Mahasweta Devi was an eminent Bengali writer and social activist, writing in the mid-1900s, who did not shy away from pointing out the injustices plaguing society. Apart from being a powerful novelist, she is also remembered for her activism, having fought for the rights of the oppressed tribal communities. Today happens to be Mahasweta Devi’s 94th birth anniversary.
Devi also worked with landless labourers of eastern India, forming an intimate connection with them. Hence, she could understand and begin documenting grassroots-level issues.
Why We Should Know Mahasweta Devi
Bengal in particular, and the whole nation at large, considers Mahasweta Devi a literary treasure. She penned more than 100 novels and over 20 collections of short stories. Her works included political writings, children’s fiction as well as plays. The void left in the literary world by her death in 2016 can never be filled. Devi also worked with landless labourers of eastern India, forming an intimate connection with them. Hence, she could understand and begin documenting grassroots-level issues. She became a socio-political commentator of the marginalized community.
Her life and notable works
Mahasweta Devi was born on January 14, in 1926 in Dhaka, Bangladesh, British India, to poet and novelist Manish Ghatak who used to write under the pseudonym Jubanashwa. Devi’s mother, Dharitri Devi, was also a renowned writer and a social worker. Her most notable works are the biography of Rani of Jhansi, Hajar Churashir Maa, Rudali, Murti and Aranyer Adhikar. Devi was felicitated with several awards over her course of life for her contribution to the literary world, such as Sahitya Akademi Award, Jnanpith Award, Ramon Magsaysay Award, along with India’s Civilian Awards Padma Shri and Padma Vibhushan.
What Makes Her Badass
Mahasweta Devi edited a Bengali quarterly- Bortika. It was a forum for the poor peasants, tribals, agricultural labourers, industrial labourers, as well as the rickshaw pullers. She represented all the sections of society that had no voice. Even her fictional work is littered with social messages. Her protagonists are the socially marginalized tribals, and she wrote extensively about their struggles. She realized fiction could not properly represent the issues she wanted to bring attention to. Thus she took to writing journals and papers about tribal issues.
Biggest Battles She Fought
In 2007, Mahasweta Devi had started writing an autobiography. However, she could not finish it before her death. The autobiography told stories of the mental trauma and other difficulties that she faced. Devi was married to Bijon Bhattacharya, one of the founding members of the Indian People’s Theatre Association. Things turned sour when they separated in 1962. It was during this stage that she suffered mental health issues and financial crisis.
All my writing is about real people and real issues. It doesn’t cater to any specific ideology. – Mahasweta Devi
Mahasweta Devi was a woman who dared to walk out of an unsatisfactory marriage which was a daring move in the 60s. She sought separation from her husband in a time when it was unthinkable to do so. As a woman, she dared to claim a space for herself, for her writing. She endured social backlash and financial crisis due to her decision to separate. However, she worked several odd jobs like writing letters in English for illiterate people so that she could make ends meet while seeking fulfillment in her writing.
Lessons We Can Learn From Her
Mahasweta Devi was a woman who utilized her privilege to uplift the minorities. She fought for tribal rights and gave them space. Her 1977 novel Aranyer Adhikar (Right to the Forest) was based on the life of tribal freedom fighter Birsa Munda. She teaches us how to be a good ally in a time where caste issues are less talked about but are still as prevalent. Devi knew how to connect to marginalized communities at the ground level. Although she wrote about their struggles, she never let her own voice dominate. The narrative belonged to the oppressed communities that was only aided by her skillful writing.
Things She Said
Mahasweta Devi once said, “All my writing is about real people and real issues. It doesn’t cater to any specific ideology.” Although in her youth, she had been a self-proclaimed communist, she was not tied to any particular political party. She believed in the rights of the people. Especially, she stressed that she was not fond of extremist violence. According to her, violence disrupted the lives of adivasi villagers, who became collateral damage in the war between the extremists and the State.
Prapti is an intern at SheThePeople.TV