Mahasweta Devi (1926-2016): The autobiography that remains unfinished

Updated: 29 July, 2016 10:53 IST | Dipanjan Sinha and Jane Borges |

Filmmaker Joshy Joseph says that Mahasweta Devi’s own story will remain the only unpublished work of the writer

Kolkata: Eminent writer Mahasweta Devi, who penned hundreds of heart-warming tales about the downtrodden, could never finish her own story about the mental trauma she went through after her divorce.

Mahasweta Devi, who ardently fought for the rights of the tribals and other marginalised sections, passed away yesterday after a cardiac arrest. She was 91 and had been suffering from kidney, lung and other age-related ailments for a long time. Doctors at Belle Vue Clinic hospital, where she had been admitted on May 22, said she died of a cardiac arrest at 3.16 pm, which was preceded by multi-organ failure.

Documentary filmmaker Joshy Joseph, who was associated with the Jnanipath and Sahitya Akademi award winning writer for a long time, said after the Nandigram violence during acquisition of land in 2007 she had started writing her autobiography.

“She finished half of the diary four years ago but while shifting her house and the trouble she had with her ex-aide it got lost. Now it remains unfinished and we don’t even know where the priceless manuscript is lying,” Joseph said.

He said he had persuaded Mahasweta to finish writing it but it never happened. “She even read out some portions of the manuscript which was about her early life.”

Mental trauma
She was married to eminent playwright Bijon Bhattacharya, one of the founding members of the Indian People’s Theatre Association, but as things turned sour they separated in 1962. It was during this stage that she suffered a mental trauma and financial crisis. Things improved as she got a job as an English lecturer in a government college.

“I don’t think besides this autobiography there is any unpublished work of hers,” said Joseph, who has made three documentaries on her life.

However, many of her works are lost because she used to send the original manuscript of her writing to the publishers without keeping a copy of it.

Original works lost
“Some of the magazines in which they were published are now not available in the market. So many of her works are lost. She has been writing endlessly,” her associate said.

The first film he made on her was the 51-minute documentary ‘Journeying with Mahasweta Devi’ about 10 years ago while the second one was ‘Mahasweta Devi: Close-up’. The last one, which is an experimental film of only five minutes, is called ‘Serendipity Cinema’.

Joseph has over 140 hours of footage of Mahasweta’s life including conversations with her. “This footage is of great archival value.”

'The literary world has lost one of its most powerful voices of conscience'

It is very difficult to find a writer who can write on the issues she would write. Be it on women’s assertion or the life of the adivasis, she was always bold powerful and honest. Her writing had tremendous power. Thankfully, she did see her collected works and was satisfied with it. That is the only succour in this moment of great loss.
– Sudhangshu Shekhar Dey, *Owner - Publishing, Kolkata *One of the biggest Bengali publishing houses and have been publishing her works since the 1970s and are currently publishing her collected works

I still remember how nervous I was, when I went to meet Mahasweta Devi in Kolkata to request her for the rights of her story, Baayen. Because of her brand of activism, she always came across as a very straightforward and forthright person. But, within five minutes of sitting down with her, I realised there was another side to her too. She was so warm, affectionate and chatty, that all my anxiousness just flew away. I used to fondly call her didi. What I most appreciated about her was the freedom that she gave me, to work on the film. When the film was made, she asked me to send across a DVD for her to see. Didi called me to tell me how much she had enjoyed the movie. Her works were a combination of great scholarship and creativity. And her personal affection for people made her a great human being. She is undoubtedly one of the biggest influences in my life. The literary world has lost one of its most powerful voices of conscience
– Chitra Palekar, filmmaker, who made the 2006 Marathi film Maati Maay based on Mahasweta's Devi's Baayen

She was like an elder sister to me. When she rented an apartment at near Ballygunge station in Kolkata, I used to visit her often. Young writers flocked to her place and many considered her their idol. I have started reading admiring her work from the time her series, Nati came out in a Bengali Periodical. That was way back in the 50s. She was a devoted activist and understood the people she worked with. She lived among them and later they too came and lived in her apartment near Ballygunge station. In my own role as an activist I had a lot to learn from her.
– Prafulla Roy, Sahitya Akademi award-winning writer

MOST OF Devi’s writings have dealt with resistance. This resistance was multi-layered, as she not only wrote about the adivasis, Naxals and Dalits, but also how violence against women was institutionalised in the country. Her writings often spread into her activism, and her activist work, spread into her writings. She had a symbiotic relationship with the two, and it helped in the development of her life, and the lives of those she was working with in the tribal areas. Devi also had great confidence in what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (feminist critic and literary scholar) had written about her works. During a telephonic conversation in 2002, she told me, ‘You just read Gayatri, she has said it all’. And, of course Spivak is a definitive commentator on Devi’s literature. For Devi, the lives of tribals she was working with was the real story, her literature flowed from her involvement in their life.
– Dr (Sr) Ananda Amritmahal, principal Sophia College of Women, who was awarded a PhD on feminist critical perspective with special focus on Indian women writers

Her work
The Queen of Jhansi 
Hajar Churashir Maa 
Aranyer Adhikar 
Bitter Soil 
Chotti Munda evam Tar Tir 
Imaginary Maps 
Dust on the Road 
Our Non-Veg Cow 
Bashai Tudu 
Titu Mir
Breast Stories 
Of Women, Outcasts, Peasants, and Rebels 
Ek-kori's Dream 
The Book of the Hunter 
Till Death Do Us Part
Old Women
The Why-Why Girl 
Dakatey Kahini

1979: Sahitya Akademi Award 
1986: Padma Shri 
1996: Jnanpith Award 
1997: Ramon Magsaysay Award 
2006: Padma Vibhushan 
2010: Yashwantrao Chavan National Award
2011: Bangabibhushan - the highest civilian award from the Government of West Bengal
2012: Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Sahityabrahma

>> Govind Nihalani’s 1998 Hindi film ‘Hazaar Chaurasi ki Ma’ is based on her novel on the struggles of a mother who tries to understand the reasons behind her son’s involvement in the Naxalite movement.

>> In 1993, Kalpana Lajmi made ‘Rudaali’ on her novel by the same name chronicling the life of professional mourners upon the death of upper-caste males in Rajasthan.

>> Italian director Italo Spinelli also made the multi-lingual ‘Gangor’ based on her short story ‘Choli Ke Peeche’ about the rights of women.

Tweet talk

@RashtrapatiBhvn: In her death, India has lost a creative genius who contributed immensely to literature and social change

@RahulBose1: Tremendous loss. Meeting her you were struck by her principles and courage. And what writing. #MahaswetaDevi #RIP

@MVenkaiahNaidu: Saddened by the demise of #MahaswetaDevi, an acclaimed writer and Jnanpith awardee. Huge loss for Indian Literature.

@medhanarmada: With her passes an era of public intellectuals who stood for marginalised n oppressed n gave them a voice. A living legend RIP #MahaSwetaDevi

First Published: 29 July, 2016 08:20 IST

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