By Urvashi Butalia
For many women of my generation, the eighties were the early years of our activism in the women’s movement. Dowry and rape had emerged as key issues and our discussions focused around how to go beyond our own circles and begin a broader debate on these subjects. In Delhi, groups like Stree Sangharsh and Action India, and later Saheli and Jagori, began working on street plays that we took to colleges, communities, street corners and more.
It was a heady time — activism filled the air, our university years had been rich with political discussions and the vibrancy of those still remained with us. We took out marches, demonstrations, protests, we created campaigning leaflets, and we met, regularly, to share notes. And yet, in many ways, while we formed our own close political communities, and we made a lot of noise, not many really cared about us. In many ways we were sort of shouting into a void, not knowing if anyone was listening, not sure if anyone was concerned.
I still remember the early excitement of ‘discovering’ Mahasweta Devi in those days. I’m not sure what the sequence was, but I think it began with Hazaar Chaurasi ki Ma (Mother of 1084). I first read it in Hindi — there was no English translation then— and could not believe that someone, a writer, could actually be writing about a woman and Naxalbari! Many of our women friends had made their way into the movement, but predictably, the story was all about men. But here was something different, and exciting, and powerful.
Writers at that time were quite distant from the women’s movement and women activists. They wrote, and we shouted. They were not really sure what it was we were doing, and whether or not there was any value to it. I don’t think Mahasweta Devi knew that much about our type of activism either. Her writing was informed by her politics, and she felt for women — and indeed men— and she wrote about them. But for us, to know a writer, a woman writer, was addressing the sorts of issues we were concerned with, was exciting and empowering.
Then came Draupadi — oddly enough, I remember being alerted to it by an Italian journalist who was based in India at the time, and who’d been to talk to Mahasweta di (as I later came to call her) and had come back with the story, in Bangla, that he described to us paragraph by paragraph, having taken careful notes while talking to her. We were in one of our workshops to create our street play on rape. We listened, unbelieving, here was a writer who was writing about all the things we knew were around us, all the things we as young feminists were becoming painfully aware of. We’d just produced a pamphlet on the rape of women in Santhal Parganas — the two texts could have been mirrors of each other. Later, I read Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s translation. Here is Draupadi after her gang rape — she wakes up, her arms and legs tied to four posts:
Then a billion moons pass. A billion lunar years. Opening her eyes after a million light years, Draupadi, strangely enough, seeks sky and moon. Slowly the bloodied nailheads shift from her brain. Trying to move, she feels her arms and legs still tied to four posts. Something sticky under her ass and waist. Her own blood. Only the gag has been removed. Incredible thirst. In case she says ‘water’ she catches her lower lip in her teeth. She senses that her vagina is bleeding. How many came to make her?
And here is Draupadi who tears up the rags they throw at her and flings them away, flaunting her nakedness in Senanayak’s face:
Draupadi comes closer. Stands with her hand on her hip, laughs and says, The object of your search, Dopdi Mejhen. You asked them to make me up, don’t you want to see how they made me?
Where are her clothes?
Won’t put them on, Sir. Tearing them.
Draupadi’s black body comes even closer. Draupadi shakes with an indomitable laughter that Senanayak simply cannot understand. Her ravaged lips bleed as she begins laughing. Draupadi wipes the blood on her palm and says in a voice that is terrifying, sky splitting and sharp as her ululation. What’s the use of clothes? You can strip me, but how can you clothe me again? Are you a man?
In 1984 when we started Kali for Women, our feminist publishing house, one of the first things we did was to publish a collection of stories by Indian women. Called Truth Tales, it had six stories in translation and one originally written in English. I was sure that we had to have a story by Mahasweta in there — up until then, if I am not wrong, barring a children’s story in a National Book Trust collection, she had not been translated into English.
I went to see her in her modest home in what was then Calcutta. She was generous with her time, and with her work. She talked about how strongly she felt about the rightlessness of India’s tribal people, the dailyness of the violence tribal women faced, especially at the hands of the State. When I think back to that conversation, it could so easily belong to today. She chose the story she wanted to give us, she gave it to us, she suggested the translator. ‘The Wet Nurse’ translated by Ella Dutta, became one of the strongest stories in our book (later Gayatri Chakravarti Spivak translated it as ‘The Breast Giver’). She would do this — people would go to her, ask for her work, she’d give it to them, no question of asking for money, or laying conditions. And yet, it was not as if she did not need money, for it was this that financed so much of her work.
Mahasweta was that rare writer of truth tales. Her stories, her novels are angry, passionate and true and steadfast. She wrote her stories as they came to her, the characters taking over and running away. She collected words — in an interview with her friend and publisher Naveen Kishore, she once said: “I have lots of things scribbled down…let me see…my notebooks are scattered…there was a time when I would write down words I came across. Here, for example, Parnanar. Made of polash leaves. This refers to a strange ritual. Say a man has 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 the leaves to make a man.” And in this way, the ritual of cremation is completed.
Writers and publishers do not always have easy relationships. In Kolkata the independent publishing house Seagull, with editors and translators Anjum Katyal, Sunandini Banerjee and publisher Naveen Kishore, became Mahasweta Devi’s chosen friends and professional colleagues. Seagull took her to the world, in translation into many international languages.
While many of us know Mahasweta Devi through her work, we know little about her life. The eldest child in her family, Mahasweta Devi did not have an easy childhood. She once described an incident from her teenage years:
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. … I felt, why did he do this? I was crushed. The whole family accused me. From 16 on my parents and especially my relatives would despair — what can we do about this girl?
As Mahasweta’s voice became stronger over the years, many people — particularly politicians and those on the left she critiqued— asked this question in different ways: what can we do about this girl?
Some years ago ‘this girl’ now close to ninety, travelled to the Jaipur Literature Festival to deliver the keynote address. She called it ‘O to Live Again’.
O To Live Again
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!
Urvashi Butalia is a feminist, historian and founder of Zubaan Books.