Remembering Mahasweta Devi: The Angry Voice which spoke for the oppressed

‘A writer faces his judgement in his lifetime and remains answerable.’
Remembering Mahasweta Devi: The Angry Voice which spoke for the oppressed
Remembering Mahasweta Devi: The Angry Voice which spoke for the oppressed
Written by :

- Sr. Ananda Amritmahal

With the passing away of Mahasweta Devi on Thursday, we lost a towering, iconic figure from the world of Indian literature.   Having said that, I want to bite my tongue and retract, since Mahasweta herself would have been the first to insist that she was primarily an activist, and that her writing fed off the activist agenda. 

The symbiotic relationship that her activism shared with her writings was also recognized and celebrated by the various awards that were bestowed upon her, most notably the Jnanpith and the Magsaysay. 

Mahasweta’s writing reflects a reality that is frequently ignored in any representation of the cultural kaleidoscope of the ‘nation’ as a whole.  A reality for which there is no room be it in the process of decolonisation or industrialisation, or even globalisation that have spelt progress in the last sixty-five years. 

This is a reality that is bound by factors that seem unreal in the context of a progressive, independent India: caste oppression, tribal communities and values, bonded labour, economic exploitation and a degradation of life that we can only dimly begin to comprehend.

Nor have these stories been culled either from the unreal world of fairy-tales or from the pages of a history that no longer exists.  The reality they represent exists even today: large, ever-present, and yet ignored, almost invisible, creating an increasingly unnoticed, marginalized footnote to mainstream discourse. 

Any reading of Mahasweta Devi has to include an awareness of the political implications of her writing.  Few writers are as overtly political in their intentions as she is.  An activist who worked tirelessly for the tribals and the Dalits, and against bonded labour and other forms of oppression of the most vulnerable sections of society, she was outspoken in explaining her motivation to write. 

Her introduction to Bitter Soil articulates this very clearly: “I believe in documentation.…The sole purpose of my writing is to expose the many faces of the exploiting agencies:  the feudal-minded landowner, his henchmen, the so-called religious head of the administrative system, all of whom, as a combined force, are out for lower-caste blood...My experience keeps me perpetually angry and makes me ruthlessly unforgiving towards the exploiters or the exploiting system.”

Mahasweta Devi’s activism as much as her writing demand an immediate response and action in the form, not of short-sighted charity or of immediate, temporary relief, but rather of concerted mobilization and action that will lead to a dynamic transformation of the oppressive structures and inhuman attitudes that so enraged her. 

Often, her work is scathing in representing the impact of so-called ‘development’ on the lives and life-style of tribals.  Yet, even while she recognizes violence in such resistance as being the legitimate expression of outrage at the situation, she was able to write, “Our double task is to resist “development” actively and to learn to love.’ 

The anger finds expression in a language that Mahasweta Devi herself calls brutal, even lethal at times.  Of course, most of us can only access these works in translation, and so the full impact of the language is lost on us.

Nevertheless, the translations have obviously striven to capture something of a similar effect in English.  Both anger and the irony that forms the dominant mode are articulated in a prose that is abrupt, often disjointed, harsh, blunt in its unflinching representation of reality. 

There are no extraneous elements, no unnecessary arabesques – the economy that one can sense even through the translation ensures that every sentence is directed to the writer’s purpose with single-minded dedication. 

Bengali readers assert that in the original, the language has an earthy, racy, colloquial feel to it that is very different to the kind of writing one would expect of ‘literature.’  It is the perfect vehicle for the subject matter that these stories embody and yet reveals a sophistication in the use of narrative and figuration, that indicate her access to intellectual resources beyond the reach of the common people who form the subject of her fiction.  

Something of this flavour permeates the translation as well.  The irony that serves as the filter through which events and reflections are mediated is directed at the reader.  The register – determined as it is by the speaker/writer’s awareness of the audience – is clearly ironic, savagely so at times. 

There are no concessions to delicate sensibilities or to tactful platitudes.  Battlelines are clearly delineated – one has to choose where to position oneself in the struggle.

The element of irony is particularly noticeable in Mahasweta Devi’s treatment of those aspects of life that are the most haloed by tradition, like our mythological stories (in After Kurukshetra) or our veneration of Motherhood and the reification of the woman’s body (in In the Name of Mother, as well as in Mother of 1084, and in Breast-Stories).

Problematizing these, she insists on us rethinking concepts and images that we have taken for granted. Resistance is articulated in unusual and startling forms, most notably in “Rudaali” (which has also been made into a film) and in “Draupadi”. 

The erosion of human dignity and value is represented in all its unpalatable truth.  The dehumanising effect of an inhuman society is witnessed at close quarters.  And yet, the power of community, the valourisation of the human spirit, the celebration of the genuinely human in the most unexpected of situations and contexts, call us to a rethinking of our own value-systems, our own comfortable assumptions and our safe beliefs in traditional structures. 

In her fictional works as well as in Dust on the Road (1997), Mahasweta Devi analyses the manifold exploitation and oppression endured by the Dalits and tribals of West Bengal and Bihar. Example after example is cited, carefully researched facts and figures are presented, and the analysis is ruthlessly incisive:‘Tales of woe and exploitation on the one hand, the pulse of resistance mounting on the other.”

Mahasweta Devi’s own commitment to working for the tribals and the non-tribal oppressed and exploited is clearly uncompromising.  Her writing demands of us a similar engagement with the realities we inhabit, even as it shocks, outrages, horrifies us. 

She offered us no middle path: presenting the naked facts in all their brutality, she leaves the response to us, but there is no doubt that she expects a radical commitment to change and social transformation to arise from (or be strengthened by) our encounter with the text. 

This passionate involvement is perhaps one of the most attractive and compelling aspects of all her work.  As she herself said, ‘A responsible writer, standing at a turning point in history, has to take a stand in defence of the exploited.”

‘A writer faces his judgement in his lifetime and remains answerable’ is what she wrote and went on to prove the veracity of that statement with her very own life.  

(Sr. Ananda Amritmahal, PhD is Principal of Mumbai’s Sophia College for Women. Her PhD was based on Mahasweta Devi and her works.)

Related Stories

No stories found.
The News Minute