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Talking politics and history with Mahasweta Devi

BooksTalking politics and history with Mahasweta Devi

Dom Moraes, a prominent English language poet, was equally proficient as a journalist who could capture the essence of people he interviewed. Here is his profile of the writer Mahasweta Devi.


One afternoon I went to see the woman writer Mahashweta Devi. She is a reclusive figure, seldom seen by the media, but her novels and short stories have won immense respect. A taxi took me to a house in a tree-lined backstreet. A placard on the gate said “Boarding House”. Beyond this was a ramshackle tenement, surrounded by flowering trees.

A precipitous spiral staircase in iron, painted red, climbed one side of the tenement. I eyed it with apprehension. I have suffered from acute vertigo since childhood. I decided to take this hazard at high speed, flung myself up the stairs, and burst dishevelled and panting into the room above. An elderly lady in a saree stared at me in shock. I identified myself. “Yes,” she said, after a shaken pause, “I was expecting you. I am

She had the manner of a friendly headmistress. Her room was small, and also friendly. It contained a desk occupied by papers and an ancient typewriter, two chairs and a cot where an orange tabby cat slept. “She allows me to live here,” Mahashweta said. She sat at her desk. The tabby and I shared the cot. I had a strong sense of female dominance.

She had a quiet, sane voice. It retained the same even tone, whatever she was saying. “When Independence came,” Mahashweta Devi said, “we had to start from scratch. This was surely known to our leaders. What the people needed most then were land reforms. These were later done in the Communist states, West Bengal and Kerala, but not properly. The central government never even tried. In 1947, Nehru should have seen that there weren’t enough roads, drinking water, healthcare, or schools. Nothing was done for those not already privileged. It has always been so.

“Fifty years later we’re at a point of no return. Today India has an extension of a medieval value system where the lower castes, the tribals and women count as less than human. The privileged and powerful are the same as before, under different names. They’re called industrialists now, not princes.” She had recovered from the shock of my precipitous arrival, and even
become talkative.

“I live mostly in a district in north Bengal called Purulia. It has no roads, no drinking water, no land for the poor, and a large number of what the British called ‘criminal tribes’.  They are still treated as pariahs. They have taken my life. For 25 years they have been my life, and I am 72. I work only on their behalf. I have written books and won awards because the class I come from is privileged. The people I work for never
received privileges.”

The tabby cat beside me was a female version of Garfield. It showed the pink inside of its mouth in a yawn. It then stretched voluptuously and licked its chops. Its owner fixed it with a stern stare. I wondered who fed it when Mahashweta Devi was away, though it seemed well equipped to look after itself. So, indeed, did Mahashweta Devi.

“My grandson is educated and knows little,” she remarked. “My son is the same. It happens; it’s only natural. I know how villagers and the other underprivileged people live. Few others from the privileged classes can say that.

“I recently had to translate a book by Mahatma Gandhi. He was concerned about the Dalits, but the word ‘tribal’ does not occur in this book. Gujarat, where he was born, is full of tribals. But it seems he did not notice them. He had strange ideas; he did not even know how poor people eat. The tribals will eat whatever is there. But Gandhi recommended that they should live on fruits, nuts and milk. He didn’t know how much such a diet
would cost.”

Mahashweta Devi has had to count her pennies in past years. Her husband was one of the founders of an important leftist movement of the 1940s, IPTA, the Indian People’s Theatre Association, which took plays to the villages. “I married at 20. In my father’s house I had no hardship, but after my marriage, I came to know what poverty, hunger and struggle were. That was my choice. I have always acted in an independent way. I think perhaps I am very stubborn.”

She wasn’t very anxious to talk about her life. “My main work is in Purulia with the tribals. All I want for each family is two meals per day, a hut to live in, an electric supply, some education. It’s not much, but they haven’t got even that. Do you know about the tribal development funds sent to each state? All I know about it is that it does not come to the tribals.”  She spoke unexcitedly, aware that anger wasn’t useful, it wasn’t enough.

“I will try and go on fighting for them until I die, but it has become difficult for me to do all that I used to do. Once I covered the whole Palamau district in Bihar on foot. It is the most wretched place in India. There I saw the bonded labour system in operation. You could call it slavery. Then I went to Delhi, I fought for the Palamau people, and I wrote articles in a number of papers. Now we have some organisations for human rights there. Recently I read an article on activist writers. It contained some paragraphs about me. How much they surprise me now, all the things I have done.”

She sat quietly at her desk, the late afternoon sunlight luminous on her spectacles. ‘The tribals are not as simple as people think. They know the ways of this country. If a local politician comes to Purulia and says he will build a road or a bridge, do you know what these illiterate people say? They say, ‘Elections must be near.’”

Extracted with permission from ‘Dom Moraes, Where Some Things Are Remembered, Profiles and Conversations’, edited by Sarayu Shrivatsa, published by Speaking Tiger Books

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