Mahasweta Devi will remain as a generational voice to remind us of our fundamental right to dream

One could say that the age of resistance is waning in India. With Mahasweta Devi’s death at 90, knowledge also seems to plan to depart for lack of any cohesion in the body politic that is India today.

And I had just finished posting a casual status update on Facebook yesterday about my long-ago trip to North Bihar, with a campus-based theater group from JNU to present a political drama in the terrible backwaters, where Maoism was only showing its nascent fangs. I, a mere 22-year-old, was living the realities in Gaya-Nawada-Sultanpur and even more far-flung villages similar to the geography and people that Mahasweta Devi had lovingly chronicled as a writer and social activist. But I was living the movements, protests, and pains in the manner of all city clods that learnt revolution from her book.

Still, the serialised Aranyer Adhikar (The Rights of the Forest) was visible to me in the dense forest-bordered rivulets of that region. Draupadi could be seen in local bazaars and by the roadsides, staring resolutely, and walking her own way. Hajar Chaurashir Maa (Mother of No. 1,084), a number of them, were perhaps too angry and inconsolable to make an appearance to us; those who could be easily termed as “pluralist aesthetes of the First World” — in academic Gayatri Spivak’s words — as compared to the unknown ‘third-Third World’ we were exploring in an interpretive mode.

But in my first line I say the age of resistance is on the wane. The context is many layered. The Jnanpith-Magsaysay winning rebel writer Devi came to me in various books and journals, and a few years ago, in a large-bound Bengali volume — the complete works till that time — and posed a short conflict of ideas in my own home.

 Mahasweta Devi will remain as a generational voice to remind us of our fundamental right to dream

With Mahasweta Devi’s death at 90, knowledge also seems to plan to depart for lack of any cohesion in the body politic that is India today. Photo: PTI.

A Left-progressive household that straddled the histories of both Assam and Bengal, the writing prowess of Mahasweta Devi was greatly appreciated by my parents, although my father clearly thought she expounded a politics that undermined the electoral process and openly exhorted an armed uprising against the system. Naxalbari hadn’t yielded much for the good of Bengal and the country, he tried reasoning with me. I also recall how he and I differed on the issue as I swam through the complete works and devoured Devi’s words and images.

While obituaries have been flooding in on 28 July, calling her the one revolutionary “mother”, who has graced Bengal — a wordplay based on her seminal Hajar Chaurashir Maa — I have a feeling Devi would have balked at the idea.

And uncannily, I had just finished reading an essay by Anjum Hasan (Building up the Alphabet Again), where she refers to a kind of 'age of disappointment' while reading Mahasweta Devi and perusing about the missing culture of reading for writers.

The culture of mothers, cow-mothers, nation-mothers, and goddesses embodying motherhood was not, in my view, what Devi envisaged in her life and writing. Her Dopdi Mejhen (Draupadi) is a moot point where the Pandava queen’s name acquires a striking topographical relevance, considering she hails from the Santhal community and is a woman, who is being hunted down by authorities. The region she inhabits is an “outside” for those who come looking for her, and her name a strange phonetic rebellion on the ears of the genteel perpetrators who “prepare” her.

Well-known author and translator Arunava Sinha’s delightful English translation of Draupadi — which I prefer over Spivak’s — amply demonstrates the above, and truthfully maintains Devi’s terse humor.

Uniform one: How can the Santhal woman be named Dopdi? There’s no such name on my list. How can anyone have a name not on the list?
Uniform two: Draupadi Mejhen. She was born the year her mother took a thresher’s job with Surjo Sahu (deceased) of Bakuli. Surjo Sahu’s wife named her.
Uniform one: All these officers only know how to dash off long sentences in English. What have they written about her.
Uniform two: Most notorious woman. Long wanted in many…

Several people who knew Devi corroborated that her fierce spirit was to revive a dialogue of justice, not of blessings from some divine motherhood.

Independent journalist Freny Manecksha remembers traveling with Devi in 1998. “She mixed compassion with humour — sometimes regaling us with stories of eccentricities in her family, then passionately storming a police station for details of atrocities on nomadic tribes… ”

For Manescksha, the memory of visiting the Lonad police station in Vithalwadi village in Satara district, Maharashtra, 18 days after the said atrocities, revealed Devi’s focussed activism, the way she would pay attention to crowds of tribals narrating their harrowing story. Whether in Bengal or in another state, Devi’s social work, writing and politics, derived from what Hasan refers to as “the lives of peripheral peoples” she holds close to her heart. Manecksha was traveling with activists Ganesh Devy and Laxman Gaikwad who accompanied Devi on her missions, well documented later by Devy.

According to Hasan, “She seems interested in the habits and everyday practices of small communities across India, and the words and euphemisms they have to describe them. And then something comes along and diverts the current: a woman rebels, a man leaves town. The language shifts to reflect the new experience. Mahasweta calls the process 'maddeningly fascinating'.”

In the foreword of her 1981 translation of Draupadi, Spivak says, “I translated this Bengali short story into English as much for the sake of its villain, Senanayak, as for its title character, Draupadi (or Dopdi). Because in Senanayak, I find the closest approximation to the First World scholar in search of the Third World, I shall speak of him first.”

While Devi is renowned for her countless other stories, including children’s stories, Draupadi (first published in Agnigarbha or Womb of Fire, which is a collection of loosely connected, short political narratives) remains to many of us, an iconic defiance of what the mainstream calls womanhood or subjugation or cultural adherence. A song in question becomes the haunting narrative of shifting language.

Spivak says in the same foreword that she “cannot take this discussion of deconstruction far enough to show how Dopdi's song, incomprehensible yet trivial (it is in fact about beans of different colors), and exorbitant to the story, marks the place of that other that can be neither excluded nor recuperated.”

Sinha’s translation presents the song in a light of defiant linguistic opacity. This is because the oppressed tribals in Devi’s experience were heard among themselves as well. The issue of the subaltern’s voice did not concern the activist-writer’s characters drawn from the ground, from the smell of the sweat and blood they shed, and their final resistance.

They had gathered around the corpses, singing songs of celebration in an obscene language not understood even by Santhals. For instance: “Saamaare hijulenako maar goyekope” and “Hende rambra keche keche Pundi rambra keche keche”
This proved beyond a doubt that they were the trigger for Captain Arjan Singh’s diabetes.

What does all this mean for us writers today who are grappling with the 'age of disappointment' or the waning of the 'age of resistance'? Sure enough, Devi has been on record saying: "Life is not mathematics and the human being is not made for the sake of politics. I want a change in the present social system and do not believe in mere party politics." One detects a deeper commitment here.

In Hasan’s essay, Devi is quoted as saying: “I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. The only way to counter globalisation … just a plot of land in some central place, keep it covered in grass, let there be a single tree, even a wild tree. Let your son’s tricycle lie there. Let some poor child come and play, let a bird come and use the tree … small things. Small dreams. … People do not have eyes to see. All my life I have been seeing small people and their small dreams.”

Whether one derives courage and hope from Chotti Munda and His Arrow, Bashai Tudu, Breast Stories, Titu Mir, and more, Mahasweta Devi will remain the one and only generational voice that would remind us that “the right to dream should be the first fundamental human right.” (Keynote address, Jaipur Literary Festival 2013). That’s where resistance lies, as does creativity.

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Updated Date: Jul 29, 2016 13:20:54 IST