June 21, 2021
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'The Reaction Has Been So Minimal Among The Urban Educated'

The unassuming, committed writer whose book Titu Mir is on the Crossword Book Award shortlist, talks about her writing and her work among the tribals.

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'The Reaction Has Been So Minimal Among The Urban Educated'
Prashant Panjiar
'The Reaction Has Been So Minimal Among The Urban Educated'
Subhoranjan Dasgupta: Your first book Jhansir Rani (The Queen of Jhansi) was published in 1956. Its format was conventional -- that of a biographical novel. Since then you have been ceaselessly productive and have broken new ground with novels like Araneyer Adhikar (The Right to the Forest) and Titu Mir where your political and human commitment has found eloquent expression. How would you describe this evolution, this progress?
Mahasweta Devi:
I do not believe in describing the evolution myself. But first I should say that Jhansir Rani was not a novel in the accepted sense of the term. It was my feeble attempt to write a biography based on historical research. Moreover, for the first time, I utilized oral tradition here as source-material of history and this I have been doing ever since. In fact, in order to write Jhansir Rani, I went to the people of the region, I collected the local ballads and folklore. After this first attempt, my other texts came where I tried to trace -- what you might say -- the 'man-graph'. This was an unbroken process. My interest in human history deepened though it was different from the interest professed by conventional historians. I tried to examine the impact of history on human beings. Awareness of history leads to the enquiry of moving human patterns, documentation of time, struggles and revolts. All these constitute history and I am a part of it.

And that is how 'Araneyer Adhikar' and 'Titu Mir' came into being?
Not only these two novels but also so many other stories and works of fiction. For example, my creative account of Sidho-Kano's rebellion and my narrative of the first Santhal revolt of Baba Tilkamajhi, my stories in Gram Bangla (Rural Bengal) -- and many others. Even the very recent defiance of Suraj Ragrai who tried to stop the construction of a dam that would have evicted tribals in the eighties should be mentioned in this context. I wrote on this defiance as well.

You are constantly writing, so it is very difficult to single out a novel which could be described as the watershed, as a turning point. But many still regard your classic Araneyer Adhikar as such. Do you agree?
Araneyer Adhikar
is, indeed, very important. Though this does not mean that I am minimizing the importance of texts like Amritasanchay (Collecting Ambrosia) and Adharmanik (Jewel in the Dark) You see, Araneyer Adhikar is different in tone and tenor, it revolves around the revolt of the tribal hero Birsa Munda. I wrote this novel with a clear purpose and because I nursed a sore grievance. Nowhere in the conventional history-writing of our freedom movement has tribal revolt been given its due importance. The clear anti-imperialistic nature of this revolt has not been recognised -- tribals have been ignored by historians. I wanted to correct this very, very big mistake and, of course, my first-hand knowledge of the place and the people concerned helped me a lot. I really do not understand this silence. Birsa Munda died in 1900, he soon turned into a legend, a myth and inspired freedom fighters for a long time.

You have been deeply involved with the Adivasis -- with their lives, their problems, their aspirations. What draws you so inexorably to the Adivasis? This question is important because you have also said that you did not go to them to seek mere material for your fiction.
Subho, I cannot explain. I can only say that I chose, that I opted for them ignoring the mainstream. I did not go to the Ganga and Jamuna, I went to the unknown rivers and hills deliberately, to the jungle streams. You know why? The tribals roused my sense of respect for them, great respect and deep love. Let me declare -- I have not seen till date such a civilized community. Tribal society in this country is much more civilized, sophisticated and knowledgeable than others. I went to them to learn, not to teach. I went to them to seek inspiration.

Your bypassing the mainstream and going to the margin is intrinsically connected with your concept and vision of history. Do you at all think that the real history of the Indian people has been written?
There is absolutely no doubt that there are yawning gaps in our conventional historiography. I am aware of it but this painful awareness did not lead me in a conscious manner to the tribals. I just went to them and the more my age advances the more I want to strengthen my bonds with that society-with their oral tradition, system of knowledge, memory. I am really shocked at the ignorance of many. By tribals these many would imply only Santhals, even in West Bengal. Though there are so many other tribes who are not Santhals.

You have referred to the role of the oral tradition and the impact of collective memory. Your close friend and writer Akhtaruzzaman Elias of Bangladesh who died some years ago also attached a lot of importance to memory as you do. Why?
Memory is so crucial, past is so crucial. Tell me, what is our present other than a continuation and product of the past. Similarly, our future is born out of our present. So, in order to understand our present and visualize our future we have to go back to our past with the help of memory. The more I am growing old, the more I realize that the past needs a much better documentation. We have to do this otherwise the past could get obliterated. Think of the present Bengali middle-class -- does its young members recall ever how their grandparents lived. The same is happening with tribal life. The influence and impact of the pressing 'Outside' is disturbing its nature, system, tradition and beliefs. If no effort is made to preserve these, a big erosion might take place. This is the time to go to them and help them in their act of preservation, in their retaining the crux of the tribal experience. This urgency on my part is reflected in my short story The Last Shamanin, which I consider to be very important in this respect.

Well, in many such texts women with their courage, fortitude and bravery play a pivotal role. In Rudali and Gohumani for example. With these stories in mind, some claim you are an integral part of the feminist movement. Now , do you regard this movement, this women struggle as an integral part of the total socio-economic fight for emancipation ?
Women's fight and women's assertion is not something entirely distinct. It is very much a part of the broader struggle. You have just referred to Rudali and Gohumani -- these have emerged from my engagement in Palamau, the poorest district in Bihar, where class-based feudal oppression crushes the deprived-men, women, children. The women fight against this oppression because they have to live, they win and they live. I have a special weakness for Gohumani. Though bonded-labour was abolished by law in 1976, it still survives in Palamau. Well, in 1979- 80, the bonded labourers there began their fight, for the first time in India. I was present there and Gohumani is an outcome of that experience and struggle. Hence, it has to be stressed and restressed that the women's fight is an indispensable part of the bigger fight.

This intense involvement with the tribes -- with the Lodhas, Sabars and others -- has taken a lot of your time. As a result, your time for creativity has been reduced. Has this reduction affected the literary or aesthetic quality of your work?
Let me answer this briefly. Point one, I do not think that literature should be measured with the separate yardsticks of style, structure, expressiveness, technique. Any worthwhile evaluation of literature should take into account the message and perspective. The question should be -- has the style or structure been able to convey the message or create the human cum historical perspective.

Point two, I know that my activism has demanded a lot of time but this time I have given willingly. Because this process of activism has deepened my experience, given it concrete shapes, defined the nucleus of my commitment. I have been a professional writer since I wrote Jhansir Rani , that is, I depend on my earnings as a writer for my living and I am once again back to my vocation in real earnest. Only last year I wrote the novel -- Budhan-ekti Raat Kahani which is a depiction of brutish reality as well as an example of magic realism. Without this element of magic realism, you cannot explain the tribals. I shall be writing the sequel or second part this year-I have kept notes in detail and this would be a really ambitious venture. Raat kahani refers to the narration of stories at night and it includes legends, tales, recollections -- all a part of the rich oral tradition of the tribals. It is the source of magic realism.

Would then this be the epic which you desired to write on the life of the tribals?
Perhaps, could be. Budhan, a tribal, was killed in 1998. Seeking justice we went to the High Court and won. Budhan belonged to a denotified (ex-criminal) tribe and for the last twenty years I have been fighting for these denotified tribes. I have written so many articles on their plight but the reaction has been so minimal among the urban educated. So many Lodhas had been killed, Chuni Kotal committed suicide but so few are aware of these happenings. I mean, so few of the middle-class. Lodhas and Sabars are killed just because they are born into these denotified tribes while much greater criminals romp away scot free. Even the enlightened Bengali middle-class did not react. But, fortunately, the tribals themselves have responded and helped and with the cooperation of the Sabar community we are active in Purulia. The tribals regard me as their own. Will you believe, at this moment, 60 million in our country are members of such denotified tribes who neither have ration cards nor voting rights. They are simply forgotten. So, I think, by narrating the story of Budhan I shall be writing the story of these 60 million, of their deprivation and their struggle.

Many artistes and directors belonging to other creative spheres have returned to your stories time and again for their ventures: Usha Ganguly, Govind Nihalani ...
As for Usha, she is always ready to choose brave and unconventional themes for her productions. I shall never forget her Court-Martial -- it was excellent.

Why is your fiction most translated from Bengali to other languages, Indian as well as foreign?
This question you should put to the translators. Ask them. Let me mention an interesting detail. My Araneyer Adhikar received the Academy Award after it had been translated into Hindi. Well, I receive letters every day from non-Bengali readers. They have read my work in their languages and say that my texts are very Indian, in the sense they reflect the Indian reality faithfully and they can identify themselves with this reality.

From Sahitya Akademy to Magasaysay, you have won so many awards. How do you react to these?
In spite of all these awards, I simply remain what I am. I should say that these awards do not stir me deeply, they do not touch my inside. I am sorry to say this.

Adivasis, whom you love and live with, are now the target of the Sangh Parivar. They are being converted or as the Parivar says 'brought back' to Hinduism....
I had been protesting against this for quite some time. The programme of the Sangh Parivar began in the eighties and I saw it in operation in Jamshedpur and nearby -- tribals being used for RSS parades and to ignite communal riots. You see, Adivasis are nature-worshippers, basically. They are also very simple and therefore can be won over easily. This is very very unfortunate, the role and activity of the RSS.

You grew up in a Communist atmosphere, your husband was the famous dramatist Bijan Bhattacharjee who was a party-member. But somehow you broke off from the conventional Communist orbit of the proletariat and the middle-class and reached the marginal people. How could you effect this break?
Somenath Hore, Reba Hore and I were discussing this very point recently. It is true that I grew up in a Communist atmosphere and Bijan was my husband. But I, myself, was not a member of the Party. When I was a student I worked during the Bengal Famine as a Left volunteer but later I have not been much involved. When I was with Bijan I was primarily a housewife. I attended to my son and tried to earn. It is this distance or non-involvement that helped me to proceed beyond the Leftist orbit to the marginal people.

I believe you have quite a few favourite authors -- Advaita Mallabarman, Satinath Bhaduri, Akhtaruzzaman Elias. But who has exercised the greatest influence on you?
To answer this question, I have to go back to our poet of the Middle Ages -- Kabikankan Mukundaram Chakravarti. To him I have paid my homage in texts like Bene-bou(Goldsmith's wife), Kabi Bandaghati Gainer Jiban O Mrityu (The Life and Death of Kabi Bandaghati Gain). Mukundaram opened my eyes, he revealed to me the tremendous potential of the language of the people, to the turns of phrases and expressions rooted to the soil.

Do you have any special love for any of your story or novel?
I have to say that I do not regard Hazar Churasir Ma (Mother of 1084) as a masterpiece. People shower it with praise, I keep silent. I regard Pterodactyl as a much more meaningful work. Of all the novels I have written I consider the following as important, they deserve a special mention : Araneyer Adhikar, Amritasanchay, Adharmanik, Kabi Bandhaghati Gainer Jiban O Mrityu, Sri Sri Ganesh Mahima.

And now, to the last query which perhaps sums up your quest and aspiration, activism and commitment. From Jhansir Rani onwards, repeatedly, you have recalled the revolts and rebellions of the oppressed -- Birsa Munda, Titu Mir, Majnu Shah, right down till the Naxalites. What lesson have you drawn from these abortive uprisings? Why do you go back to these figures again and again?
I object to the word 'abortive ' because the defeats of these rebels have been more glorious than victory. Take specific instances -- the Sepoy Mutiny, tribal rebellions -- yes, the rebels lost but they were glorious in their defeat. I see the past in that way. Naxalites fascinated me as well-their bravery and sacrifice. Hazar Churasir Ma had to be written because I saw with my eyes what was happening all around and I had to record it.

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