For writer Mahasweta Devi, who died on 28 July, the universe was a constellation of stars, but many of these stars were covered by a shroud of darkness. Through her luminous words came the speech of ants; the sound of the snail speaking.
Mahasweta di, as she was known to all close to her, had made the cause of tribals and in particular denotified tribes — who had been called criminal by the British — her own. Her literary and activist writings brought the blood, sweat and tears of the marginalised people on the fringes of society out into the world — breaking the silence forever. For this she was awarded the Jnanpith Award, the Sahitya Akademi Award and the Ramon Magsaysay Award, but her own life was turbulent and full of personal suffering, which she courageously overcame through her work.
My first encounter with her was when I read her Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Ma, a beautifully translated work into Hindi by Santwana Nigam. I met her at India International Centre and told her it would make a brilliant film. She said, “Govind is coming to talk to me about it.” Govind Nihalani did make a stark film depicting the dilemma of a mother — eloquently portrayed by Jaya Bachchan who won a National Award for it — trying to understand why her son became a Naxalite, after he is killed by the police in an “encounter” and becomes a number — 1084. The unravelling of the comfortable bourgeois values of the mother now searching for her dead son’s friends and through them trying to understand why he would identify himself with the wronged, is soul-searing. The beauty of Mahasweta was how she could bring the existence of those on the margins of society to the forefront and humanise your soul.
However it was during the meetings of the Right to Food campaigns and the Gujarat carnage of the Muslims in 2002 that I really got to know Mahasweta di and found her so accessible to a much younger person. I later made a documentary on major Indian writers and included her work — Draupadi. A young tribal woman Draupadi is raped in police custody and was brilliantly enacted by Moloysree Hashmi, portraying her indictment of the system, that uses rape and brute force to evict tribals from their land.
She was always dressed in a simple homespun handloom sari and lived in a rented two-room flat, owning not even a home of her own. She gave her money to the poor.
Mahasweta Devi’s novel Chotti Munda And His Arrow (translated by Gayatri Spivak Chakravorty) is again about the struggle of tribals as they are pushed off their land. A small extract shows the brilliance of the manner in which she shows how the tribals feel:
“…he’d gone to his own village, his own yard, with three papaya seedlings. As he was about to plant the seedlings he sees a new hut on his land. In it a new Munda family.”
The naivety, frustration and bafflement of the tribals as they see their land and way of life seized by the state is brilliantly and poignantly recounted by Mahasweta who was a literary precursor to the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA). The NBA is still struggling as more than 40,000 tribal families lose their land while the mega- dam on the river Narmada is built. In literary terms, Mahasweta was a mirror of the social movements raging in the countryside which the state calls seditious and anti-national.
While a passionate, tireless and relentless crusader for the marginalised, Mahasweta had a turbulent personal life and bared her soul in a documentary directed by Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books. In the film she said she married Bijon Bhattacharya, a playwright, and had a son Nabarun, but the marriage was an unhappy one. She then fell in love with another man. Due to her unhappiness and conflicted existence, she attempted suicide. She was rushed to the hospital where she was calling this man’s name. He was brought to her. Her husband told her she could go with him, but she had to leave her son behind with him, the father. Mahasweta married this man, Asit Gupta. In the film, she pauses then says “But I never ever imagined — [pauses] — that my husband would start a relationship with another woman.”
I was seated next to Mahasweta di at the premiere of the film and before the lights came on, I turned around and asked her if this was true. She held my hand in the dark and said, “Yes, my child, it is true.” Then the lights came on and she was surrounded by the audience.
Mahasweta was intense, committed and naïve to the core; she believed in the intrinsic humanity of people. In the end she stood by the Sabar tribes of Purulia district in West Bengal and they called her the mother of Sabars. In later years her estranged son became close to her. She was always dressed in a simple homespun handloom sari and lived in a rented two-room flat, owning not even a home of her own. She gave her money to the poor and her time ever so generously to all who sought her out, particularly the young.
She believed that the right to dream should be a fundamental right. Her writings are here forever to glean wisdom from but what she changed both through her work and her presence was the inner compass. She succeeded in urging us to look towards the poor, marginalised tribals and not away. One will miss this simple, earnest woman who knew how to live fearlessly and gave love to all.
Sagari Chhabra is a poet, playwright and award-winning filmmaker. Her latest book, In Search Of Freedom, won the National Laadli Media Award