With Mahasweta Devi leaving this earth, one may say that an age of resistance has come to an end. A colossal figure in the world of literature and a feisty activist who lent her voice to the poor and the dispossessed, especially the adivasis and the denotified tribes of India, her ideas and writing became the guiding principle for generations of writers, academics, journalists and activists.
Mahasweta, who was ninety, was honoured with the Sahitya Akademi, Jnanpith and the Magsaysay awards. Though she wrote mostly in Bengali, her works became globally known after the scholar-literary theorist Gayatri Chakravorty-Spivak translated them into English, and also published an insightful interview, during the eighties and nineties.
The spirited writer-activist was born in Dhaka to illustrious parents, and grew up in a family of Bengal’s leading writers, poets and filmmakers – filmmaker Ritwick Ghatak was her uncle. She was married to Bengal’s most prolific playwrights and litterateurs, Bijon Bhattacharya. Influenced by the Communist movement of the 1940s, she chose to work among the poorest of the poor in the tribal areas of southern West Bengal and in other parts of the country.
She firmly believed that India truly belonged to the adivasis long before the rest of us stepped into this country. The adivasis had no sense of property, and believed that the land and forest and river belonged to everyone. The others, who did not understand ecology and environment in a way they did, exploited them over the centuries. Today Adivasi land is being sold illegally every day, and usurped by sundry exploiters and governments all over India.
The British had added to their woes by turning the tribes into bonded slaves, and notifying some as criminals. The stigma remains to this day. Though Indian government tried to rectify this post-Independence, they are still known as “denotified tribes”. It pained her that they were still known as such.
Mahasweta fought. She reached wherever there was exploitation, and raised her voice to challenge the powers that be. She awakened the human conscience, and motivated and guided those sensitive to the injustices meted out to the most unprivileged section of Indian society.
With her passing away, Mahasweta leaves a huge void. The need of the hour is to take inspiration and encouragement from her works and continue the effort to unshackle the adivasis of this country. Truth is this need has become more pressing than ever in the contemporary age of globalisation and neo liberalism.