A few streets away from where I live, one of the doughtiest fighters I knew has just fought her last battle. This is the thought that shadows me as I attempt to pay a just tribute – to Mahasweta Devi, one of the most remarkable writers and activists this country (India) has seen.
If you haven’t heard that name, or are unsure of who she is – Google her. You’ll learn that she’s ninety years old, that she’s variously described as a social activist and a novelist, that she’s won just about every award for literature that this nation has to bestow, plus the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay award for journalism, literature and social activism, that she is one of the most respected cultural figures in Bengal, and the author of a large number of novels and short stories, many of which have been translated into multiple Indian languages.
You’ll also learn that she dedicated her life to fighting for the rights of those most downtrodden and oppressed in our society – the migrant and the destitute, tribals and dalits, communities written off as criminal and marginal. Part of no one’s agenda, they became her cause and focus. She documented and reported, organised and sued, and, above all, wrote. Haunting, powerful tales filled with unforgettable characters and mythic images……..
..This was a woman who dared to walk out of an unsatisfactory marriage to a cultural icon in order to claim a space for herself, for her writing. Who faced every kind of social stigma as a result. Who eked out a living as best she could, working at assorted jobs so that she could make ends meet. Who sought fulfilment in her writing. Who lived with the pain and loss of being severed from her only child……
…I prefer to remember her as she was when she was at her most productive and prolific. I prefer to remember the Mahasweta di who tilted at windmills. Fought dragons. Championed the underdog. And turned the most wretched of the downtrodden into epic heroines and legendary heroes with the magic of her pen……
Below is the last two paragraphs from her famous story Draupadi. Draupadi in the legend of Mahabharatha was about to be stripped naked in front of everyone in the King’s court , but was saved by the male “god” Krishna.
Draupadi in this story is a Left wing rebel fighter who opposes (sometimes violently) the violent oppression by the society/government of the her underprivileged community. From her place of hiding she was captured, raped and tortured and was brought in front of the leader of security forces. (Senanayak means leader of army division).
The commotion is as if the alarm had sounded in a prison. Senanayak walks out surprised and sees Draupadi, naked, walking to- ward him in the bright sunlight with her head high. The nervous guards trail behind. What is this? He is about to cry, but stops. Draupadi stands before him, naked. Thigh and pubic hair matted with dry blood. Two breasts, two wounds. What is this? He is about to bark. Draupadi comes closer. Stands with her hand on her hip, laughs and says,
The object of your search, Dopdi Mejhen. You asked them to make me up, don’t you want to see how they made me?
Where are her clothes? Won’t put them on, sir. Tearing them.
Draupadi’s black body comes even closer. Draupadi shakes with an indomitable laughter that Senanayak simply cannot understand. Her ravaged lips bleed as she begins laughing. Draupadi wipes the blood on her palm and says in a voice that is as terrifying, sky splitting, and sharp as her ululation,
What’s the use of clothes? You can strip me, but how can you clothe me again? Are you a man?
She looks around and chooses the front of Senanayak’s white bush shirt to spit a bloody gob at and says,
There isn’t a man here that I should be ashamed. I will not let you put my cloth on me. What more can you do? Come on, counter me-come on, counter me-?
Draupadi pushes Senanayak with her two mangled breasts, and for the first time Senanayak is afraid to stand before an unarmed target, terribly afraid.
Some may argue that she romanticised and legitimised Left wing extremism and resulting violence. But no one can doubt her brave rock hard commitment for social justice.