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Sleeveless Blouses, Sharp Comebacks And Living On Her Own Terms: Remembering Mahasweta Devi

29/07/2016 2:59 PM IST | Updated 29/07/2016 4:57 PM IST
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Nandita Basu
A file photo of Mahasweta Devi with the author in Delhi on 17 February, 2002.

I was first exposed to Mahasweta Devi's new kind of writings in 1979 when my son was born. I was on maternity leave when a Bengali book exhibition was going on at New Delhi Kali Bari. It was a pretty small exhibition where I found a number of books written by her. Prior to that I was familiar with the name Mahasweta Bhattacharya—a writer of romantic-historical fiction, which was not my cup of tea.

In 1980, when I first met Mahasweta Devi in Ballygunge, I saw in her an ultra-modern Bengali lady with her sleeveless blouse and lit cigarette.

That day, 37 years ago, I bought a number of books by Mahasweta Devi, of which the collection of stories Nairite Megh (Cloud in the Horizon) I read first. I shall never forget that experience. I felt like Columbus might have when he discovered America! Here was a writer who brought a very fresh approach to Bengali literature, both in the form and content. She extended the frontiers of Bengali literature, which was earlier more or less confined to its one language area, i.e. Bengal. Mahasweta was the first Bengali writer who used the locale of erstwhile Bihar extensively in her writings (as well as other states of India). Her constituency was the plight of the "untouchables" in India who are identified as muchi (the cobbler), methor (the scavenger) etc. I almost became haunted by her writings and started devouring whatever works of hers I could lay my hands on, and within a short span of time, read a fair amount of her books—novels as well as short stories.

I was raised in a very obscure place in Northeast India, and later moved to Delhi where exposure to famous Bengali writers was rare. Anyway, I was so influenced by Mahasweta Devi's writings that I made a small presentation about her in the early 1980s in Miranda House in Delhi University where I was teaching Bengali literature. In May 1980, we went to Kolkata for the summer vacations, and one of our acquaintances took us to Mahasweta's place in Ballygunge.

Throughout her life, she took a lot of risks to establish herself as a writer. For many women of my generation, Mahasweta is a lodestar...

In 1980, when I first met Mahasweta Devi in Ballygunge, I saw in her an ultra-modern Bengali lady with her sleeveless blouse and lit cigarette. She told her companion, journalist Nirmal Ghosh, "Look, this girl has come from Delhi and she says she is very impressed by my writings. Sob gyaja (all bullshit)." It was obvious that she was hiding her actual happiness.

From 1986 onward, my association with Mahasweta Devi became closer; whenever I would go to Kolkata I would meet her. In those days I was collecting materials for writing a critical biography of her for which I needed to interact with her. I made a list of her works and gave it to her for checking. She told me that she had lost track of her own writing and was very happy with me for making a comprehensive list of her published pieces. She never returned that list to me, but she was quite cordial to me always. Now she is no more, but all the fond memories remain.

Two things always struck me about Mahasweta: Her zest for life and her unique way of dealing with people. Wherever she went, she would invariably be the centre of attention. Such was the magic of her personality. She was very sharp in gauging people; once I was sitting in her place when a young boy wearing loud clothes (it was 1987) came and asked for the permission of Hazar Churashir Ma for making a Bengali film. From his body language Mahasweta could assess that nothing like that was going to happen. She told the boy, "Yes, you make the film and give the money in black!" The matter stopped there.

Once in the mid-1980s (she was in her early 60s), she told me, "Ami to thik korini je buro hobo (I never took the decision of getting old)."

In her late 20s, she left home, and went to Madhya Pradesh to collect materials for writing Rani Laxmibai's biography. Throughout her life, she took a lot of risks to establish herself as a writer. For many women of my generation, Mahasweta is a lodestar, both for dealing with the everyday barriers of life, as well as for showing us how not become victims of situations. She has amply demonstrated that for achieving something meaningful in life one has to forego lots of precious things.

She did a lot of odd jobs after losing a government job in the Indian Postal Department. She had an invincible energy for life. Once in the mid-1980s (she was in her early 60s then), she told me, "Ami to thik korini je buro hobo (I never took the decision of getting old)." She had a sneaking sense of "fichlami" (humour bordering on naughtiness) which never allowed her to a victim in life. In Ballygunge, she used to live in a very small apartment where she did not even have a television set. It was frugal living. In the course of discussion I came to know that she does not even receive ₹10,000 a year from her publishers. Mahasweta lived and died on her own terms.

There's one thing I remember very fondly which I want to share. After my daughter Indrani was born, Mahasweta wrote a very warm letter to me in which she asked: "A home is incomplete without a daughter. What name have you given to her? Anindita (impeccable)? Ananya (incomparable)? [Meye na hole ki ghor bhore? Ki nam rakhle meyer? Anindita? Anonya?]"

So true! Every parent will agree!

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