- With her first book in 1956, she reconstructed the life of a nineteenth-century female chieftain who died bravely resisting the British, plumbed historical records and traversed her heroine’s erstwhile kingdom collecting myths, legends, and ballads.
- In 1973, she wrote her watershed novel, Mother of 1084, in which a grieving mother comes to understand why her murdered son joined a violent uprising.
- Devi’s searing stories and novels not only give voice to India’s forgotten tribals but also stress the profound subordination of women in Indian society.
- The RMAF Board of Trustees recognizes “her compassionate crusade through art and activism to claim for tribal peoples a just and honorable place in India’s national life.”
Hindu civilization is so old, deep, and pervasive, one easily forgets that one-sixth of India’s population today is formed by the indigenous descendants of an even older civilization. In their forest habitat, India’s so-called tribals evolved apart from the Hindus, who viewed them as beneath civilization. The colonial British labeled them “criminal.” When the economic juggernaut of modern times depleted the forests, the stigmatized tribals were left to survive on the stingy fringes of India’s colonial and post-colonial economy, often in relationships of cruel dependency. As a result, says Bengali writer and activist Mahasweta Devi indigenous people today are “suffering spectators of the India that is travelling towards the twenty-first century.”
Born in Dhaka to a family of poets, writers, and artists, Devi was molded as a child in the rich milieu of Bengali high culture. She studied at Rabindranath Tagore’s famous open university at Santiniketan and, in the decade after India’s independence, began seriously to write.
With her first book in 1956, she established a modus operandi. To reconstruct the life of a nineteenth-century female chieftain who died bravely resisting the British, Devi plumbed historical records and traversed her heroine’s erstwhile kingdom collecting myths, legends, and ballads. Using similar techniques in over a hundred original works that followed, she created a distinctive personal style by interlacing literary, bureaucratic, and “street” Bengali with tribal idioms and by calling upon an eclectic array of classical and modern images.
In 1965, Devi visited Palamau, a remote and impoverished district in Bihar that she calls “a mirror of tribal India.” Moving from place to place on foot, she witnessed the savage impact of absentee landlordism and debt-bondage on indigenous society, especially on women. In India’s other tribal districts, too, she subsequently observed, people led a “sub-human existence.” There was no education, no health care, no roads, no income.
This exposure focused Devi’s work. A watershed novel in 1973 was Mother of 1084 in which a grieving mother comes to understand why her murdered son joined a violent uprising. In a stream of subsequent stories, Devi cleverly fused indigenous oral histories with contemporary events to explore the bitter and oftenbloody relationship between tribal communities and India’s domineering classes and systems. In her stories, real women and men who rose defiantly to confront oppressors are transformed into mythical heroes.
Alongside her creative writing, Devi bombarded the government with complaint letters and published a profusion of articles documenting abuses by police, landlords, politicians, and officials against tribal communities. Passionately, she made their cause her cause.
Beginning in the 1970s, Devi intervened directly. She helped indigenous Indians lodge grievances, set aside tribal rivalries, and achieve their own development. Through the Kheria-Shabar Welfare Society, one of several organizations she helped to launch, members of West Bengal’s poorest tribal community are now planting trees, irrigating parched fields, producing handicrafts, accumulating savings, improving their health, and learning to read and write. At annual fairs–Devi’s idea–they showcase their new products and celebrate in ceremonies and plays the values of literacy, sobriety, and self-assertion.
Devi’s searing stories and novels not only give voice to India’s forgotten tribals but also stress the profound subordination of women in Indian society. In 1996, she was accorded India’s highest literary prize. “She has given us great literature,” says a fellow writer. “It makes us question ourselves.” This is Devi’s goal. For too long, Bengali literature “has been plagued by an atrophy of conscience,” she says. “A conscientious writer has to take a firm stand in defense of the exploited.”
In electing Mahasweta Devi to receive the 1997 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts, the board of trustees recognizes her compassionate crusade through art and activism to claim for tribal peoples a just and honorable place in India’s national life.
Your Excellency, President Fidel V. Ramos; Mrs. Luz Banzon Magsaysay; Members of the Board of Trustees; fellow awardees; distinguished guests; friends; ladies; and gentlemen.
I thank the Ramon Magsaysay for this privilege of being one of the 1997 Awardees. Friends, I accept the honor with humility, keeping in mind the tradition of the award and the good work done by worthier people who have drawn the attention of a wide audience to the condition of the indigenous people of my country, the tribals, as well as those who are not tribals but belong to the marginalized sections any way.
My interaction with these people started many, many years ago, in various parts of my country. I have seen how the tribals are being constantly deprived of their control over forests and lands, their only means of livelihood. The process started under the colonial rule of the country and still continues. In fact, it has accentuated in the name of development. The tribals are being pushed out of their homelands and become bonded and migrant labor. And why the tribals are alone. The landless agricultural laborers, the poor peasants are all being denied the benefits of development despite huge amounts of resources being spent in their name. I have seen how the resources meant for the poor evaporate even before they reach the people for whom they are meant. It would seem that the system has a vested interest in keeping the poor in their poverty. In denying them of their basic rights of food, shelter, clothing, drinking water and literacy.
At the same time I have seen the struggles and protests of the people. For an end to this exploitation. For access to basics which are needed for living with dignity. And I felt that I could not remain a mere writer of fiction without doing anything about it. So I write about them in my works of fiction. I write about them in journalistic reports. I provide a forum for them to write about their own problems. I take up their cause at every level. And, above all, I help them in organizing themselves in groups so that they could take up development activities in their own areas. And I do all this in my own small way.
I will have sense of fulfillment of more and more young writers took to unbeaten tracks. My India still lives behind a curtain of darkness. A curtain that separates the mainstream society from the poor and the deprived. But then why my India alone? Cannot one say the same for so many countries and societies today? As the century comes to an end, it is important that we all make an attempt to tear the curtain of darkness, see the reality that lies beyond and see our own true faces in the process.
Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Namaste.
She is certainly, as a noted critic puts it, “one of the most important writers writing in India today.” It is fulsome praise and yet more can be said of Mahasweta Devi. She stands with few equals among today’s Asian writers in the dedication and directness with which she has turned writing into a form of service to the people.
Mahasweta Devi was born to a privileged, middle-class Bengali family on January 14, 1926. Force of custom had it that she was born in Dhaka where her maternal grandfather was a practicing lawyer, since it was tradition in the family for daughters to give birth in their parents’ house. (Dhaka was part of British India before the partition of Bengal in 1947, when it became part of Pakistan; it is now the capital of Bangladesh.) While Devi briefly attended Eden Montessori School in Dhaka, it was in West Bengal that she grew up in the midst of a large and intellectually stimulating family.
It was a family with a long tradition of civic spirit and high literacy. Devi’s grandparents were involved in various movements aimed at the promotion of Western education and social reform, initiated or inspired by Rammohun Roy (1772–1833), who has been called the Father of Modern India, and such leaders of the nineteenth-century Bengali Renaissance as Iswarchandra Vidyasagar. These were men who played important roles in shaping early Indian nationalism as well as modern Bengali literature, perhaps the richest and most dynamic of the literary traditions in India.
The eldest of nine children, Devi was raised in the rich milieu of Bengali high culture. Her father, Manish Chandra Ghatak (1902–1979), was a renowned poet and prose writer. In the 1920s, he was part of a group of young writers who broke new ground by writing a new type of realist stories that dealt with slum life and the seamier underside of Indian society. Devi’s mother, Dharitri Devi (1908–1984), was a writer who loved Pearl Buck’s novels about old China and translated some of her works. (She met the famous American author when the latter visited Bombay in 1934 and was gifted with a copy of one of Buck’s books.) Dharitri was also a social worker who, like her own mother, devoted a great part of her time to promoting literacy among underprivileged children. Assorted aunts and uncles won prominence as artists, journalists, actors and filmmakers, among them the pioneering, British-trained cinematographer Sudhish Ghatak, actor and film director Ritwick Ghatak, journalist Sachin Chowdhury, and sculptor Sankho Chowdhury.
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