Renowned Bengali author and activist Mahasweta Devi passed away, leaving behind a formidable literary legacy that focused on the lives of marginalised communities. A strong woman of my country, who never hesitated to speak upfront, she had the guts to call a spade a spade. She was always busy and cared least for glamour or that attention. She was very humble but never allowed anyone to waste her time. Her writings have deep impact on readers. At the same time, she was a social activist.
Devi had recently been spearheading the movement against the industrial policy of the West Bengal government, the state of her domicile. She built her status for truthfulness and courage by standing her ground and speaking her mind in the face which annoy and put pressure for those in power. However, this reputation was soiled in the last five years.
Specifically, she had stridently criticised confiscation of large tracts of fertile agricultural land from farmers by the government and ceding the land to industrial houses at throwaway prices. She had connected the policy to the commercialisation of Shanti Niketan of Rabindranath Tagore, where she had spent her formative years. Her lead resulted in a number of intellectuals, artists, writers and theatre workers joining together in protest of the controversial policy and particularly its implementation in Singur and Nandigram. She was a supporter of Budhan Theatre – the theatre group of Chhara Denotified Tribals of Gujarat.
After the 2006 Singur movement lead by Mamata Banerjee, the author, over 80 years of age at the time, became an advisor to the Trinamool leader, who turned to her regularly for guidance. Devi was also easily the tallest figure in the group of intellectuals who stood by Mamata at the time. She spent years researching, writing on and campaigning for welfare activities for the tribals of Bengal, especially the Lodha and Shabar communities. Though, Mahasweta Devi was a bitter critic of the Left for the past 10 years, her intellectual moorings were initially with the Left. Arguably her most-famous book, Hajar Churashir Maa (Mother No 1084) was based on the mother of a Naxalite in the tumultuous ’70s in Kolkata and was made into a popular Bollywood movie starring Jaya Bachchan.
She was awarded the Sahitya Akademi and Jnanpith awards for literary excellence. Devi helped tribals and the rural dispossessed in organising themselves in groups so that they could take up development activities in their own areas. She founded several grassroots level societies for the welfare of tribals.
She was born in 1926 in Dhaka, now in Bangladesh, to literary parents. Her father, Manish Ghatak, was a well-known poet and novelist of the Kallol movement, had used the pseudonym Jubanashwa. Ghatak’s brother was noted filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak. Mahasweta’s mother, Dharitri Devi, was also a writer and a social worker whose brothers were very distinguished in various fields.
Mahasweta’s first schooling was in Dhaka, but after the partition of India she moved to West Bengal in India. She joined the Rabindranath Tagore-founded Vishvabharati University in Shanti Niketan and completed a B.A. (Hons) in English, and then finished an M.A. in English at Calcutta University. She later married renowned playwright Bijon Bhattacharya, who was one of the founding fathers of the IPTA movement. In 1948, she gave birth to Nabarun Bhattacharya, one of Bengal’s and India’s leading novelists, whose works have been noted for their intellectual vigour and philosophical flavour. Devi got divorced from Bijon Bhattacharya in 1959. She had her personal side too. She was a lady who dared to walk out of a troubled marriage to a famous personality in order to make her own space for her writing and creativity. Journey was not easy as she had to go through social dishonour, and people were not kind to her for taking such a bold decision. Devi was unaccepted and disowned by many. She worked at various places for a livelihood; any how she used to manage her maintenance. She lived with the pain and loss of being severed from her only child. Her relationship with her son always remained complex and troubled.
With all odds, she made space for herself. She lived her life to the fullest and she dared to fullfill her dreams and left for heavenly abode by giving so much intellectual treasure to others.
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