Literary giant, crusader for tribal rights Mahasweta Devi dead (Roundup)

Kolkata, July 28 (IANS) Eminent activist-writer, honoured with Padma Vibhushan and Magsaysay Award for her decades of crusade for the rights of tribals and the marginalised, Mahasweta Devi died at a city nursing home on Thursday following prolonged old-age complications. She was 90.

“She passed away at 3.16 p.m. following a cardiac arrest and multi-organ failure,” a doctor attending on her confirmed. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee announced that the Jnanpith winner would be given a state funeral on Friday.

Mahasweta Devi is survived by her daughter-in-law and grandchild. Her son pre-deceased her two years back.

In a six-decade long literary career, she authored over 120 books, comprising 20 collections of short stories and around 100 novels, and contributed innumerable articles and columns to newspapers and magazines, a large number of them woven around tribal life.

Adopting a simple style laced with colloquial words and expressions, Mahasweta blended oral histories with contemporary events to portray the sufferings of the tribals in the hands of upper-caste landlords, money lenders and government servants.

The novel “Aranyer Adhikar” (The Occupation of the Forest), dwelling on Birsa Munda’s revolt against the British, fetched Mahasweta Devi the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1979. “Choti Munda evam Tar Tir” (Choti Munda and His Arrow), “Bashai Tudu”, “Titu Mir”, are among other masterpieces.

Another famous novel published in 1975 — “Hajar Churashir Maa” (Mother of 1,084), inspired by Maxim Gorky’s “Mother” — has the backdrop of the Maoist movement.

From the late ’70s, she began to intervene directly and championed the cause of two tribal groups — the Lodhas of erstwhile Midnapur district and the Kheria Sabars of Purulia — who were among those notified by the British in 1871 as “criminal tribes”.

Mahasweta Devi later came to be revered as “The Mother of the Sabars”. Simultaneously, she lent her weight to the tribal struggles in various other states.

People from across the fields of art, culture, cinema and politics paid tribute to her.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi described her as “a voice of compassion, equality and justice”, while Congress President Sonia Gandhi described Mahasweta Devi as “India’s conscience keeper, whose words echoed her inner voice, representing the voiceless and faceless countrymen”.

“Mahasweta Devi wonderfully illustrated the might of the pen,” tweeted Modi.

“Through her writings, Mahasweta Devi incessantly fought against injustice, oppression, inequality and bias,” said Sonia.

Mamata Banerjee said Mahasweta’s demise was akin to West Bengal losing a “glorious mother”.

“Her last rites will be performed with full state honours tomorrow (Friday). Her mortal remains will be kept at Rabindra Sadan on Friday for the people to pay their last respects,” said Banerjee who cut short her Delhi visit to rush back to the city.

Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, living in self-exile, remembered the litterateur’s support during “bad times”.

Filmmaker Govind Nihalni, who in 1998 directed the touching Hindi movie, “Hazar Chaurasi Ki Ma”, adapted from Mahasweta’s novel, recalled those times.

“During the making of ‘Hazar Chaurasi Ki Ma’, and after, she was always there to support me. She was happy at the way the film had turned out,” said Nihalni.

Another film director, Mahesh Bhatt tweeted: “The woman who walked with the broken and refused to sit with the ‘great’ writer Mahasweta Devi passes away in Kolkata”.

“She will always remain a light to follow for all those who fight for the society. She used to say that it’s the tribals who actually can teach us about civilisation,” said National Award winning filmmaker Goutam Ghose.

Veteran Bengali litterateur Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay referred to her compassion for the downtrodden and the guts to protest against all injustices.

“She was a complete human being,” said Mukhopadhyay.

Film director Aparna Sen said she was true to her beliefs in her work.

Born in 1926 at Dhaka, presently the capital city of Bangladesh, into a family of poets, writers, and artists, Mahasweta Devi was moulded as a child in the rich milieu of Bengali high culture. Her father poet-novelist Manish Ghatak and mother writer-social activist Dharitri Devi shaped her liberal outlook. Legendary filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak was her uncle.

She cleared her graduation with English honours at Rabindranath Tagore-founded Visva Bharati at Santiniketan, and later got her M.A. degree from Calcutta University. She taught at a city college for two decades, before deciding to devote all her time to writing and activism.

In 1997, she received the Magsaysay, with the award citation saying, alongside her creative writing, “Devi bombarded the government with complaint letters and published a profusion of articles documenting abuses by police, landlords, politicians, and officials against tribal communities. Passionately, she made their cause her cause.”

In the 1980s, Mahasweta also successfully campaigned for the release of women kept in West Bengal jails for years as non-criminal lunatics.



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