Art & Culture

O to live again: Writer Mahasweta Devi in her own words

Namita Gokhale
Namita GokhaleJul 28, 2016 | 17:55

O to live again: Writer Mahasweta Devi in her own words

Mahasweta Devi's condition had deteriorated this week and she was put on life support.

On a crisp winter morning in January 2013, a slight figure in a cotton sari ascended the stage at the Jaipur Literature Festival to deliver the keynote address.

We had received the text of her speech from her friend and publisher Naveen Kishore of Seagull books.

We were all intensely touched by how much she had said in those two typed pages. It was in a way the essence of a life lived with intensity and integrity, by a woman who represented the struggles of her times and the abiding spirit of freedom everywhere.


I am moved to tears as I read her keynote address again.

Mahasweta Devi was a writer, and an activist, but she was also a seer, and a warrior, and a woman, and so many other things that we will miss and remember and celebrate for centuries to come.

Keynote by Mahasweta Devi at Jaipur Literature Festival

"Was yesterday not full of a thousand possibilities? That was the life! What has changed since then? You feel weak, insipid, a dreadful, debilitating listlessness worse than malaria fever. It is far, far worse. You are alone.

O to live again!

Words. From I know not where. A writer in anguish? Perhaps. At my age the desire to live again is a mischievous one. Having arrived at a netting distance from trapping my 90th year - like catching 'butterflies with nets of wonder' as the song goes - I must confess this is wishful thinking. Besides look at all the 'damage' I have already done by being around longer than was expected!

At eighty-eight - or is it seven - I move forward, often stepping back into the shadows. Sometimes I am bold enough to step back into the sunlight.


As a young person, as a mother, I would often move forward to when I was old. Amuse my son. Pretend that I couldn't hear, or see. Flail my hands about like in a blind man's game, or make mockery of memory. Forget important things. Things that had taken place but a moment ago!

These games were for fun. Now they are no longer funny. My life has moved forward and is repeating itself. I am repeating myself. Recollecting for you what has been. What is. What could have been. May have been.

Now it's memory's turn to mock me.

Our India is so very interesting. Take, for instance, the Pardhi tribe of Maharashtra.

I am haunted by ghosts of so many writers, characters from my stories, of people who I have 'lived' and yes loved and lost. Sometimes I feel like an old house that is privy to the simultaneous conversations of its inhabitants. Not always a privilege.

But what happens when a person has reached the end of her strength? The end of strength is not quite a full stop. Nor is it the last station where you get off the train. It is simply a slowing down. An ebbing of vitality. The thought that I began with, 'you are alone'.


Considering the setup from which I came, it was very unexpected that I would turn out to be like this. I was the eldest in the house. At that time, I don't know if you've had the same experience, every woman's first sex experience came from the family. And from a young age, I had a strong physical attractiveness, as I've been told - and this also, I knew, I felt it.

At that time we were very influenced by Tagore, was in Santiniketan, falling in love, whatever I did was with great gusto. This kind of experience I've had a lot.

From 13 to 18, I was deeply in love with one of my remote cousins. There was a suicidal tendency in his family, and he also committed suicide. Everyone started blaming me, saying that because he had loved me and hadn't got me, he had killed himself, which wasn't true.

By that time, I was in close contact with the Communist Party, and felt that it was such a waste at that young age. I felt, Why did he do this? I was crushed. The whole family accused me.

From 16 onwards, my parents and especially my relatives would despair - what can we do about this girl? She's so outgoing, she doesn't understand her body's attraction - it was considered vulgar.

I hate middle class morality. It's such a sham. Everything is suppressed.

Writing became my real world for me, in which I lived and survived. Forward. Backward.

My writing process is anything but haphazard. Before I write, I think a lot, mull over it, till it forms a crystal-clear hard core in my brain. I do all the homework I need to do. Take notes, talk to people. Find out. Then I start expanding it.

After that I don't face any hitches, by then the story is in my grip. When I write, all my reading, memories, direct experience, acquired information, come into it.

Wherever I go, I jot down things. The mind remains alive and I forget things too. I'm actually very happy with life. I don't owe anything to anyone, I don't abide by any rules laid down by society, I do what I want to, go wherever I want to, write down whatever I like, roam around.

The air I breathe is filled with words. For example, Parnanar. Made of polash leaves. This refers to a strange ritual. Say a man has died in a train disaster. His body couldn't be brought home. His relatives then, using straw or other materials - the area I speak of is full of the flame of the forest tree, the polash. So they use its leaves to make a man.

Mahasweta Devi was conferred the Ramon Magsaysay award and Padma Vibhushan.

Paappurush. Something out of folk belief. Doomed to eternal life. He keeps vigil over other people's sins. He appears. Doesn't appear.

He has not sinned himself. But he keeps account of everybody else's transgressions. Of their paap. Ceaselessly. And so he walks the earth. Taking note of the smallest things. A goat. Punished. Tethered to its post under the blinding sun.

Unable to reach water or shade. Then the paappurush leaves behind his words. That is a crime.

What you have done is wrong. Tui ja korli ta paap

Actually it is not a person. Merely the embodiment of an idea.

It might be a punishment. He may have committed some grave crime.

Shey hoyto kono paap korechhilo. Some unforgivable sin. And so now, he is doomed to be a paappurush through all eternity. And in fact, there is never just one paappurush. There are many. Just as there are many places that believe in this.And there are so many more beautiful words. Bengali words. Chorat. Meaning planks. Then, dakshankranti. This refers to the Chaitra shankranti.

Dak maaney dekey dekey jai. Those selves who are extremely conscientious, vigilant, only they can hear this call. Of the old year as it leaves. Questioning. The old year ends today. And the new one begins tomorrow. What have you not done? What have you still left to do? Finish it now.

Garbhadaan. This is very interesting. A woman is pregnant. Someone promises her that if a daughter is born, she will be given this and this. If a son is born, then something else.

Garbha thaktey daan korecchey. The gifting has happened while the child is still in the womb. This legend claims that the unborn child can hear this. And can remember. And record it in its mind. Later, he or she may ask that person about the promise. About the garbhadaan that is still due.

Denotified tribals. Because they are tribals, girl children are in great demand. The husband of a pregnant woman can easily auction off or sell the unborn child. Pet kiba aaji. Petey jaaacchey. What's still in the womb. Nilam korey dicchey. Auctioning the fruit of the womb.

Hell has many names. Narak-er onek gulo naam acchhey. One name which I like in particular is oshipatra bon. There are so many kinds of hell. Oshi means sword. And patra or a kind of plant with sword-like leaves. An entire forest of such plants. And the dead soul must walk through this forest. The sword-like leaves tearing into him. You are in hell, after all, because of your sins. And so your soul must now suffer this agony.

Whenever I come across an interesting word, I write it down. All these notebooks. Koto katha. So many words, so many sounds. I've just been collecting them wherever I came across them.

Let me end by telling you about a theme I'm going to write on when I have time, leisurely. I've been thinking about this for a long time.

The only way to counter globalisation, just a plot of land in some central place, keep it covered in grass, let there be a single tree, even a wild tree. Let your son's tricycle lie there. Let some poor child come and play, let a bird come and use the tree. Small things. Small dreams. After all, you have your own small dreams, don't you?

I claim elsewhere to have always written about the 'culture of the downtrodden'. How tall or short or true or false is this claim?

The more I think and write and think some more, the harder it gets to arrive at a definition. I hesitate. I falter. I cling to the belief that for any culture as old and ancient as ours to have survived over time and in time there could only be one basic common and acceptable core thought: humaneness. To accept each other's right to be human with dignity.

People do not have eyes to see. All my life I have been seeing small people and their small dreams.

I feel as if they wanted to lock up all the dreams, but somehow some dreams have escaped. A jailbreak of dreams. Durga, watching the train [in the novel, Pather Panchali]. An old woman who simply craves sleep. An old pensioner who finally gets his pension.

The people evicted from the forests, where will they go? Common people, and their common dreams. Like the Naxalites. Their crime - they dared to dream. Why shouldn't they be allowed even to dream?

As I have been saying for years, repeatedly, the right to dream should be the first fundamental right. The right to dream.

This then is my fight. My dream. In my life and in my literature."

Last updated: July 29, 2016 | 18:02
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