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Inspiration

The loss of a literary, journalistic, and activist legend — the life and works of Mahasweta Devi

Binjal Shah
29th Jul 2016
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A gem of our time, legendary writer and social activist Mahasweta Devi breathed her last earlier today at Kolkata’s Belle Vue Clinic. She had been keeping unwell and had been undergoing treatment for some age-related ailments for two months. The Padma Vibhushan, Sahitya Akademi, and Jnanpith award winner suffered a cardiac arrest and multi-organ failure, which led to her demise. “Her condition deteriorated at 3 PM. We tried our level best, but suddenly her condition became very bad and at 3.16 pm she passed away,” P. Tandon, CEO of the nursing home said, according to an IANS report.

The celebrated author is survived by her daughter-in-law, and the love and reverence of the thousands of Dalit lives she touched through her activism and writing. Here is her lifetime in the moments of the sublime inspiration she was so often known to induce:

Mahasweta Devi HS

Born into greatness

She was born in 1926 in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in a family of high-achievers and literary aficionados. Her father, Manish Ghatak, who went by the pseudonym Jubanashwa, was a well-known poet and novelist during the Kallol movement. Her mother, Dharitri Devi, also active during the movement, was a writer and social worker just like Mahasweta. Her uncles were the noted sculptor Sankha Chaudhury; the founder-editor of the Economic and Political Weekly, Sachin Chaudhury; and Ritwik Ghatak, a noted filmmaker. Born into such a hotbed of intellectual stimulation, Mahasweta was on the path to being a change-maker early on. She first went to school in Dhaka, but migrated to the Indian motherland after partition. After settling in West Bengal, she completed her education at the Rabindranath Tagore-founded Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan and procured a BA (Hons) in English, and an MA in English at Calcutta University.

While married to renowned playwright Bijon Bhattacharya, one of the founding pillars of the IPTA movement, she gave birth to one of our country’s finest novelists, Nabarun Bhattacharya. She and Bijon later separated, after a 12-year marriage.

First strike

She started her career in three high-impact fields — as an educator at Calcutta’s Bijoygarh College, an educational institution for working women; a journalist; and a creative writer, all at the same time. During her tenure, she came to be a champion of Dalit issues and rights, and championed especially the problems of the Lodhas and Shabars, the tribal communities of her home state. She also came in contact with the tribals in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh. She thereby dedicated her life to uplifting theirs, through activism and literature, and became a celebrated Bengali activist and author.

She had once famously said, when asked what inspired her fictional work: “I have always believed that the real history is made by ordinary people. I constantly come across the reappearance, in various forms, of folklore, ballads, myths and legends, carried by ordinary people across generations. The reason and inspiration for my writing are those people who are exploited and used, and yet do not accept defeat. For me, the endless source of ingredients for writing is in these amazingly noble, suffering human beings. Why should I look for my raw material elsewhere, once I have started knowing them? Sometimes it seems to me that my writing is really their doing.”

Her works

She has authored over a hundred novels that gave voice to Dalit oppression, women’s issues, and exploitation. Her literary milestones were Aranyer Adhikar or ‘The Occupation of the Forest’ that won her the Sahitya Akademi Award (Bengalo); and other masterpieces like Imaginary Maps, Breast Givers, Our Non-Veg Cow, that were all translated to several languages, and won her an array of coveted honours. Hazar Chaurasi ki Ma and Rudaali, both award-winning films, were based on her novels. So was the acclaimed Maati Maay.

Awards

Apart from winning the highest civilian honours in the literary sphere, namely the Padma Vibhushan, Sahitya Akademi, and Jnanpith awards, her journalistic excellence was also awarded with the Ramon Magsaysay Award — Journalism, Literature, and the Creative Communication Arts. In 2011, she was the recipient of the Banga Bibhushan awards, which were the highest civilian award from the Government of West Bengal. She made it to the Hall of Fame for Lifetime Achievement Sahityabrahma, and even became the first ever recipient of the Mamoni Raisom Goswami National Award for Literature, constituted by the Assam Sahitya Sabha.

Till the end

More recently, Mahasweta Devi had been spearheading the movement against the government of West Bengal’s industrial policy. She challenged the confiscation of large tracts of fertile agricultural land from farmers by the government, and their ceding to industrial houses at throwaway prices. Various intellectuals, artists, writers, and theatre artists were inspired out of their inaction, and marched alongside the workers to protest the controversial policy in Singur and Nandigram. She also supported Budhan Theatre — the theatre group of the Chhara Denotified Tribals of Gujarat.

Her stellar work for the sabars, a socio-economically backward tribal clan in Bihar, earned her the title ‘The mother of the Sabars.’

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