Mahasweta Devi is one the foremost writers in Bengali. Devi was an ardent fighter and her weapons were fiction and her political writings. She is well known for her prolific writings. Her impressive body of work includes novels, short stories, children’s stories, plays and activist prose that she published between 1981 and 1992.
Mahasweta Devi is not only known for her political writing style but her immense contribution towards communities of landless labourers of eastern India where she worked for years. Her intimate connection with these communities allowed her to understand and begin documenting grassroots-level issues, thus making her a socio-political commentator of the marginalized community.
This led to her editing a Bengali quarterly Bortika – a forum for the poor peasants, tribals, agricultural labourers, industrial labourers and even the rickshaw pullers who had no voice and no such space to represent themselves. Devi used the imaginary space of fiction to begin a conversation about and a conversation with the very real people on the ground that had been neglected all this while.
Mahasweta Devi’s writing life can be divided into significant phases and the graph of her activities can be mapped beginning with her first book, ‘Jhansir Rani’ (The Queen Of Jhansi) in 1956, a biography of the woman ruler in a princely state against the British in 1857. Despite lacking a research background, Devi did meticulous research in order to write this book. She was able to do so with help of friends and well-wishers who generously supported her travel to the place to draw from archives, as well as documenting oral traditions of lore and legends transmitted through generations. She wrote voraciously, publishing 96 titles after this first book – not including her non-fiction and political writings, children’s books and the other editing work that she was involved in throughout her lifetime.
Devi’s work hints at a particular kind of change in the discourse of sexuality where it no longer oppresses the marginalized women but becomes the very ground of political liberation. In her famous short story ‘Draupadi’, about the rape and mutilation of a tribal woman called Dopdi, the protagonist threatens the masculinities of her oppressors by refusing to be ashamed of her mutilated body – forcing them to survey her nakedness with a defiance that exhibits her power and autonomy.
Devi wrote profusely on the issues of mainstream development and critiqued the trickle-down theory. Her work is important to understand subaltern politics and their struggles to visiblize their invisiblized exploitation. She was associated with several organisations and founded several others. She is as comfortable leading the processions of the people fighting for the rights of bounded labourers as she is behind her desk writing about these struggles. Mahasweta Devi, the activist, has been constantly involved in varied struggles and was a part of several associations in spite of the demands of her increasing age. She played these varied roles throughout her life and the activist in her was alive and resisting till her last breath.
The writer is an author