She was nothing short of a legend
It was around the summer of 1990 that I had my first encounter with Mahasweta Debi. I was working for a national women’s magazine and we were doing a feature on what kind of a government does an Indian woman want? I was asked to speak to four distinguished women from Bengal and one obvious choice was Mahasweta Debi. As I walked up the spiral staircase of her humble rented apartment on Ballygunje Station road that morning, little did I realize I was on my way to meeting a mountain, one who would become my mentor in the years to come.
The lady was not at home, and the room immediately adjacent to the spiral staircase was strewn with copies of Bartika, the magazine started by her father Manish Ghatak and then run by her. A woman, understandably her help, asked me to wait if I wanted to but was rather tentative on her return. After about an hour long wait, as I was about to leave, Mahasweta Debi walked up the staircase and stood at the door looking distinctively disapproving of my presence. “What do you want”? she asked me very sternly. I told her why I was here. “I don’t talk to amateurs”, she immediately responded, and then after a brief pause she enquired, “which magazine you said?” I had a sudden feeling that she was not as stern as she seemed initially. I told her I was here to ask only few questions on what kind of a government she would like. She barked back fiercely and said, “I don’t believe in any government.” I told her, “So why don’t you say that? We will carry that as your statement. She looked at me strangely, and suddenly broke into a grin and muttered, “You are a wicked girl. Come have some tea.”
As we were waiting for the tea to arrive, she told me “ I am only interested in a government which would look after the dispossessed, marginalised, homeless people, retrenched workers, and tribals. And I know that no government will look after them. If your paper has the courage, ask them to publish this.”
A few weeks later I went to meet her again with a copy of the magazine. This time, she offered me lunch. I noticed that she was taking insulin injection before her meal and mentioned very casually that this is how she has kept her blood sugar under control. It was this disease that would in the years to come take a toll on her heart, and then finally on her entire system.
Her apartment became my regular haunt from now on. She would tell me about her struggles, her early years, her difficult marriages, and how she found her calling amongst the denotified tribes. Not many would know that in her years of struggle, immediately after her separation from Bijon Bhattacharya, she was hard up for work. She was not viewed upon kindly by the publishers because she had dared leave someone as eminent as Bijon Bhattacharya. The society at that point completely failed to identify with her agony and her decision for a separate existence - not as Bijon Bhattacharya’s wife.
Even the court had refused to give her custody of her minor son as she and her lifestyle was not being viewed upon kindly by the judge. The day she lost custody of her son was probably the only day when she buckled in. That night she tried to take her own life. Later on, when she was recovering at the hospital, little Nabarun came to meet her and told her, “Ma, don’t cry, I will return to you someday. I promise”.
During that phase, she would sit on the steps of the GPO and help people write out letters in exchange for a penny or two. She would do all kinds of odd jobs for a living, but refused to buckle under societal pressure. And she started spending time in the villages with the Lodha Shabars and the Kheria Shabars in Purulia and Jungle Mahal. They became the main content of her writings, both in newspapers and her published books.
Once I asked her, “how do you survive with your activism?” She told me that she had once written several text books for Oxford University Press and gets a fat annual royalty from that. “I keep only 4,000 every month for myself and give the rest to the Shabars.” It was to the same Shabars that she would donate a large part of the money that she received from Jnanpith and Magsaysay. And it was because of her unstinted work for them that they gave her the title “Shabar Janani” (Mother of Shabars). Once she was joking that after her death the shabars will come to claim her body, as they bury the dead, while her own people will have to wrest her body from them in order to cremate it.
She had contempt for the urban middle class as she felt that they only consumed, and did not produce anything. She had the same contempt for contemporary Bengali writers as she felt they were too narrow and constricted in their content, as their narrative always revolved around the urban middle class.
I was like her daughter, but she would often call me her mother. On several of my visits, she would ask me to get this and that. Once she asked me to get her two “wash and wear” sarees. I ploughed through Gariahat but could not find any. Finally, I bought her two synthetic sarees. Another time she asked for a bed-sheet, and remarked, last time the sarees you bought were horrible. Please make sure that the sheet is better.
When I moved to Delhi for a few years, Mahasweta Debi would often visit Delhi in her work with the NHRC. On several of those visits she would stay with me. Those were extremely enriching days and nights as she would educate me about the undocumented history of the “other” India. And it was on the night she received the Jnanpith that I saw another facet of her character.
To begin with, she had forgotten the check on the dais of Vigyan Bhavan where Nelson Mandela had come to give away the award to her. When someone from the Jnanpith committee picked it up and gave it back to her, she accepted it with a sheepish smile.
The Jnanpith committee had put her up at the India International Centre, and I was spending the night with her there. The entire media, national as well as international, was waiting eagerly to speak to her. As she was getting ready for interview to the first journalist, somebody from PUCL walked in. They had a failed petition in their hand for six death row convicts who were to be hanged the next morning. All six were below 25 and from Andhra Pradesh. Their crime was heinous. Inspired by a Telegu film, they had tried to play a game of false kidnapping of a bus filled with civilians. And in the process had set the bus on fire by accident.
Realising what they had done, they had tried their level best to douse the flames but two of them were seriously burnt. However, the passengers could not make their way out and were all charred to death. The PUCL members told them that they were barely 18 when they had committed the crime and were first-time criminals. If Mahasweta Debi could speak to the President and personally seek their pardon and their sentence be commuted to life imprisonment. Mahasweta Debi sent away the entire media and committed herself to saving these six lives. The President had already gone off to bed and could only be spoken to in the morning. And the boys were to be hanged at dawn. She pleaded with the staff at the Rashtrapati Bhavan to let her have one word with the President. They promised to call her as soon as he was up in the morning, which according to them, was at 4 am.
Mahasweta Devi did not sleep that night. She had completely forgotten about the glory of the Jnanpith award, and of receiving it from none other than Nelson Mandela. Her only concern now was to save those lives, and somehow stop the hangings. As she paced up and down in the room throughout the night, I realised this a was a lesson in dedication and commitment towards human rights. I remember once she had told me that during the famine, she was walking near gariahat market when she saw a little boy stealing a fruit. When the boy realised that she had seen him, he looked at her nervously. She picked up another fruit and gave it to him, and said, “Now run”.
The President’s staff kept their word and called her up at 4 am. The President accepted her plea and agreed to reconsider the mercy petition and a wire was sent immediately to the jail authorities to stop the hanging. This incident, like many others, is part of an unwritten history of a great author and a greater human being. A mountain that could merge with the jungles of Purulia and Jungle Mahal to give hope to the hopeless tribals. No wonder that in the dreaded Lodhashuli jungle, the Lodhas have a temple with her deity in it, and legend goes that they pray to that deity before going out to rob, for that is the only thing they can do for a living.
Mahasweta Debi is the thing that legends are written about. She was nothing short of a legend during her lifetime. The Tribals have lost their mother. And many like me, their mentor.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)