On my first visit to the USA in 2006, a jargon-spewing American woman of Indian origin approaced me. “I am deeply interested in Mahasweta Devi,” she vouchsafed. “What do you have to say about her?” Dazed and jet-lagged, I stared at her, not a little surprised at my own carefully masked resentment. I didn’t know at that time that Stannadayini (Breast-Giver) and Draupadi translated by Professor Spivak Chakrabarty were hot cakes in the postcolonial departments of US universities.
Now, I wonder if Professor Spivak, while translating the two stories that must have moved her deeply, quite realised how they would be subsumed into the West&’s “perception” of subaltern India.
More papers have been read and published on those two short stories than on the rest of Mahasweta&’s impressive oeuvre. There seems to be a level of insincerity in a discipline that analyses and comments without bothering to delve into the socio-economic problems that are the source of the texts in question.
Mahasweta&’s novella, Hajar Churashir Ma (The Mother of 1084) was a response to the ’60s and ’70s’ Naxalite movement, a turbulent time in Bengal. The novella depicts the clash between upwardly mobile middle-class mentality and radical Naxalite ideology that was mercilessly stifled by police violence. The book, however, caught the imagination of the Bengali reading public as one about a grieving mother who, unlike the rest of her family, cannot ignore the fact that the corpse of her son, murdered in a police encounter, lies unclaimed in the morgue; cannot evade responsibility, even as the party in her opulent living-room swings to a crescendo.
The reception of Hajar Churashir Ma (1974) by the common reader is an example of how the middle-class has sought to appropriate this singularly defiant protest writer who could make her reader deeply uncomfortable by trouncing his complacencies, yet take him to sublime flights with her suggestive fusion of coloniser/police officialese (in English), tribal dialect and poetic prose.
Mahasweta Devi subscribed to the credo of the activist writer; a small, and, in the present globalised scenario, shrinking credo that fuses political protest and activism with intellectual life and output. Says the fiery writer, “It is as if the demand of literature has merged with the demand of life. If as a human being I am pledged to honesty, commitment and protest, how can I turn away and write differently? Such questions leave indelible imprints on the bottomless graphite of my mind.” (1976.)
Mahasweta&’s lifelong attempt had been to recuperate and articulate the erased history of the tribal and the aborigine. “In my writing,” said Mahasweta, “that segment of society who I refer to as ‘The Voiceless Section of Indian Society’ returns repeatedly. Even now, that section is not only uneducated and underdeveloped, they are cut off from the mainstream of Indian society. Yet one cannot presume to know India without knowing this segment.” (1990.)
hough Mahasweta wrote about the middle classes, her best work charted her abiding affection and admiration for the forgotten practices of the aborigine — the first dweller and the doubly colonised — and her sustained commitment to the project of recuperating bits and pieces of their mislaid history. Said Mahasweta, “I never had the inclination to practice art for art&’s sake and I never did it.” (1984.)
Rather, she saw the literary artist as a keeper of lost history: “Within my limited means, I have tried to chronicle the history of my people. I hope my effort will liberate me from the shame of encountering my inner self, since a writer is destined to make a final self-judgment in his lifetime and cannot elude the responsibility of justifying his decisions.” (1976.)
In 1978, she wrote, “On the 31st year of Independence, I find the people of my country are yet not free from hunger, thirst, debt and enslaved labour. The system that denied them this freedom arouses my pure, potent and relentless fury. Such fury is the inspiration of all my writing.”
In this statement was the seed of Mahasweta&’s protest. If Ashapurna Devi left a testament against patriarchal injustice and exploitation, Mahasweta&’s creative and activist rage was directed against the middle class state apparatuses (police, army, contractors, landlords, middlemen) that effectively and efficiently stole the land and fundamental rights of the first dweller.
Once the keeper of forests, tribal history and vast tracts of Indian territory, tribal peoples have been reduced to sharecroppers, migratory labourers, daily wage-earners, serfs, slaves, criminals, whores; sections of the wanted lists in police stations. In alienating the aborigine from his land, there has been collusion between the state and the middle-class. Mahasweta&’s grouse; that unspeakable crimes had been perpetrated to demoralise and destabilise the first dweller since, unlike capitalists and middle classes, he had a special affinity to the rainforest and resisted its decimation to pave the way for capital-driven urbanisation, is strongly reflected in her work.
In Shesh Samayeen, Kaiti, a daily wage-earner, who, with her group of Sawras (aborigines of Orissa), is transported from province to province in trucks and trains by contractors primarily to perform the basic chore of clearing forests for urban settlements. “The Western part of India truly reveals the professionalism of globalised ethos. The labour force attached to amateurs can return to their land. Those attached to professionals cannot. In this way, the mother-land and mother-population is ransomed for the construction of dams and factories.” (Shesh Shamayeen.)
Once Kaiti&’s grandmother dies, she senses a special power in herself. She remembers the past as her grandmother had predicted she would. “Kaiti remembers all. The hill-forest-tribal settlement obliterated by the thekedar is Kaiti&’s created Ittelan. No tale is new, no tale is old. The Kaitis of the world cannot be arrested within the confines of time. They are older than time.” (Shesh Shamayeen.)
The individual as repository of tribal history was a favoured trope in Mahasweta&’s stories. Her characters, Birsha Munda, the Santhal hero of her novel Aranyer Adhikar, the Rajasthani tribals Ganju and Sanichari (Bichhon and Rudali), Oriya aboriginies Nandi and Kaiti (Shesh Shamayeen) are unforgettable in the way they have been delineated against aborigine histories that are all but erased by state forces.
For the thekedar, Kaiti is a daily wage-earner. In her own community, she is revered as the last Shamayeen or dreamer who is visited by the gods in her sleep and whose task it is to draw frescoes on mud-walls (Ittelan) so that no one forgets the demolished past.
To the police, Birsha and Draupadi are wanted criminals. In their own tribe they are leaders and patriots. For the author, disregarded individuality of the hero/seer/chief was significant. In story after story, she highlighted this identity.
Though the problems of the dispossessed and subalterns were burning issues in Mahasweta&’s novels, in her best fiction — Talaq, Shesh Shamiyaan, Draupadi, Aranyer Adhikar and Bichhon among others — there is a strong universal and allegorical dimension; a tragic culmination that goes beyond topicalities to touch the sublime.
In Bichhon (Seed-grain), the setting is the Rajasthani village of Kuruda. Dulan Ganju, a sharecropper, is a favoured henchman of Lachman Singh, the zamindar. Ganju is awarded a plot of land by his benefactor. Every year with the rest of Lachman&’s dependents, Ganju too is given seed-grain (bichhon), which he insouciantly consumes, leaving his small plot of land infertile. None of his family members understands his un-farmer-like ways. Shunned by them, he spends his nights in a bunker erected on his plot.
The foul secret is that in exchange for yearly food grain, Ganju has agreed to be Lachman Singh&’s accomplice in crime. His plot is to remain unkempt, so that protesters who are secretly murdered by Lachman can be buried beneath its weeds. Night after night, Ganju sits guarding Lachman&’s bloody and terrible secret.
Finally the night comes when Lachman brings seven bodies to Ganju&’s plot and orders him to bury them. They are the corpses of Dhatua and his friends; Dhatua, who is Ganju&’s beloved son, and the renegade who had protested against the low pay offered by Lachman. Ganju obeys Lachman&’s bidding. Lachman temporarily goes underground. In his absence, Ganju cleans his plot and broadcasts it with seed. Lachman returns to find tall, healthy grain growing on Ganju&’s land. When he confronts Ganju, in a single, clean act of defiance Ganju pulls him from his horse and stones him dead in broad daylight.
Much later, when Lachman&’s half-devoured body is recovered, his murder is attributed to a neighbouring zamindar. No one guesses that the servile Ganju is the perpetrator. The soothing green of the seedlings consoles Ganju with thoughts of Dhatua and his friends nourishing life from beneath the soil. He finally distributes his rich harvest among fellow-sharecroppers as seed-grain to be planted in their plots. To his dead son, he whispers, “Dhatua, I haven’t allowed weeds to grow over you. I have transformed you and your friends to bichhon.”
A tale of social injustice and revenge is thus transformed into a tale of rejuvenation, resurrection and the deathless nature-nurture cycle. While the type of exploitation and crime is time and culture-specific, Mahasweta&’s style glowed with tragic grandeur.
Just as she played with the word bichhon in Ganju&’s story, the writer problematised the word “encounter” in Draupadi. In order to break the Naxal tea-garden worker Daupadi, police chief Senanayak subjects her to gang-rape all night. Next morning, confident that she is now ready to confess, he summons her. Daupadi comes before him stark naked, bleeding profusely at the bites and wounds inflicted on her nipples and mound. Shocked at the picture of her wounded nakedness, Senanayak screams at her to drape her sari. In a shrill voice Daupadi sneers, “Clothes? Who needs clothes? You can only strip me naked, how can you cover my nakedness? You, a man?”
Spitting blood on Senanayak&’s whie bush shirt, she shrills, “There isn’t a single man here before whom I need to cover myself. None clothes me. I won’t allow it. What else can you do? Come, couter me, come couter me!” (Concluding section of Draupadi.)
“Couter” is the tribal woman&’s appropriation of “encounter”. The word boldly fuses the meanings of “behold” and “kill”.
In Shesh Samayeen, Kaiti, the runaway Saora wage-earner, loses her sanity and dies in a Rajasthani village, crushed by a clay horse far away from her land in Orissa from which she and her peoples have been uprooted to serve the purpose of urban development, but not before she inspires Nogin Rathoa to paint her picture on the wall of his hut. “…and Nogin Rathoa, a young Bhil, in the dark night, under the spell of uncontrollable need, draws the picture of a horse on his wall, a picture that is unconfined in frames. A black horse is furiously galloping right out of the frame. And astride it, hugging its mane is a black girl. In this manner, the last Shamayeen of the eastern Saora people finds her place in the frescoes of the Western Rathoa Bheels. She becomes her own Ittelan whose horse gallops towards some timeless eternity. She can rest. She need not build monuments and hand them over to others anymore.” (Concluding part of Shesh Shamayeen.)
Bengali literature will revere Mahasweta Devi not only as the voice of the voiceless but also as a persuasive and enthralling storyteller who firmly believed that the land is not ours to exploit and sell. It has a life and history of its own and needs to be respected as inheritance handed down to us through generations. For her, “people” signified not the middle classes who rule and dominate the world, wreaking havoc on the ecological system with their lust and greed, but the proud aborigine who holds the key to a friendly, symbiotic relation with nature; who pays heavily, often with his life, for his attachment to nature and commitment to history, and whose exclusion from false official history majorly impoverishes the nation.
Authorial note on the Sawras and Ittelan: Was a time when the Sawras were mountain tribes of Orissa. Following the instruction of gods who visited them in their sleep, they drew Ittelans on the walls of their huts. The Sawras have been reduced to vagrancy and landless labourers. The Ittelan is all but a lost art.