Mahasweta Devi was born into a middle class Bengali family on 14 January, 1926. She was the eldest of nine children and was surrounded by a culturally rich environment right from the moment of her birth. Her father Manish Chandra Ghatak was a renowned poet and prose writer while her mother Dharitri Devi was a writer too in her own rights. The extended family consisted of aunts and uncles who had won prominence as artists, journalists, actors and filmmakers. Some of the more familiar names are those of the famous actor and film director Ritwick Ghatak, the equally famous cinematographer Sudhish Ghatak and the renowned sculptor Sankho Chowdhury.
While her family exposed Devi to a rich amalgamation of literary and fine arts it also sensitized her to the plight of those less fortunate in society. Both her parents were social activists working for the uplift of the poor and downtrodden. The women in her family devoted a great part of their time to promote literacy among the poor. Her grandparents made it a point to see that their grandchildren did not wear any expensive clothes but only what the poorest of the poor in the village wore.
Devi picked up her education at various places. Her early schooling was done at the Medinipur
Missionary Girls’ School. Subsequently she attended Middle School in Shantiniketan and went on to finish her schooling from Beltala Girls’ School in Calcutta in the year 1942. Subsequently she attended Asutosh College of Calcutta University (1943-1944) and then returned to Shantiniketan to earn her graduate degree in 1946. The same year she married Bijon Bhattacharya, an actor as well as a playwright. He was also an active member of the Communist Party of India.
Devi worked as a school teacher and then as a clerk for some time but lost her job. It was around this time that she began to turn her energies towards writing, particularly because she desperately needed to augment her income. Bijon was not doing too well and now she even had an infant son at home who needed care and comfort.
Being born into a family of strong literary traditions, writing came easily to Devi. She wrote for ‘Sachitra Bharat’, a Bengali weekly, under the pen name of Sumitra Devi. Her early writings were light fiction with not much serious twist to it. Her first major work Jhansir Rani (1956) however, launched her as a writer to be reckoned with.
The writing of Jhansir Rani determined the method of her art. She did not rely only on imagination or creativity. She researched her subject thoroughly, to the extent of going to Bundelkhand, travelling on foot through remote villages and desert lands, collecting whatever material she could find on the brave queen in the form of legends, folk ballads, interviewing people who still remembered the queen and collecting further material from oral history and not just archival data. This researching style came to characterize her writings in later times.
Devi’s marriage with Bijon broke up in 1962. She began to live on her own. She finished her master’s degree from Calcutta in 1962 and then worked as an English lecturer from 1964-84 at Bijoygarh Jyotish Roy College. This was a small private college catering mostly to the poor refugee population in Calcutta. She continued writing at the same time. Her first novel was followed by other works that brought her critical acclaim. Amrit Sanchay , Andhamalik,, Hazar Chaurasir Maa are just to name a few.
The Writer as Activist
Devi’s visit to Palamau, a remote and extremely poor district in Bihar, proved to be a turning point in her life. It brought her face to face with the dismal conditions being faced by the indigenous (tribal) people of Palamau. There was no education, no healthcare, no roads, and no means of livelihood. People were reduced to a subhuman existence. It was a vicious combination of ‘absentee landlordism, a despoiled environment, debt bondage and state neglect.’ Palamau was not unique. In fact Devi calls it ‘the mirror of India’.
Her Palamau experience propelled her towards what became the main focus of her subsequent writings. She now concentrated all her literary energy in exposing the dismal living conditions of the tribal people in India, to highlight their social exploitation and in the process she became a champion for their political, social and economic advancement. Her concerns resulted in works like Aranyer Adhikar(1977) and Choti Munda O Tara Tir (1979) and collections like Agnigarbha (1979). Imaginary Maps, the collection of three stories which contains ‘The Hunt’ is also a part of her relentless efforts to expose the condition of the marginalized tribal people in various parts of India.
What is remarkable in Devi’s writings is her complete and total identification not only with the major concerns in her writings but also with the oppressed and the marginalized people about whom she is writing. Recounting her experiences to Gayatri Spivak in an interview Devi throws some light on her close ties with the tribal people and their cause:
‘When I understood that feeling for the tribals and writing about them was not enough, I started living with them. Tried to solve the problem by seeing everything from his or her point of view. That is how my book about Birsa Munda [Aranyer Adhikar – the right of/to the forest] came to be written,’
She actually feels deeply about the people and issues she is writing about. There is therefore a strong connection between her literary writings and her activist endeavours.
In fact Devi has become a major spokesperson for the tribal people. Writing in her Preface to Imaginary Maps Gayatri Spivak rightly observes ‘It has always fascinated me that although her writing and her activism reflect one another, they are precisely that –“a folding back upon” one another – re-flection in the root sense.’
Devi’s creative expression and her activist concerns are not different from one another. Not only has she written regularly about the tribals and their plight in newspapers, journals and magazines she has also been instrumental in the formation of a number of organizations that fight for their right. In Palamu for example she formed the Palamu District Bonded Labor Liberation Organization. When a Lodha killing took place in Medinipur, Devi formed the Lodha Organization which launched protests. In Purulia, the most neglected and poorest district in West Bengal, Devi formed the Purulia Kheria Sobor Organization which consistently fought for the rights of the tribal people. Devi is thus helping the tribal people not only by creating awareness about their cause through her writings but is carrying on her crusade through more than thirty organizations formed by her that continually work towards the tribal people’s uplift.
Devi’s Style and Method
Devi’s writings are so carefully researched that they can almost be treated as a documentation of facts. Commenting about this aspect of her writing she says:
‘I believe in documentation. After reading my work, the reader should face the truth of facts, and feel duly ashamed of the true face of India’ .
What is remarkable in Devi’s works is her belief in the capacity for self-emancipation in these marginalized people. In fact she becomes a strong campaigner for their resistance to this exploitation. Through her stories Devi is relentlessly working to spread this consciousness of the necessity for struggle for attainment of dignity and human rights. She has become the champion of this cause as far as the marginalized communities are concerned. She has become their ‘Didi’ and ‘Maa’ who hold a beacon of hope for them.
Devi was awarded the Sahitya Academy Prize in 1996 and is also the winner of the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award. She continues to work for the oppressed and write about them.