When I first read Mahasweta Devi’s Draupadi, it created a minor explosion in my ‘reading’ life. The theme and starkness of the story, its characters and the simplicity of its telling jolted me out of my complacence as a reader. Dopdi was a character outside known narratives, her actions, language and responses powerful counter narratives that overturned perceptions and challenged the way I’d looked at the world around me. I was only 20. The first flush of that emotion gradually settled down to a more enduring attraction and respect for Mahasweta Devi’s writings and an abiding belief in what she described as the writer’s ‘duty toward society’. I read Aranyer Adhikar, Agnigarbha, Douloti, Bayen, and others in quick succession, followed by her journalistic writings. Two and a half decades since then her stories continue to evoke anger, restlessness and deep compassion in me as a writer and reader. Little has changed in our body politic and our collective approach to the issues, people and places she wrote about.
The resistant, the rebellious, the other – these are the voices that inhabit Mahasweta Devi’s narratives; the deprived, the dispossessed, the landless, the exploited, primarily women and indigenous people. The characters and settings of her novels and short stories are culled from her long involvement as an activist for tribal welfare. In an interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Mahasweta Devi said,
‘I think a creative writer should have a social conscience. I have a duty toward society … This sense of duty is an obsession, and I must remain accountable to myself. I ask myself this question a thousand times: have I done what I could have done? My house is full of them, they write to me, they come and stay with me, I go and stay with them… The government officials admit they are afraid of me. What will I write next?’
(Imaginary Maps, Thema 1993)
People we choose to blink away, places we choose to overrun form the agnigarbha of her works, the womb of fire. The exploitation of tribal people and of women forms the major strand of Devi’s narratives; their dreams and their demands reflect the voices of all subjugated people everywhere. Mahasweta stood out among a pantheon of writers to bring this demand to narrative focus, her protagonists given the strength to fight back. Her adivasi characters are exploited but they also rise to protest, to fight for their land and for their dignity. Her women step out of the conflicts in their minds, kitchens, bedrooms and boudoirs, out into the jungles of Bihar and Bengal, demanding land, livelihood and dignity.
Mahasweta Devi’s stories are thus stories of protest, of rebellion, ulgulan. Names spring up from the pages: Dopdi Mejhen, Douloti, Chandidasi, Birsa Munda, Mary Oraon, Basai Tudu; characters inhabit spaces pushed back to the periphery of our collective consciousness and beyond, into a darkness that obliterates their way of life, superimposes a system that chooses not to take cognisance of their history, their rights, their language, their identity. Greed, power, industrial growth, development, infrastructure, mining rights – the language of an aspiring nation clashes with that of a people who have long been confined to a restricted zone that finds little mention in current fiction.
Language in Mahasweta Devi’s fiction enhances confrontation through a mix of registers – a blend of tribal and folk dialects, Bengali of the urban middle class, the Bengali of officialdom – creating a kind of dialectic that is lost in translation.
To understand the language of the other is to pierce the armour. To interpret it is to get closer to the enemy, as in Senanayak’s case (Draupadi), or to inch towards empathy and understanding as with Puran (Pterodactyl).
In Pterodactyl, a village is dying due to drought and starvation but the government is loath to concede the drought situation. The shadow of an unknown beast hovers over the people, the shadow of its ancestors’ soul. Puran, the journalist, struggles to understand the implication of this shadow, the implication of what it means to build roads and bridges and industry over the ancestral land of ancient tribes and then leave them to die of starvation.
Puran says softly, So much money is earmarked for tribals, don’t you get any aid?
… Shankar turns around, clenches his fists, and says in piercing anguish, We are late by many many moons. Now no one can show us any help.
Moon? Many moons? When the sun is merciless in the sky?….
Shankar goes on talking with his eyes closed. Alas! He speaks Hindi, Puran and Harisharan also speak Hindi, but how can one touch the other? Shankar says his say in Hindi, but the experience is a million moons old, when they did not speak Hindi. Puran thinks he doesn’t know what language Shankar’s people spoke, what they speak. There are no words in their language to explain the daily experience of the tribal in today’s India….. there are no words for ‘exploitation’ or ‘deprivation’…. There was an explosion in Puran’s head that day.
(Pterodactyl, Puran Sahay, and Pirtha. Imaginary Maps. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Thema. 1993)
In Draupadi, Senanayak must carry on with his ‘apprehension’ and ‘encounter’ in the forests of Jharkhani but in order to do so, he must interpret the language of those he encounters or apprehends. The Santhal on the other hand has assimilated the language of the outsiders, their ideas, the language of their firepower, commands and their implication: kounter, surrender, fire, apprehend, halt!, search… The system with its uniforms, its handbooks, encyclopaedias and dictionaries, its guns and informers, fumbles to understand. What does a dying Santhal’s shout of ‘Ma-ho!’ mean? What does an innocuous song sung around a murdered landlord mean? They don’t know, so they are suspicious, afraid, determined to quell whatever it is. To understand is to be armed.
Language does not always suffice. When a different register comes into force, the encounter changes shape.
Draupadi’s black body comes even closer. … Her ravaged lips bleed as she begins laughing. Draupadi wipes the blood on her palm and says in a voice that is as terrifying, sky splitting and sharp as her ululation, what’s the use of clothes? You can strip me, but how can you clothe me again? Are you a man?… I will not let you put my cloth on me. What more can you do? Come on, kounter me – come on, kounter me — ?
Draupadi pushes Senanayak with her two mangled breasts, and for the first time Senanayak is afraid to stand before an unarmed target, terribly afraid.
Draupadi of the epic is done away with; a new Dopdi stands in her place, able and determined to fight her own battles. A legend is vanquished and replaced with another truth.
Myths and legends are often used and destroyed in Devi’s works, reminding readers not only of what was but also what need not be. Myth is used not only as ancient memory but also as a past that can be changed, living history that can be redrawn. Dopdi is thus no agonised woman disrobed by men, not a ‘victim’ who will wait for her men to redeem her honour. She is fire herself, and she stands up, not protected by some god but by her own anger, her protest.
Chandidasi in Bayen is born into a caste sanctified by Raja Harishchandra but is cast out of her village on the strength of words that implicate her as a bayen, a woman who breastfeeds the corpses of dead children, whose glance or spoken word can shrivel up a tree or a human being. The power of words used against her throws her out into a space where nobody speaks to her, only the rushing wind and the train that runs past her shack. People are afraid of her presence so she must announce it by beating a tin. It is this very power that she wields in the end to thwart a train robbery – the men who plan it run away as soon as she appears before them on the railway tracks. Having put the fear of the witch in them, she throws herself in the path of the coming train to avert the accident the robbers have set up. In death, with the mangled remains of her body, she reclaims her honour in the village.
In The Hunt, Mary Oraon uses her body as bait to lure the contractor from the city who lusts for her, killing him on the dramatic night of Jaani Parab, the night women go out to hunt. It comes once every twelve years – for eleven years men go out to hunt – and Mary uses this night to bring down the big animal.
The girls say, Mary, that broker loves you.
Because he can’t catch me. If he does his love will vanish. The white man also loved my mother.
He’ll marry you.
He has a wife.
(The Hunt. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak)
Having hunted, she strides away, fearless, dauntless, leaving behind accepted norms.
By adapting myths and folklore to contemporary situations, Mahasweta Devi extends the political and cultural historical continuum to explore and question the place of indigenous peoples and of women within this larger framework. Her stories came from the people. She lived the stories she wrote.
‘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. … Sometimes it seems to me that my writing is really their doing.’
(Of Women, Outcastes, Peasants, and Rebels: A Selection of Bengali Short Stories. Kalpana Bardhan. University of California Press. 1990)
She writes about Dom, Pakhmara, Oraon, Munda, Ganju, Dusad, Santhal, of women within and outside these groups, of bonded labour and slavery that should have been cursed words from another era but continue to haunt a ‘modern’ nation. Writing in the mid and late twentieth century, she questions the exploitation of the tribal and of tribal land but the questions she raises persist into the first quarter of the twenty-first century.
Her themes are universal and, ironically, seem to be eternal.
What has changed? How much has changed? How can we change?