Mahasweta Devi, a luminary in the world of Indian literature, left an indelible mark on society through her powerful writings and unwavering activism. Her literary oeuvre and relentless advocacy for the marginalised, particularly tribal communities, have earned her numerous accolades and a place of distinction in the annals of Indian literature. In this article, we delve into the life, career, and lasting impact of Mahasweta Devi.
Born on January 14, 1926, in Dacca, British India (now Dhaka, Bangladesh), Mahasweta Devi came from a distinguished Brahmin family. Her father, Manish Ghatak, was a renowned poet and novelist known by the pseudonym Jubanashwa, while her mother, Dharitri Devi, was a writer and a social worker. Mahasweta Devi's upbringing was infused with creativity and social awareness, laying the foundation for her future endeavours.
She commenced her education in Dhaka's Eden Montessori School, later moving to West Bengal. Her educational journey took her to Midnapore Mission Girls High School, Santiniketan, Beltala Girls' School, Asutosh College, and finally, Calcutta University, where she earned her M.A. in English. These formative years provided her with a strong academic background and a deep understanding of the diverse cultures of India.
Mahasweta Devi's literary career is marked by a profound dedication to the cause of the marginalised. She penned over 100 novels and more than 20 collections of short stories, primarily in Bengali but widely translated into other languages. Her debut novel, "Jhansir Rani," published in 1956, was a biographical work about the Rani of Jhansi, requiring extensive research and fieldwork.
Her specialisation lay in the study of Adivasi, Dalit, and marginalised communities, with a particular focus on their women. Mahasweta Devi immersed herself in the lives of these communities, living among them and learning from their struggles. She was an advocate for their rights and a voice against the brutal oppression they faced from powerful upper-caste landlords, money lenders, and corrupt government officials.
Mahasweta Devi believed that her stories were not her creation but were born from the experiences of the people she wrote about. Her writing drew from folklore, ballads, myths, and legends that were passed down through generations. She saw her work as a tribute to the noble and resilient individuals she encountered during her years of research and activism.
In addition to her literary achievements, Mahasweta Devi was a formidable social activist. She raised her voice against the discrimination faced by tribal people in India. Her 1977 novel "Aranyer Adhikar" focused on the life of Birsa Munda, a notable tribal leader. Her activism even led to the removal of unjust imagery related to Munda from a commemorative sculpture in Jharkhand.
Devoting herself to the cause of the marginalised, Mahasweta Devi vehemently opposed the industrial policies of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) government in West Bengal. She criticised the confiscation of fertile agricultural land from farmers and its transfer to industrial conglomerates. Her involvement in the Nandigram agitation galvanised numerous intellectuals, artists, writers, and theatre workers to protest against the controversial policy.
In 1997, she played a pivotal role in a petition campaign, leading to the commutation of two death sentences. In 2012, she joined more than 215 other signatories in a petition to President Pranab Mukherjee, opposing the death penalty and advocating for life imprisonment. Her unwavering commitment to justice and compassion resonated deeply with those she inspired.
Mahasweta Devi's personal life was marked by her marriage to renowned playwright Bijon Bhattacharya in 1947. In 1948, she gave birth to Nabarun Bhattacharya, who would later become a notable novelist and political critic. Despite her diverse talents, Devi worked in a post office but was dismissed due to her communist leanings. She engaged in various jobs, such as selling soaps and writing letters in English for the illiterate.
In 1962, Mahasweta Devi married author Asit Gupta after her divorce from Bhattacharya. Their relationship concluded in 1976.
On July 23, 2016, Mahasweta Devi suffered a major heart attack and was admitted to Belle Vue Clinic in Kolkata. She passed away on July 28, 2016, at the age of 90, succumbing to multiple organ failure, diabetes, sepsis, and a urinary infection. Her demise was a profound loss to the literary and activist community, and tributes poured in from across India.
Throughout her illustrious career, Mahasweta Devi received numerous awards and accolades for her exceptional contributions. Some of the notable honours include:
Sahitya Akademi Award (Bengali) for "Aranyer Adhikar."
Padma Shri for Social Work.
Jnanpith Award, the highest literary honour from the Bharatiya Jnanpith.
Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature, and the Creative Communication Arts.
Padma Vibhushan, the second-highest civilian award from the Government of India.
SAARC Literary Award.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize.
Banga Bibhushan, the highest civilian award from the Government of West Bengal.
In 2012, Mahasweta Devi was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature, a testament to the global recognition of her literary prowess.
Mahasweta Devi's life and work are a testament to her unwavering commitment to the cause of the marginalised and her exceptional contributions to literature. She weaved compelling stories that brought to light the struggles and resilience of India's tribal and oppressed communities. Her legacy lives on, inspiring writers, activists, and generations to come, and her impact continues to shape the social conscience of India.
Mahasweta Devi's work as a writer and activist exemplifies the power of literature to effect social change, offering a ray of hope to the oppressed and marginalised. As the world reflects on her remarkable life, she remains a source of inspiration for those striving for justice, equality, and compassion.