August 14, 2016 at 10:32 pm

Mahasweta Devi passes away at 90: A tribute

Mahasweta Devi passes away at 90: A tribute

By Meeta Chatterjee Padmanabhan


Mahaswheta Devi, Bengali writer and activist passed away on the 28th of July in Kolkata. As G.N. Devy said, “her writing addressed one single word: injustice.


For those of us who do not know much of her work, she lived and worked among the tribal people in Bengal, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh and wrote stories about the marginalised in those societies with such visceral understanding that one comes away from her stories not only with the great sense of the systemic injustices they face but also an unease about one’s own reaction to what one has read.


The winner of the Sahitya Academy, the Jnanpith and the Magasayay wrote powerfully, short circuiting any smug interpretation of her work. The Bengali she wrote in was stripped away from its formal, literary overtones and was interspersed with tribal dialects that come through even in English translations. Tributes are pouring in, celebrating her life, her work, her activism and her immense impact. I would like to add my voice and salute the writer who shaped my thinking about women’s writing in a significant way.


Rudali, the Breast giver and Draupadi are stories of women so vulnerable and poor that the only capital and weapon they have is their bodily secretions to confront and fight caste and bureaucratic systems with. In asides in her stories, she castigates even-handedly the caste system, the bureaucratic structures in place to control the tribal land and people (women in particular) and western trained scholars who import templates derived from their critical theories to impose on the lives of the tribal people to gain an understanding of their situation (See Breast Giver for instance).


I was particularly moved by her short story Draupadi. When I was researching laughter/humour by Indian women writers someone had suggested Draupadi because of the dark humour it represented. On reading it, I felt that the theoretical framework that I had assembled was inadequate as an analytical tool.


As Spivak reminds us in her Translator’s foreword, ‘we wouldn’t be able to speak to the women out there if we depend completely on conferences and anthologies of western trained informants’. Nor would we be able to grasp the lives of the people Mahasweta Devi captured with the instruments that middle class Indian education offer. Even subaltern readings did not give me the tools to understand the helpless laughter of a woman deranged by caste and patriarchal power play.


I take the liberty of revisiting Draupadi, the short story I have always loved, to briefly remember the work of Mahasweta Devi in this space. The dark humour and the mad laughter of the protagonist is a rebellion in the face of patriarchal authority –a recurrent theme in Mahasweta Devi’s work.


The tribal unrest during the Naxalite movement in the 1970s is the backdrop to Draupadi. The short story reworks the tale of Draupadi in Mahabhartha, the great Indian epic which recounts the war between the Pandavas and Kauravas and is considered to be a treatise on family relationships, conflict resolution, self-reflexivity and the notion of duty among many other things.


In the Mahabharata, Draupadi is a princess who was a prize won by Arjun – one of the Pandava brothers. Even before, the mother of the Pandavas finds out what the prize is, she commands Arjun to share his prize with his brothers, like all good mothers do to instil the spirit of sharing and like all good sons, Arjun does what he is told. And like all good brothers, the rest of the Pandavas ensure that the mother’s command is followed. So, Draupadi lives in a legitimate polyandrous relationship with the Pandava brothers.


At a critical point in the story, Draupadi is lost in a game of dice. A central tale in the epic is the derobing of Draupadi by the Kaurava brothers and Krishna coming to the rescue of Draupadi by unleashing endless reams of cloth that keep her covered and protect her honour. This part of the story is often recreated in classical dances like the Bharat Natyam with as a saccharine sweet tale highlighting Krishna’s benevolence and divine intervention in saving a woman’s honour.


Mahasweta Devi recalls the epic and retells a parallel story, but no Krishna comes to rescue Dopadi in this tale. I recount this story, to share the gruesome tale, the tribal woman, Dopadi Mejhan, who cannot even lay claim to the Sanskritized name of Draupadi as she is not a high Hindu caste.


Dopodi is said to be complicit in protecting Naxalite insurgents and being a guerrilla fighter herself. Although she is not on the wanted list, she is tracked down by the government machinery to be punished. Senapathy, the symbolic head of the government search party, demands that she be ‘encountered’ officially, ‘Make her. Do the needful’ – a code that could endorse any means, including gang rape.


When the needful was done, Dopadi is left naked. No Krishna to her rescue. Even the moon ‘vomits a bit of light and goes to sleep’ –as the ‘making’ of her progresses. In the morning, she is expected to meet the high official, the Senapathy, she refuses to cover her shame.


‘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 her blood on her palm and says in a voice that is terrifying, sky splitting, and sharp as her ululation, “What is the use of clothes? You can strip me, but how can you clothe me again? Are you a man?’’’


This mad laughter, the dark humour in the story is indeed hard to comprehend through theories. Numerous Dopadis are still ululating without being heard or understood. Mahasweta Devi ‘s writing has attuned my ears to the voice of Dopadis, but also made me think of the futility of trying to interpret their stories from the relatively privileged position of a middle-class Bengali woman educated in English, living abroad in search of texts as examples of dark humour.



Image: M. Subhash via

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