EVEN at 71 she is unweary. And as uncompromising as ever. The Jnanpith Award is just another milestone, like the Padmashree in 1986, the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1979 and many others before, which she would take in her stride the way only she can. And carry on as usual, with her writing and her work among the tribals, the dispossessed and anybody who comes to her seeking help. The prize money, of course, will go to the Pashchimbanga Kheriya Shabar Kalyan Samiti, a tribal welfare society. Perched frail amidst the disorganised order that is her daily life, she grimaces: "I don't have any private life! So many people turn up looking for some relief, some sympathy, how can one turn them back? Please do all you can to help, it makes a difference."
There's hidden steel in Mahasweta Devi's age-lined face, silver grey hair. Tempered by concern for the ordinary man, the grim determination to depict people as they are, unromanticised and bare, and an unbounded energy that takes her from village to village, wherever they need her. Perhaps also a fleeting shadow of her late father, eminent—and-anti-establishment—writer Manish Ghatak. Or the legacy of a life lived mostly on her own strength after a short and tumultuous marriage with playwright-actor Bijon Bhattacharya (her son Nabarun is also a poet-playwright). But without doubt, her steel was alloyed during the stormy '70s, which saw the firetide upsurge and brutal end of the Naxalite movement.
"People think I'm a highly political writer. But in the '70s, I was probably the most apolitical among the established, professional camp. That's certainly something to chew on," she wrote in 1981 in a volume commemorating the '70s. "But, like I said, the struggle never stops, and we must remember this at every breath."
Says renowned writer Dibyendu Palit: "She deserves the award fully. She has given us great literature." Literary critic Subhoranjan Dasgupta agrees: "There are people who write finer prose, whose expression is more elegant, the treatment more subtle. But that does not detract from the sheer power and depth of her oeuvre. Mahasweta Devi is different." A post-graduate in English literature and sometime college lecturer, Mahasweta Devi started early by writing historical novels and translating, among others, Jim Corbett. "I was born in a family with strong literary traditions and was fortunate enough to attend Shantiniketan when Rabin-dranath Tagore was alive. Writing came early, though not with any special purpose. What people call social activism came much later. It's for people to decide what they see me as."
She firmly disagrees that her work turned a revolutionary corner with Hajaar Churasir Ma (The Mother of Convict No. 1084), where the killing of her youngest son, a Naxalite, forces a mother to turn away from her affluent middle-class life, and try to feel and touch the dream shared by her boy and many others. "I just tried to keep a record of those turbulent times, nothing more. A daily wage-earner too works for a minimum period. Even in my first published work Jhansir Rani — Rani of Jhansi — (1956), I tried, though not very successfully, to show that 1857-58 had taken shape as a mass struggle in entire central India, fired by Rani Lakshmibai's heroic battle."
But Hajaar Churasir Ma did start Mahasweta Devi on the journey which helped her find herself and her raison d'etr e as a novelist and as a social being. A tour de force that culminated as well as branched out in epic novels like Operation Basai Tudu, Aranyer Adhikaar (The Right to the Forest), Jagamohaner Mrityu (Jagamohan's Death), Sarsatia, Ganesh Mahima (The Epic of Ganesh), Mastarsaab, and in short-stories akin to sparks of fire—Agnigarbha (Firewomb), Stanyadayini (The Breast-feeder), Urbashi O Johnny (Urbashi and Johnny), Jal (Water), Draupadi, Mother India, HF37 Reportage and Bichhan. From under the gilded garb of parliamentary democracy, she laid bare the average Indian who was everywhere a victim of the embers of feudalism—landless farmhands, dispossessed tribals, the urban rootless, dying folk artistes and artisans, bonded labour. Says a housewife: "Her work leaves even hardnosed readers disturbed and shaken, it makes us question ourselves." Akademi Award-winning Aranyer Adhikaar is a fictionalised account of Santhal leader Birsa Munda of Chotanagpur, whose short-lived revolt against the British was a microcosm of a greater struggle against imperialism, of the assertion of the right of the Mundas to the earth that fed and bore them. Stanyadayini tells the story of Jashoda, a woman who earned her living breast-feeding children of rich or ill women who didn't or couldn't feed their own but finally died of breast cancer, amidst neglect from her foster children. "To me, Jashoda was West Bengal," she said later. Similarly, Emergency was the underlying theme of Urbashi O Johnny.
Thus, the '70s also led Mahasweta Devi to her avocation—the "rehabilitation" of the denotified tribes of Lodha, Shabar and Kheriya. Branded as thieves and cast out of even the most basic economic system, they live on the fringes. Over the past decades, she has been their mother as well as friend, setting them on the road to literacy and economic independence. "When the poor tribal comes to me and asks what about the well in my village, even if I have to write for Puja publications and get money, I know what my priorities are," she avers.
Close to her heart is a literary-economic magazine called Bortika (The Lamp) she's been editing for a long time, whose main contributors are the tribals. One of whom was Chuni Kotal, the tribal girl from Midnapore district who killed herself in 1993 after she was failed by her university professor. Chuni was one of those whom Mahasweta Devi had inspired to cross over the barriers civilised society had imposed upon her community, and despite her untimely death, remains one of the best examples of her achievements.
Are there any favourites among the 115-odd books she has written? "Among my better efforts I include Noti (The Actress), Andhar Manik (Dark Pearl), Amrit Sanchay (Gathering Ambrosia), Lylie Asmaaner Aaina (Lylie Asmaan's Mirror). Then came a period of history-based literature. I focused on periods and tried to find individual symbols in history who stood for the spirit of their age. There is Koibarto Bidroha (The Mutiny of the Kaibortas), about the tyranny that Buddhist king Rampal's reign was. Also, Ganesh Mahima, Aranyer Adhikaar, Haajar Churashir Ma, later Pterodactyl." Among her contemporaries, she admires Shyamal Gangopadhyay, Debesh Roy, Afsar Ahmed, and from Bangladesh, Hasan Azizul Haque and Aktaru-zzaman Ilyas, who are known more for their seriousness of writing. To relax, she'd prefer John Grisham and Dick Francis. Francis "can't make the horses talk, but does invest them with some kind of character".
She's obviously happy about the award, a fitting gift for her birthday which falls on January 14. Writers and readers have called and written in and she's effusive about the response. Immediate priorities are: "To write better, to ensure more effective publication of my work so far, and to complete my autobiography" being serialised in a magazine, Proma, since February last and which will take two more years to complete. Of late, she has been writing on criminality, communalism and what she calls the subversion of healthy democratic movements in West Bengal. An escapist culture of consumerism is fast replacing the tradition of mass struggle, she feels, and writers are obsessed with the loves and lives of the urban middle-class. But that can hardly keep her down. For, to quote from her essay The Seventies and After: "These are bad times, these are the times to work."