Remembering Mahasweta Devi: The blueprint of subaltern activism and literature
The relationship between history and fiction is a slippery slope, full of ambiguity and precariousness. One deals in the terrain of imaginations and one in absolute truths. Fiction can detach itself from history. However, fiction can also be a device to tell history without any augmentation, as reflected in Mahasweta Devi's writings.
A staunch social activist, Mahasweta Devi wrote over 120 novels and 20 collections of short stories. Both her activism and writings illustrate the stories of the subaltern who have almost always been disbarred from the discourse of mainstream fiction and history. The topography of mainstream cultural and historical texts has erased the history of adivasi and lower caste people. Mahasweta Devi's research and writings tell the disturbing truth of these downtrodden communities who remain at the bottom on the map of the marginalised. Among her major works are, Aranyer Adhikar (Right to the Forest), Breast Stories, Mother of 1084, Rudali, etc.
Devi's fiction, unlike other writers of her time or those before her, doesn't try to veil the oppression of the subaltern. If we think for a moment, we will notice the absence of Dalit literature in our textbooks. I remember reading Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay's Abhagir Swarga (1956) back in high school, interpreting it with the isolated lens of class instead of realising that it is a depiction of caste based oppression. While novelists such as Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay and Sanjeeb Chandra Chattopadhyay adopted an ambiguous position on caste discourse in their writing, Mahasweta Devi's fiction explicitly delineates the Dalits and adivasis as political, social, and psychological beings embroiled in multiple levels of oppression. What distinguishes her fiction is the narrativization that takes place within a historical discourse. In her writings, she imagines history into fiction.
Devi's portrayal of women in her fiction as gendered subjects forces open a discourse on gender within caste and class hierarchy. She said, "When I write, I never think of myself as a woman. I look at the class, not at the gender problem." Her remarks perhaps speak to her own caste position as a Brahmin woman, whose experiences as a woman were far divorced from the lived realities of those she wrote about. Devi, who believed women's bodies manifest as a locus of oppression, illustrated the ideological underpinnings of caste patriarchy through the theme of bodily violence.
In Rudali (1997), the narrative revolves around Sanichari, a woman belonging to Ganju caste within the Brahmanic order of the Hindu society. Rudali are lower caste women who earn their livings by crying at the funeral of their upper caste lords. Here, Devi's portrayal of the lower caste women's bodies is symbolic of the caste violence rather than a morbid metaphor. The caste feudalism and the larger caste ethos of Indian society are shown through Dalit women commodifying their bodies. This Brahmanic order of society created a new form of prostitution—Dalits selling off their grief.
In "Draupadi" (1978), we see the mythical Drapaudi taking the form of Dopdi, a santal rebel involved in the naxalite movement. The juxtaposition of Dopdi's identity as a naxalite and a tribal woman shows her triple layers of marginalisation. When captured, she is gang raped by the army, her breasts mutilated, nipples torn. Whereas in Mahabharta, God had prevented the Kauravas to rape Drapaudi, no God comes to save Dopdi's dignity. But the phallic imagery employed here does not imply Dopdi's lost dignity. Rather, when she tears her cloth with her teeth, her wounded breasts become a weapon of resistance—"What's the use of clothes? You can strip me, but how can you clothe me again? Are you a man?" The brutal rape of two Adivasi women in Manipur a few months ago keeps taking me back to the story of Dopdi.
Tribal resistance takes another form in Birsa Munda, a tribal rebel in Aranyer Adhikar (1977). Her historicisation of the real life of Birsa Munda in the late 19th century recounts the tribal resistance against the British who colonised their forests and hills. What sets Mahasweta Devi apart from other writers for me is that she walked the talk. Her penned words emerged from observing the downtrodden outside the margins. She travelled three decades documenting the exploitation and violence faced by the subaltern. She lived among them and advocated for their rights. Through the narrativization of her fiction we can discover alternate histories. Devi said, "I have always tried to explore other people's version of history…In all my writings I have tried to present the subaltern view."
In a time when the Adivasi people of our own land are facing ethnic cleansing in the name of development, the significance of her writings becomes more omnipresent in our national ethos. Mahasweta Devi's work will remain a blueprint for the articulation of the subaltern emancipation as long as there is oppression in the world.
Nawshin Flora is currently daydreaming about catching up to her never ending TBR list. Remind her to get enough sleep at firstname.lastname@example.org.