Mahasweta Devi, the doyen of Bangla literature, who passed away in Kolkata on Thursday last had an unusual introduction to non-serious students of literature sometime in the 1990s. In 1998, Govind Nihalani made a wonderful film in Hindi titled “1084 ki Maa” on Mahasweta Devi’s 1974 novel of the same name. Several years after the Naxalbari Movement, which drew young people in large numbers from affluent families, had been crushed in West Bengal by an iron hand by the Siddhartha Shanker Ray regime, Nihalani’s film drew people’s attention to the trail of grief which the tragic unrest left behind.
Mahasweta had that ability to delineate in the conflicts within a character and its metamorphosis into a new being as part of the evolution process. This was something which she focused so eminently in 1084 ki Maa, where protagonist Sujata, played by Jaya Bachchan, refuses to just be the mother of corpse number 1084. Sujata struggles to understand her brilliant son Brati’s passing, meets his friends one by one, comes to know that Brati had a girlfriend, Nandini Mitra, and that’s when she finds out that Brati was part of a rebel group often referred to as Naxalbari. As she delves deeper and deeper into Brati’s former life, she begins to understand her son’s struggle and decides to further it. Thus Sujata evolves from being just a member of an affluent Bhadralok family to the mother of a rebel.
This was Mahasweta’s beauty as a wielder of the quill, which flowed effortlessly on human emotions. And these emotions which flowed out of her pen had a universal appeal. This was largely on the account of her extraordinary exposure to the problem, thanks to the life of an activist for human rights. She dedicated a large part of her life to the struggles of tribal people in undivided Bihar and Madhya Pradesh in the areas now carved out as the states of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. In her writings, she often depicted the brutal oppression of tribal people and the untouchables by potent, authoritarian upper-caste landlords, lenders, and venal government officials.
Her creative criticism of obscurantist traditions was best showcased, from the Hindi-knowing audience’s point of view, in a short story titled “Layli Asmaner Ayna”. This was made into a classic by HS Rawail titled Sunghursh starring thespians Dilip Kumar, Sanjeev Kumar, and Balraj Sahni, each out-excelling the other with histrionics as such was the strength of each character provided by the depth of the plot.
On her ability to weave wonderful stories, once she wrote: “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.” It is difficult to say whether the world will get to witness another Mahasweta Devi.