As a child growing up in Bengal, it is a sheer delight that the very best of writers — right from Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar and Rabindranath Tagore to Mahasweta Devi, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay, Sharadindu Bandopadhyay, Buddhadeb Guha and Ashapurna Devi — also wrote for kids.
That was how one is introduced to the writing of Mahasweta, the fiery and temperamental niece of the equally mercurial Ritwik Ghatak and daughter of Manish Ghatak, another one from the same crazy family yarn.
I remember her stories in Anandamela, especially the much-awaited special Durga Puja editions, or her occasional ghost story which took you beyond the chill of fright into humour, wonder and imagination.
As you grow up, she grows on you. There are very few whose lives, ideals, convictions and work fuse so honestly and effortlessly. A life spent among the Lodha tribe of Medinipur, the Kheria Shobors of Purulia and Dhikaros of Birbhum became the blood of her stories.
|The power of Mahasweta Devi’s writing hits you square in the face.|
In my first year of journalism, the bureau chief told me that I might get to interview Mahasweta. In my head, excitement jostled with anxiety. In spite of being the short, gaunt woman in cotton saris and slippers, she was too big a literary figure, too outspoken, too moody for a rookie journalist to go and calmly direct questions at.
To do some homework, I went to a person who was part of the Kolkata literary scene and knew her a bit. The gentleman advised me to read up on her latest. “And try to get her angry. You get the best interviews when she is all riled up.”
The interview never happened. She had to suddenly leave the city for some work. In a few months, I left Kolkata for Mumbai.
Much later, reading her Draupadi (or Dopdi) transfixed, I regretted not having chased her enough for that interview later.
Dopdi changes you. The power of Mahasweta’s writing hits you square in the face, even through its translation by Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak. You are introduced to the idea of retaliation of the defenceless, and you never recover.
It is not armchair writing about Dalits, tribals, and dispossessed. It is real, from her everyday experience, and so, way more frightening than the imagined.
Her rebelliousness and wry humour were intact till the end. “For the government, I am a hardened criminal,” she told an interviewer on being bitterly critical of the Mamata Banerjee government in the Park Street rape case.
It is never too late to get introduced to the truly wild child of Indian literature — one who, they say, would drink like a fish and swear like a sailor, but never left her senses or commitment behind. There will not be another Mahasweta Devi, at least in a very long time.