India

Acclaimed writer and activist, Mahasweta Devi passes away

“I have always believed that the real history is made by ordinary people. I constantly come across the reappearance, in various forms, of folklore, ballads, myths and legends, carried by ordinary people across generations. The reason and inspiration for my writing are those people who are exploited and used, and yet do not accept defeat. For me, the endless source of ingredients for writing is in these amazingly noble, suffering human beings. Why should I look for my raw material elsewhere, once I have started knowing them? Sometimes it seems to me that my writing is really their doing.” – Mahasweta Devi

The legendary social activist and writer Mahashweta Devi passed away in Kolkata on Thursday. She died at the age of 90 from cardiac arrest and multiple organ failure. She was admitted to the hospital in Kolkata with age-related ailments and her condition was critical due to kidney disorder and blood infection.

Recognized for her life-time contributions in both literature and social work, she was awarded with the Sahitya Akademi award in 1979, the Padmashree award in 1986, the Jnanpith award in 1997, the Magsaysay award (referred to as the Asian Nobel Prize) in 1997 and the Deshikottam award in 1999.

Born in 1926 in Dhaka Bangladesh to writer parents Manish Ghatak and Dharitri Devi, she was the eldest of nine children and was brought up in a culturally rich environment as her extended family consisted of aunts and uncles who had won prominence as artists, journalists, actors and filmmakers. Right from her birth she was made to work for the plight of poorest of the poor. Her grandparents made it a point to see that the children never wore expensive clothes.

She received her early schooling at the Medinipur Missionary Girls’ School and subsequently she attended Middle School in Shantiniketan and went on to finish her schooling from Beltala Girls’ School in Calcutta in the year 1942. Joining Ashutosh College of Calcutta University in 1943 she returned to Shantiniketan to earn her graduate degree in 1946. The same year she married famous actor Bijon Bhattacharya who was an active member of the Communist Party of India.

She worked initially as a school teacher and then as a clerk for some time but lost her job. This was the most tumultuous time of her life and it was then when she started her career in writing. Her marriage was on the verge of a breakdown as Bijon was not doing too well in his field and she had an infant son to take care of. Writing came naturally to her and she started writing for ‘Sachitra Bharat’, a Bengali weekly, under the pen name of Sumitra Devi. She also wrote a few light fiction pieces but her first major work Jhansir Rani (1956) however, launched her as a writer to be reckoned with.

It was from this piece of art that her distinctive style of writing surfaced. She was just not confined to creativity or imagination, but her fiction too displayed her deep and thorough research on the subject. So much so that she even traveled to Bundelkhand, covering travelling remote villages and desert lands on foot and collected whatever material she could find on the brave queen in the form of legends, folk ballads, interviewing people who still remembered the queen and collecting further material from oral history and not just archival data. This researching style came to characterize her writings in later times.

Devi’s marriage with Bijon broke up in 1962 and she began to live on her own. She finished her master’s degree from Calcutta in 1962 and then worked as an English lecturer from 1964-84 at Bijoygarh Jyotish Roy College and churned out works like Amrit Sanchay , Andhamalik,, Hazar Chaurasir Maa .

Many of her works like ‘Rudaali’ were made into internationally acclaimed films and amongst her entire works consisting of twenty collections of short stories and almost a hundred novels, many were translated into Indian and Foreign languages. She is also credited for her works with and on the tribal communities of India. Her visit to a remote village in Bihar was a turning point into her life when she saw the penury and struggles of the tribal people and dedicated herself for their rights. She is survived by her daughter-in-law and grandchild. Mahasweta Devi’s son passed away two years ago.

Expressing her condolence on the demise of the veteran litterateur, Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said Bengal has lost a “glorious mother.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed grief on Twitter, “Mahashweta Devi wonderfully illustrated the might of the pen. A voice of compassion, equality & justice, she leaves us deeply saddened. RIP.”

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