India. No one in this country can have an excuse any more for not doing anything…
“Please say no to Haripur, or whichever nuclear or thermal power plant is coming up in your area. I heard a few of them are proposed in Maharashtra, along the Konkan coast and somewhere in Vidarbha. The postcards have to be sent from across the country. Let this be a silent revolution….to me this can be a very potent and non-violent people’s revolution.”
But will this work? Haven’t people become cynical over the years, I ask.
“Being an Indian, you have no right to be cynical. How can you be cynical?” Mahasweta’s bright eyes in her wrinkled face look me straight in the eye. “Sab kuch hota hai…Bharatiyan dhamaka nahin karte…karna chahiye. If the word ‘Independence’ has become a mockery in our country, it is because of people who refuse to do anything.”
Then her eyes seem to focus, thinking deep, she says: “Look at me. I have never felt cynical… I get angry, then I try to do whatever I can – I will write, I will approach the government, I will appeal to the people.”
Mahasweta points to Budhan theatre in Ahmedabad: “Those youngsters in Chharanagar are doing positive theatre. Anyone born and brought up in India, having benefited from education and leading a decent life, cannot afford to be cynical. We have to look for solutions. This country needs sensible solutions. We cannot be cynics. We are Indians.”
“We have to try our utmost. Koshish karo… Try…Yeh Gandhi ka desh hai!” Mahasweta ends the interview with this battlecry.
Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.