Mahashveta Devi: An Intimate View

Pankaj Singh

The mere mention of her name conjures up an image of a person who signifies a rare union of revolutionary creativity and radical social action. Mahashveta Devi's contribution to Bengali literature as a fiction writer has been enormous and unique. The eldest child of poet and writer Manish Ghatak and Dharitri Devi, Mahashveta Devi (born January 14, 1926, Dhaka) was educated at Shantiniketan and Calcutta University. After her M.A. in English Literature she took up teaching and journalistic assignments but because of her political views and an indomitable spirit could never settle with any one particular job. In order to merely survive she got involved with all kinds of non-creative enterprises too, but eventually chose to live off her writings only. Her first major book was 'Jhansir Rani' (The Queen of Jhansi) based on the life of the young queen of Jhansi - Lakshmibai - who valiantly fought against British colonialism during the great Indian revolt of 1857. Beginning her creative journey with this book she has written more than a hundred books that include classics like 'Hazar Churasir Maan' (The Mother of 1084), 'Aranyer Audhikar' (The Right to the Forest) 'Chotti Munda Aar Taar Teer' (Chotti Munda and his Arrow) and 'Master Saab' (The School Teacher) etc. Apart from these acclaimed novels she has written hundreds of short stories and essays on social and cultural themes.

The most important fact about Mahashveta is that in the latter half of this century she has not only fought against the forces of darkness and exploitation in the semi-feudal and semi-colonial Indian society with the tools of language, but during her wandering in the villages, forests, and small and big cities alike, she has also spread the consciousness of the necessity of struggle among the exploited and suppressed poor people for the attainment of their dignity and human rights. To hundreds of thousands of such people she has become their 'Didi' (elder sister) and 'Maan' (Mother) as a beacon of inspiration and hope.

Mahashveta's incessant battle against the perpetrators of exploitation and an insensitive and callously status quoist government machinery as regards the rights of Indian tribals since independence has won her the rank of a living deity. By the Indian media too she has been accorded a status that could match with the cultural giants of Bengal - Rabindranath Tagore and his illustrious brothers, Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Vibhutibhushan Vandopadhyay etc. in our times. It can be safely said that around and about her personality new myths are beginning to form.

Mahashveta presents a dazzling style of fiction - though deeply embedded in the classical Bengali tradition of a deliberately naive romantic narrative, yet dissecting the experience with her sharp edge of realistic world vision. The cumulative effect of her works has moved mountains of literary hypocrisy and amoral insensitivity of critics - precisely because they find her works uniquely placed beyond their capacity of normal perception and yet immensely awe-inspiring.

Yet her own creative process and ensuing achievements and fame hardly offer any comfort to her restless soul. She has concentrated her creativity and social activity mainly in the sub-human conditions of the Indian tribes and the monstrous cobwebs of oppression in which they are caught. She has formed more than thirty organisations of the different tribes in many parts of India and despite her old age and other odds she travels extensively to inspire and coordinate the movements of the tribals.

Mahashveta Devi has received many coveted awards and honours for her writing and work including the Magsaysay Award. Her books have been translated into more than a dozen Indian and foreign languages.

Politically Mahashveta has been close to the revolutionary life in Indian politics and many of her books bear testimony to her explicit sympathy with the Naxalites, but now she is charting out her own course in her work among the tribals.

In the following interview, which is one part of her long conversation with Pankaj Singh during her last visit to Delhi, she talks about her life and concerns in her own inimitable style. While in conversation with Pankaj Singh she also had two of her comrades Prof. Ganesh Devi (an eminent English critic) and Laxman Gayakwad (Marathi writer and social activist) with her.

PS: Now that you have done so much of writing, achieved so much, what are those important things in your memories that haunt you? Like things in childhood go deep down in one's personality and manifest themselves in later life... or later when a person's consciousness and personality are taking shape, then the types of relationships, nature of events, the heat and pressures of one's ambience leave their imprint. Please tell me how the process of the formation of your personality was in the beginning?

MD: I don't know how and what all I should tell you about my life! My family was magnificent.. really beautiful and the atmosphere was such that my grandparents - maternal as well as paternal - were extremely concerned about the freedom of the country. The brothers of my mother were also dedicated to this goal. My maternal grandmother was constantly active to eradicate illiteracy among women. My maternal grandfather was a poor lawyer. Poor because he fought on behalf of the armed revolutionaries and others like them. In their court cases it was not possible to get any fees. The city of Dhaka was an area of zamindars (landlords). When everybody would have gone to their schools and colleges and my maternal grandfather to the courts, my maternal grandmother would take either my mother or her sister, herd together the illiterate girls of the area and run classes at the home itself - from primary literacy classes to Standard Eight. Then my mother's sister would be assigned the job of getting them admitted to proper schools. My mother too maintained this tradition. My mother lost her eyesight about 13 years before her death, still she would educate the accompanying maid by using her finger to write on the back of the maid.

I witnessed all this from my early childhood. All those memories have continued to flow in my life and practice. My area of operation has grown much larger but the seeds were sown right in those days.

PS: These memories are linked with your mother and maternal family. Your father - Manish Ghatak - too, was a poet and artiste. You revived his magazine 'Vartika' under your editorship. How are your memories of him?

MD: You are right. My father was a literary writer... and much more, but the most important fact about him is that everyday, at home, we used to have a festive atmosphere because of him. Any narration on my part shall be insufficient if I try to describe the kind of ambience of literature and culture, jest and humour and overall conviviality that my brothers, sisters and parents created. I never came across such a family.

... My mother had a cow. She was the first non-vegetarian cow of India. Oh, even that non-vegetarian cow had to come to our family only. She would never eat anything without fish or chicken.

Due to this she had developed the character of a tiger. Indeed she had become a tiger... she would leap so beautifully and as efficiently as the man-eating leopard of Jim Corbett. And this cow also was much educated. My father would say 'look at her craving for education!' That is because she used to munch up all the textbooks of my sisters and brothers.

My father, a man of unique qualities used to drink too. At times he would officially give up this habit of drinking. He would say, 'from today I would never touch alcohol'. I never said anything about this but my mother did. We lived in a single storey house. We used to keep the cow's fodder on the roof top. My father used to hide his Scotch bottles in the husk. He would go up there for a little walk in the evening and cheat us officially by gulping down the Scotch. The cow too would climb up the stairs and break the bottles while eating the husk. She would be much contented after eating the husk which was mixed with Scotch.

This episode of the scotch-'n-fodder meal of the cow happened so repeatedly that we did not find it strange. (Laughter). Our normal life was full of such bizarre incidents. But for others these things were not normal. In a small town of Bengal many of these things could not be imagined. I used to ride bicycles with my father.

PS: But you were in Dhaka. Weren't you?

MD: Yes, we were in Dhaka but lived at various other places too. My father was an income tax officer. His was a transferable job - moving from this to that town. This was the reason why he sent me to Shantiniketan for schooling. Then, Rabindranath Tagore was alive. History was in the making - one in my home and another in the outside world. How do I tell you... the life was beautiful. But that life did not prepare me for my later life.

PS: In that case, how did you get prepared for the extraordinary life that you lived? What were your sources of inspiration?

MD: Well, whatever happens in life, happens naturally. A river comes from somewhere and drifts away to places - still that is its naturalness. It does no preparation for this. But the later part of my life, after my marriage with Bijon, was different. He was a communist - a member of the Communist Party. I was never so. But in 1943 during the Bengal Famine I did work with the party. The Communist Party became legal. I have seen history take shape and was a natural participant in that process - in a most normal way.

After my marriage with Bijon there began a life which was full of fierce struggle. Before, I had never faced any financial problem. I had enormous self-esteem so it was not possible for me to seek any assistance from anywhere. My family understood this so they never humiliated me by offering to help. I had chosen a life of struggle for myself and it was all right.

PS: How did you get married to Bijon Bhattacharya?

MD: Look, there is this innate thing in my character. If someone tells me, you must not do it, then I'll certainly do that thing. If I am told, 'do it', then I won't.

I had not seen Bijon's 'Navann', (the most famous play directed by Bijon Bhattacharya in the forties ed.). He was in the Communist Party - active in IPTA (Indian People's Theatre Association). We were in the student's wing. The rules were very strict. He had no contact with me. But my friend and classmate Tripti Bhaduri, (who later became Tripti Mitra after her marriage with the theatre director Shambhu Mitra) was in the cultural squad. I was not. In that period I had heard of Bijon, but had not seen any of his plays. Then in 1946 I took admission in M.A. English in Calcutta University. Around that period people had began to gossip about my beliefs and association with the Communist Party.

My father held the view that a girl should be married off around the age of 20-22. He had himself got married at the age of 23. Satyen Majumdar, a famous journalist and revolutionary was my father's drinking partner. My father called him 'Dada' (an elder brother). The two of them decided that Bijon and I should be introduced to each other and be married. After our introduction all our relatives began to say, 'oh, she is the best girl in the family and look at what the boy does! Hardly anything. Only directs plays and that too of the communist kind.' Bijon was much senior in age too - eleven to twelve years older than I...

PS: Then, how come your father was so willing?

MD: For my father it was quite normal - his being a communist, doing plays and earning nothing, it was all right. My father thought such people are truthful humans. All the relatives opined, such a marriage was not proper must never be done... don't do it... don't do it. Yet the marriage took place. I also felt relieved. But there was not a long courtship before the marriage. We had met only three or four times. The life which began from that point was replete with struggle but I did not mind. That was my first introduction to poverty. Then in 1948 we had our son - Navarun. Life was full of travails. That life taught me good lessons and prepared me for my present life. I learnt then how wretched poverty could be, I knew how it feels when one is hungry. I spent a long span of time in those conditions. In 1948-49 the Tebhaga Movement was on like the CPI-ML movement now. After the Telangana one. After the Communist Party's failure in Telangana it was a major experiment.

... we lived in a small room in Tollygunj (Calcutta). For Bijon it was not possible to stay at home. He would leave very early in the morning and come back very late in the might. There would be nothing else in the house other than a tin of milk for the child. We would starve for days and days in a row. This starvation gave me glandular tuberculosis. But I managed with all this. Little by little life went on. Now looking back... going into those remote memories...! Whatever that was... I am full of gratitude towards those days because they have made me.

PS: Would you like to say something about your divorce from Bijon Bhattacharya?

MD: No, that is very personal. Bijon, too, never talked about it all his life. I have also never spoken a word. I won't... ever... Marriage and break - both were personal affairs...

PS: You worked so hard for your livelihood. Worked as a teacher, clerk, commercial entrepreneur....

MD: (Laughs loudly) The commercial enterprise was great! I joined as a central government clerk - got kicked out. Atul Gupta was a big barrister. He used to fight for the communist prisoners and get them released. A habeas corpus petition through him got me my job back. Then again they removed me by planting a lot of writings by Marx and Engels in my office drawers and showing recovery of those books. I was helpless. My son was too young. Bijon also did not have sufficient work. Then a friend of Bijon told us about a project in which 15,000 monkeys were to be exported to the U.S. for medicinal experiment and research. At that time I was not aware of the cruelty to the animals during research. And we desperately needed money. Our tender was accepted.

Then... there was a Muslim guy in the New Market who was dealing in these things. I asked him, 'From where would we get these 15 thousand monkeys?' He said, 'You need not worry. We would get them from Madhya Pradesh.' He got the monkeys and they were sent to Bombay. I did not see them but heard that they had come. But something went wrong with the ship and the monkeys could not be exported. All the monkeys remained at the warehouse and a problem arose as to who would feed them. Two or three of them died too. Then there was a big controversy in Bombay about cruelty to the monkeys. Eventually the Bombay government got them released in the western ghat area between Bombay and Poona.

Now, whenever Lakshman, Ganesh and I visit those areas (continuously laughing) Lakshman cackles, 'Behold, those monkeys of Maan are moving everywhere. Look, how they stretch their hands forward... Look, Look..!' (Trying to control her laughter). Nobody knows about my contribution to the wild life in that area. (Laughs again)!

PS: And the element of national integration too must not be forgotten that the monkeys of Bengal joined those in Maharashtra...

MD: Oh, no! The tender was accepted in Bengal, the monkeys of Madhya Pradesh finally arrived in Bombay... the whole thing is a lot more complex... a very complicated national theory...

PS: After all these terrible and bizarre experiences and struggle how did you come to writing? Though you had a conducive background but how did you actually take to writing?

MD: I had done a little bit of writing. A short story had got published in 'Desh' too. I had got remuneration also. But at the outset the feeling of being a writer had not developed. It happened when Khwaja Ahmad Abbas had called Bijon to Bombay. There was this project of the adaptation of a Bu˝uel film. But that did not take off. Those days, Sachin Choudhary, the founder-editor of the Economic and Political Weekly, who was my maternal uncle, was in Bombay. At his place I read a book on the revolt of 1857 and was much inspired by the character of the queen of Jhansi. In that period Bijon wrote the story of the film Nagin: He got some money which was sufficient in that period. Then we returned to Calcutta.

I began writing on the queen of Jhansi but soon realised that it was not proper to write merely on the basis of reading and I went there though I did not know much. I had no knowledge of the Marathi language nor did I know where Bundelkhand or Jhansi were situated.... A nephew of the queen was alive then. I contacted him. I also went to Baroda and Ahmadabad. It was around 1951-52. Many people of those days are no longer alive.

I roamed around various places - Bundelkhand, Datiya, Orchha, Kalpi, Gwalior....

PS: You mean to say that you conducted research on the basis of the collective memory of people in that entire region?

MD: Yes. I went everywhere - to all those places that the queen had any connection with. (Laughs). I was mad. Dacoit Man Singh was active then but I was not scared a bit. This is what has saved me so far. I never have any perception of fear... (Laughs). I was a young woman of 26 then yet I set out on that long journey and came back after wandering everywhere. It is a long story.

PS: So this is how you published your first book 'Jhansir Rani'....

MD: First book, yes... that one is special because folk material was used for the first time in this manner. I collected lots and lots of folk material. There is a particular style of folk songs about the queen which is called 'Rawso'. I collected a large number of 'Rawsos'. Also about Bajirao-Mastani. Oh... all those names! Material on many other people that could be used in the context of the queen. I got acquainted with the writings of the famous poet Bhushan. I remember lines from his 'Shiva Vahim' (recites a few lines). Since then I have a firm opinion that the most precious historical material is what is preserved in the memory of the common people. I also experienced how the ordinary humans preserve the memory of their heroes with great care and make them memorable. I had heard a song which haunts me, 'Patthar mitti se fauj banayee, Kaath se Katwar, Pahad uthakar goley banaye, chalo Gwalior....'. I realised only then how great the queen must have been for whom the common people are so full of reverence even after a hundred years have elapsed! I have established in my book that the revolt of 1857 in central India was a people's revolt. The people kept the queen in the centre. She was the widow of a Maharashtrian Brahmin but her circle of close people comprised of Moslem Pathans, Afghanis, Makaranis etc. The power of the people became her strength. She had also organized women and formed a women's army. She was greatly supported by the peasants... she had become one with her people.

I always had a keen interest in history which grew with time. What I write is but history. Everyone mentions 'Hazar Churasir Maan' but that is an inferior work. In spite of its popularity it is much inferior to 'Chotti Munda aar Taar Teer' which is very good. Some of my very important books are not yet translated into Hindi or English. For example 'Amrit Sanchay'.

A very important book on what happened in Bengal's social life after the 19th century Maratha invasion is about to come. This book would be important from both the angles of structure and language. I have done plenty of experimentation in structure and language. For language I transported myself to 11th century Bengal - even to the periods earlier than that, I have a big complaint regarding language. Several years ago I wrote a book for the National Book Trust in which I said that in Bengali they have established the language of the Gangetic West Bengal as the standard language. Why? I don't advocate the dialect of East Bengal or the dialect of the South-west yet.... the language of the peasantry and agriculture is not our language. They have a different vocabulary. There are many other professions. A potter's language, the language of a blacksmith or a weaver's language - each one has their own vocabulary. It was an imperative to bring these kinds of people's language to our language. It was not done. This is why there is this terrible anaemia in the Bengali language. All that has been written is in the language of the middle class. Where has the language gone which was a free-flowing language coming to us as a continuous stream from olden times?

When I read Lakshman Gayakwad's book 'Uthaigeer' in Hindi, I felt that here was a living language. I cannot read Marathi now. While working on 'Jhansir Rani' I had read a couple of books in Marathi. Going through Lakshman's book I had the feeling that here is someone whose hands are chopped off and when you place your hand on his wound you find that the heat of the wound is going to burn your hand. Language ought to be of this kind. Language is a weapon. But where does it come from? It is with the people. We must understand it. The tribals have it in abundance.

PS:A little while ago you mentioned your novel, 'Chotti Munda Aar Taar Teer' which is based on tribal life. You talk about the richness of the tribals' language. We know well that in many of your books like 'Aranyer Adhikar', 'Inter upar Int,' 'Shri Ganesh Mahima' and 'Pterodactyl' etc. you have depicted tribal life with the deepest concern. Where did this strong attachment and intimate contact with the tribals begin? Is there any inspiration that you would like to mention?

MD:I do not believe in the theory of inspiration. In writing there is only perspiration. One perspires. Inspiration is nothing. It is the people who matter. They are my literary 'guru'.

PS:That is all right. My question is when and how this strong attachment began.

MD: From 1965 I have been observing tribal life. Even before that in my childhood, when we were at Midnapur, we had plenty of Santhal tribals around. We had very close contact with them. My family was of a different kind. We had regular contact with the tribals. I had to spend a lot of time with them. When our parents would go to Calcutta all the kids would be playing with the tribals. At Shantiniketan too I came in contact with many tribals, but I won't narrate those experiences as they are not very good.

In any case, I feel that people have played games with the tribals. In a simple way I developed concern for them.

I am like a river. Not like a big river. Like a small one - I entered tribal life in the course of meandering. How, why or when it happened I do not know. I do not wish to know. I went to Palamau for the cause of the bonded labourers. During the first stage of the Jharkhand movement I went to Singhbhumi. Roaming around villages and reporting - this was my career. When I took up the job I was getting one hundred and fifty rupees. It was very hard-earned money. Gradually when my salary increased and I began to get seven hundred rupees then I felt that the importance of English had depreciated. I took leave without pay and became a rural reporter of a newspaper. Every week I would run away to villages.

PS: Which newspaper did you join as a 'rural reporter'?

MD: 'Yugantar'. First I wrote for 'Yugantar'. For 'Vartman' I wrote for several years. In 'Aajkal' I still write. Occasionally I also wrote for 'The Economic and Political Weekly.' My ideas are of a different nature. I do not write mindlessly. I question myself whether what I plan to write is required or not. I wrote only what I thought to be necessary. That kind of my writing has also appeared in a book form. I edited 'Vartika' for which I had to write a lot. One kind of my writing which is plentiful cannot be published - that is a long series of letters to Ministers. Those letters contain news about villages, information about the tribals and so on. It was so much! About the village I would stay at, the police station and hospital being too far, lack of roads, my social and professional obligations and all sorts of complaints (laughs).

I was attached to the so-called criminal tribes, but when I wrote 'Aranyer Adhikar' I got real acceptance among them as they felt that what I wrote was their voice....

In India's history it was the first time that the tribals began to get recognition. They drummed up support for me in every village and began to visit me. It was in 1979. Since then I had an easy access to tribal society. When 'Shri Shri Ganesh Mahima' and other books of mine were translated into the Telugu language and my sympathy for the Naxalite movement became known I got wider recognition. I also had contact with those tribals who were active Naxalites.

In this process gradually I understood those whom they call 'criminal tribes'. I joined such tribals at Midnapur and fought for them. Then something happened about which I won't talk. I told them that I won't come to Midnapur ever again. But they have kept visiting me since then. I organised a movement in Purulia for the Kheria Shabar tribals. I have great affection for them. They are wonderful people... really wonderful!

Tribal life is my last destination. The more I moved towards it, the more I got disenchanted with the middle class. My inner self cried out - 'No, I don't want these things, no... no... no...!' Now I do not want anything from there....

PS: But despite that, while reconstructing tribal life in literature, at times you have returned to stories of the urban middle class background - for example in the novel 'Neel Chhavi'....

MD: This is bound to happen as I do not have any other means of livelihood. I have to survive only through my writing. What is there in 'Neel Chhavi'? Drug addiction and its fallout in student life. This too is a social reality. Isn't it apt to depict the social reality amid which I live? I have written a lot about women too. About rape and other traumatic experiences. I have done a lot of writing on these subjects. (With emphasis she says in English) The thing is... that I have to write. I had to write so many books every year because I have to give a lot of money to tribals, non-tribals... everyone... and I have also to live so I need to earn money. I do not do anything else for this other than writing... you see.

I have written on middle class life but never a great novel. What is this middle class life? They do not have roots of any sort. The middle class does not produce anything. It simply devours and buys. For this kind of society, I feel, it is not possible for me to write something big as I am not attached to it from the inside. And these middle class people say about me that I have made great sacrifices. I have abandoned reading their literature, stopped watching films and plays, visiting so many kinds of places. There is no luxury in my life. I left everything and now I am much happier. I, instead, get more time and feel so good. I have done other kinds of writing too. I have written stories for children. I enjoy writing. I had to write textbooks also and that too I enjoyed very much.

But the tribals are the last word of my life. My restlessness is due to my concern for them whether or not they would be able to survive, whether they would be able to preserve their existence. I have written 'Pterodactyl' which manifests my entire experience with tribal life. In 'Pterodactyl', there is a great cry which is fall of pathos.

I was drawn towards the so-called criminal tribes quite logically. I was greatly shocked to realise that nobody ever felt concerned about them. I was much surprised when I translated the book called 'Mind of Mahatma Gandhi' into Bengali with the title 'Gandhi Manas' for the National Book Trust. In this voluminous book the word 'tribe' has figured once or twice... or perhaps nowhere. Gandhi came, Ambedkar, Jyoti Prasad Phule and so many other great national leaders... so many communist movements were launched, the socialists came on the scene... the communists got divided... CPI and CPI (M) came into existence... the new generation started the Naxalite movement which spread to the villages... their movement is still on... but even they never said even once that the so-called criminal tribes are the most oppressed. They have suffered the most brutal oppression.

I cannot tolerate it. Wherever I might have begun from, I have arrived at the right destination. This is my biggest challenge. I do not believe in God. I have no faith in any gods or goddesses. I do not bow down before anyone from inside. Of course, I pay respect to those who deserve it.

There is this belief that each human being is born for some purpose. If I were to subscribe to this belief then about my own self I reckon that I am born to do what I am doing for these so-called 'criminal' tribes. It is not my aspiration that I should be considered a great writer, win many awards and that there be a big noise about it. (Pointing towards her heart). Nothing reaches here. But an ordinary member of a 'denotified tribe' can take me anywhere. Only his cause can touch my heart, nothing else. What to do, I am like that only. Strange! I am also a pterodactyl... what else!

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