Mahasweta Devi-I

A Mixed Bag of Admiration and Disappointment

Sumanta Banerjee

Mahasweta-di (that was how I used to address her as an elder sister) was a dear friend of mine and my wife's for a long time, although I drifted away from her during the last decade or so because of political reasons. I met her first, briefly sometime in the early 1960s, at the house of Shyamal Chakravarty (an old Communist friend of my family), in his ancestral home in Bhawanipur in south Calcutta. I still remember her, in those days, as a slim attractive woman in her 40s, and particularly the way she protruded her mouth and twisted her lips in a sarcastic way to dismiss the enemies in the anti-Left camp—an endearing trait that was to characterize her till the end.

I began to discover her in a closer environment after I came out from jail. I had no access to her classic Hajar Churashir Maa as I was underground when it came out in 1974. Once, soon after my release, at my younger brother Samik's place in Kolkata, she read out passages from that book, which brought tears to my eyes. We became friends. Whenever she came to Delhi, she used to visit us at our Press Enclave flat in Delhi where we invited our friends from the civil liberties movement with whom she shared her political concerns, and we took her out at the Triveni Kala Sangam cafeteria where over cups of tea she entertained us with funny stories from her personal life. A few years later—perhaps sometime in 1988-89- I happened to land up at her flat in the apartment complex (run by my friend, the CPI-M MP Jyotirmoy Bosu) in Ballygunge Station Road. I had at that time obtained a fellowship from the Indian Council of Historical Research, which required my stay in Calcutta for sometime for archival research. Mahasweta-di was kind enough to offer me a room adjoining her residence—but with a separate entrance, which suited me eminently. She left me to myself—but occasionally used to call me over to meet common acquaintances and friends (usually from the circle that had gathered around her journal Bortika), or sent me some special food that had been prepared in her kitchen.

After my return to Delhi, we kept in touch—when she visited Delhi, or when I went to Calcutta. Sometime in 2000, I was requested by Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books publishers to select and translate some of Mahasweta's stories into English. It was a sort of challenge for me, since her fiction had already been translated by illustrious predecessors like Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak and others. Instead of trodding their path, I decided to choose a different group of stories from her oeuvre—crime fiction (if that is the term that one can use to describe some of them). Behind the collection of her better known overtly political fiction that had been translated, there also lay a genre of a few novels and short stories that she had written about the Calcutta underworld in the decade between 1960 and 1970. The people described in these stories were a new generation of criminals. It was a period when the political bosses hired them to kill their rivals and provided them with all immunity against punishment. As I wrote in my introduction to the collection of the four stories which I translated: "It is these hoodlums and desperados, the derelicts and drifters of the Bengali underworld as well as their political patrons and protectors in the police, whom Mahasweta brings to life with her caustic pen in the pages of these stories. As she pillories the respectable representatives of power in our political system who sustain this underworld, she offers us the extraordinary chance to watch a lifelike effigy of the bizarre structure of Indian democracy burning in the background". Be ore publication, I sent one of the translations to her, and she approved of it. Seagull promptly brought out the rest of my translations in 2005 under the title BAIT: FOUR STORIES. I don't know whether Mahasweta-di read them, or what she thought of them, or whether the book was ever reviewed—as the publishers never bothered to keep me informed.

A few years later in the decade of the 2010s, Mahasweta Devi emerged as a leader of public protest (both by Bengali common citizens and intellectuals) against the high-handedness of the CPI(M)-led Left Front government in appropriating lands of poor peasants through violent means in Nandigram, Singur and Lalgarh. This role of hers was in perfect consistency with her earlier position as a public intellectual intervening in agitations by dalits and tribals, by helping them to win their demands. I lent her my full support. But then, I found suddenly that she was patronizing Mamata Banerjee, a political demagogue who was trying to hijack the popular upsurge in her favour for winning the next assembly elections. At public meetings in West Bengal, Mahaswesta-di kept on praising Mamata. Listening to speeches on television, in faraway Dehradun where I lived then, I wondered how could Mahasweta-di forget the role of Mamata and her Youth Congress in the 1973-75 period, when they killed Naxalites? Mahasweta Devi had then empathized with the Naxalites in her stories. But in her pubic gestures in the later part of her life, she supported the same Mamata who presided over the killing of Naxalites. How could Mahasweta-di forget Mamata's collaboration with the Hindu fundamentalists in the BJP-led NDA government where she was given a berth as a minister? It wasn't as if Mamata had changed over the years. Soon after coming to power in West Bengal, she saw to it that the Maoist leader, Kishenji (who in his naivete allowed himself to be used as a pawn in Mamata's electoral campaign by mobilizing the Maoist peasant base in Jangalmahal in her favour) was disposed of through a false encounter. During Mamata's regime, Mahasweta indeed once protested against Mamata's clamping down on a demonstration of a democratic rights organization in Kolkata. But for the rest of her years, she remained a silent spectator to the depredations that were carried out by the cadres of her protege whom she helped to bring to power, and indifferent to the Sarada-Narada scams in which the Trinamul leaders were involved. Was her silence due to her prolonged illness?

Or, does Mahasweta Devi's transition from the role of a courageous independent public intellectual to that of a partisan supporter of a populist authoritarian political leader, indicate a deep-rooted sense of insecurity among sections of Bengal intellectuals today, who desperately need to depend on some political authority? One shares her disappointment with the Left Front government and repulsion against the CPI(M)'s politics of terror and intolerance. But then, did this warrant her choice of yet another equally authoritarian political dispensation?

In the West, we had seen how in the 1930s, a progressive Italian intellectual like Gabriele D'Annunzio, at the end of his life, veered towards a fascist demagogue like Mussolini, seduced by his populist slogans, or in Japan in the Orient, another progressive poet like Noguchi supported his state's aggression on China in the name of nationalism. In the 1950s, we saw a similar drift among some leading Western writers towards the international anti-Left campaign carried out by the ClA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom. Erstwhile Leftist intellectuals like Stephen Spender, Arthur Koestler, and others joined the campaign. They were understandably disillusioned, and justifiably repelled by the atrocities of the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union, and suppression of internal dissent by the Communist parties in their respective countries. But in retaliation, they chose to join the brigade sponsored by yet another authoritarian and oppressive regime—the US government—which at that time of its McCarthyist phase hounded progressive authors and actors like Dashiell Hammett, Lillian Hellman and Charles Chaplin. That it is possible to retain an independent stand while being a critic of the Soviet regime and Communist party bureaucracy, and yet refusing to join the camp of the opposite bunch of ruffians, was demonstrated by Jean Paul Sartre, who remained loyal to his intellectual and political principles till the end of his life. I expected Mahasweta-di to live up to that standard of intellectual and political honesty at the end of her life.

I am sorry if I have hurt the sentiments of admirers of Mahasweta Devi. I join them in clenching my fist into a 'Lal Salam' as a tribute to her extraordinary creative work in literature, and her courageous acts as a public intellectual in intervening on behalf of the oppressed poor. I also affectionately remember my friendship, with her. But at the same time, I believe in what Voltaire said: "One owes respect to the living; but to the dead one owes nothing but the truth."

Vol. 49, No.6, Aug 14 - 20, 2016