As tributes pour in for Mahasweta Devi who died at a Calcutta hospital on July 28 where she was admitted after suffering a massive heart attack on July 23, I am reminded of my own interactions with her.
Whenever I visited Mahasweta Di at her Golf Green residence, I found her hunched over her desk – scattered with books and notebooks – writing. She would raise her head to welcome me, nodding for me to sit down on the only other chair by the side of the table. She would rarely smile exuberantly but invariably exuded an inexplicable warmth which is what I will miss most about her.
I first went to interview her before the West Bengal state elections of 2011, when she publicly declared her support for Mamata Banerjee, lending her weight to the Trinamool Congress Party’s agitations in Singur and Nandigram against land acquisition by the then Left Front government.
Known earlier for her Left-leaning ideology as the majority of Bengal’s intellectual class was, the questions I had decided to put to her pertained to the shift in her political stance.
But before I could ask anything, she shot me a query, which I admit, I was somewhat taken aback by.
“How much money will you give me?” She said point blank. While I have encountered similar demands at other times from celebrities whose interviews I sought, to me it came as a bit of a letdown from someone whom I held in the highest regard, not just for her deep commitment to the uplift of the underprivileged, especially tribal women, but for her outstanding literary work. I did not expect Mahasweta Devi to have a single mercenary bone in her body.
My reaction – unexpressed of course – stemmed from my own Bengali middle class value system in which we put “greatness” – a quality I had grown to attach Mahasweta Devi to – and “materialism” into two mutually exclusive categories.
But no sooner had these thoughts of disappointment flashed through my mind, did I realize how wrong I was in making judgments.
In reply to my “What are your charges for an interview, Mahasweta Di?” she said, “Whatever your newsmagazine wants to give. This is for my organisation (in support of tribals and poor dalits). The owners of Outlook Magazine are rich. They can afford to spend some money on the needy.”
Okay, so she was a bit of a Robin Hood who wouldn’t give two hoots about what you thought of her as she unabashedly ensnared the haves into involuntary corporate social responsibility for the have-nots.
I was to visit her many more times, not necessarily for interviews (and therefore thankfully minus the talk of monetary transactions) and each time I felt more enriched by the sheer depth of her empathy and love for the poor, downtrodden and oppressed. No matter what her mood – she could be cranky –she was always up for a discussion on the tribal folk of West Bengal’s Jungle Mahal.
I met her once after one of my visits to the disturbed area for a reporting assignment, when she asked me in detail about the people I interacted with. She would listen silently, looking intently with sharp, keen eyes through thick glasses. It was difficult not to feel inadequate during these sessions, because you always got the sense that no matter what you could tell her, she somehow always knew more.
Indeed, anyone who has read Mahasweta Devi’s short stories, novels and accounts of the poor, the dalits and tribals, would be dazzled by the detailing…as though experienced from the inside, not an outsider’s observation.
Of course, she was not unfamiliar with pain and struggle in her own life.
Born on January 14, 1926 in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) her family was forced to move to West Bengal at the time of Partition. Though from an illustrious family – her parents were renowned scholars, writers and social activists – she went through a period of extreme financial – and emotional – struggle after her divorce only eleven years after her marriage to husband, Bijon Bhattacharya, famous thespian and founder of the Indian People’s Theatre Association whom she had married at the age of 22.
It was only after she landed a teaching job at Bijoygarh College four years later that she was able to slowly pick up the pieces.
In her 91 years, the author, activist and social reformer received every single one of the country’s highest civilian and literary awards, including the Sahitya Academy, the Padma Shri and the Padma Vibhushan.
Her literary works have been translated into several languages, turned into films and even inspired lives, with even Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee claiming that she was an influence.
Her later life had however attracted controversy especially what has been perceived to be her inconsistent political statements. Just two years after the Trinamool government came to power, Mahasweta Devi criticised Mamata’s policies even calling her “fascistic”, something which Mamata publicly denounced, calling them “uncalled for and unexpected”. Again two years later, at a rally on January 30, 2014, before the general elections, Mahasweta Devi publicly declared (with Mamata sitting by her side on the same stage and looking mortified) that she wanted to see Mamata as Prime Minister. These diametrically opposite points of view about the current state government led critics to make allegations – though unfounded and often unkind – that the great lady too may have been “bought over”.
There have been rumours too of a falling out with her son and only child, renowned novelist Nabarun Bhattacharya (who died two years ago), who had been consistently critical of the Mamata government, over the issue of his mother’s political support to the current regime.
Though for the most part nonchalant to these reports and rumours, Mahasweta Di, usually unapologetically vocal and forthcoming in her views, nevertheless grew to be on her guard as I discovered, to my dismay. In 2014, when I called her for a reaction to a current controversy surrounding the present regime, she said, “I will think about it and then comment.” But eventually she didn’t make any statement prompting me to believe that maybe – just maybe - the criticism and controversies were getting to her too.
When her grandson Tathagata posted the news of his grandmother’s hospitalisation on Facebook, prayers poured in. There are, have been, and will be others to fight for the cause of the poor, the dalits, the tribals. But perhaps no one else has been able to depict their sorrows and sufferings with so much poignancy as has done Mahasweta Di.