Rahul Ranjan, a PhD student at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, remembers the late Bengali writer and social activist Mahasweta Devi, who was known for her sharp satires of gender inequality in India.
As a writer and social activist, Mahasweta Devi, who was born into a family of writers and social workers in what is now Bangladesh, immersed herself in the lives of India’s poor to chronicle the injustices against them in fiction.
She received numerous prestigious awards for her intellectual scholarship including the Roman Magsaysay Award (nicknamed the ‘Asian Nobel prize’), the Jnanpith and Padhma Shri awards. However, these awards cannot be the representatives for the rich tradition of writings that has been left behind for future generations. Her struggle, often reflected in her work, introduces a unique style in exploring subalternity.
In fact, her writings are an anomaly to the myth that survives within the academic scholarship. This is the myth of a separation between field and text, a debate that has drawn responses from across the disciplines and continues to survive through works that advocates for one over the other and so on.
Mahasweta Devi’s powerful publications on themes of social realism, caste and most important, Adivasi (indigenous people) allows the readers to meander through the complex, often intense, struggle faced by the most defenseless people on the map of nation-state. Even when negotiating language differences, Devi’s words never fails to construct her character as docile, disempowered.
Her writings are drawn from personal ‘field’ experiences and ‘texts’ reflect the interaction between the two and emerge organically as one. They are written with clarity and powerful metaphors that push the frontiers of the reader’s imagination and create a visual-scape where one can sense the organic interplay of field and text. This is suggestive of the fearless relationship she had with the Adivasi communities, which she refuses to call ‘tribal’ because of the word’s colonial connotations, and spilled the ink about the same within her writings.
A prolific writer, Devi left behind an impressive collection of more than 100 novels and short stories encompassing themes of dispossession, rebellion, insurgencies and student movements in Calcutta. Written mainly in Bengali, but incorporating ‘tribal’ dialects, these works have been translated into English, Japanese, Italian, French and several Indian languages.
Her first novel, Jhansi Rani (The queen of Jhansi), reconstructs the character of Laxmibai, a leading figure in the 1857 Indian Rebellion, who lost her life at the hands of colonisers. This powerful reclamation of history and historiography catapulted Devi into the world of ‘writing’.
But a major breakthrough, especially for the global reception of her work, came with the English translation of Imaginary Maps by Gayatri Spivak Chakravorty, considered one of the most influential postcolonial intellectuals. The translation brought one of the most poignant and succinct accounts of the struggle into global literary circulation.
However, what struck me as a non-native Bengali speaker is the recognition of what Devi gives to the rich oral tradition, Kathas, myths, storytelling and so on. There is beautiful illustration in her book, Chotti Munda and his Arrow, in which she noted: ‘These Adivasis do not find anyone writing about them, and they do not have script. They compose the stream of events into song, into words, they become something… a continuity. Their history is like a big flowing river going somewhere, not without a destination. Not without.’(P.10).
These lines reflect the immersion of Devi’s life into the rich history-writing practices and an unusual and indomitable spirit fighting together for causes that affected them. There is a plethora of work that has been produced by Devi, and each one of them is unique in delivering the insightful themes of social realism.
I get constant motivation from her work, which is so powerful and full of imagination. The narratives speak of the people’s history and experiences. As Spivak would say, they are ‘telling history’.
Rahul Ranjan is a PhD student at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. His research focuses on ‘oral history, Adivasi and the land question in Jharkhand (India)’.