She is a living legend. At the age of 87, she stands as a monument, towering over contemporary literary figures. Winner of the Sahitya Akademi, Padma Shri, Jnanpith, Magsaysay, Padma Vibhusan and many other awards, she is the icon of the activist-writer. Yes, she is Mahasweta Devi, and I am shocked out of my wits to learn on the very second day of the course that I have been selected to do the report on her visit to the School. Having grown up reading her works and listening about her heroic deeds, it is one moment of pure dread and the next of unbounded joy to be finally meeting her in person, report or not.
The second half of the second day was scheduled exclusively for her. So the two dozens of us, the students, gather at the very attractive and cosy Seagull Books shop for the screening of a documentary on Mahasweta Devi. It is a series of four interviews, named Talking/Writing, done by Naveen Kishore (Publisher, Seagull Books) and produced by The Seagull Foundation for the Arts. The film starts at three and I watch it like a person possessed!
The interviews in the film start casually and flow effortlessly as she shares her innermost feelings, even her intimate personal details, with unmatched dignity. She talks about her ups and downs, her unquenched thirst for writing, her personal losses and how she overcame every hurdle in order to channel her energies and her life into one unfaltering stream—her never-ending works of literature. She is a born fighter, one whom her mother had predicted as ‘the girl no one will understand’, a loner by choice who never believed in compromise or giving up. Born in pre-independence India, she had a lot more strife swimming upstream for female empowerment and faced a lot of resistance from the writing community. She says unflinchingly, ‘I’ve paid a high price for it and I am mighty proud!’ She talks about her love for travel and how that led her to the most interior and backward tribal villages across Bengal and Bihar. She recollects from memory, in a somewhat detached way, the historic events of Independence, the death of Mahatma Gandhi and how some great figures of Bengali Art went away in search of better grounds to Bombay. When asked by Naveen whether we frighten away our friends, she speaks boldly, ‘I am not good at pretending. I am what I am.’ The documentary ends with her unforgettable words, ‘The right to dream is what helps mankind to survive. You take away dream—you destroy.’ What shines throughout the film is her unassuming, sword-edge personality and her love for the naked truth.
(In what can be called a mocking pseudo-contrast to the documentary where both Mahasweta Devi and Naveen were sweating profusely in the infamous Kolkata heat, we were almost chilled to our bones because of the central AC above us.)
Samik Bandyopadhyay, Dean of the Editorial Department, takes over from there to share with us some unknown aspects of Mahasweta Devi and some anecdotes from his personal experiences. We learn about how she created the masterpieces like Mother of 1084, The Queen of Jhansi and the Sahitya Akademi-winner Aranyer Adhikar. We hear about how she pioneered a whole new revolution of stories and novels and about her inclination towards creating new words and playing with them. We also learn about her son, Nabarun Bhattacharya, one of Bengal’s and India’s leading novelists and about her works that have been turned into successful feature films.
At this point, distraction arrives in the form of hot samosas and steaming glasses of tea. My enthusiastic attempt at the second samosa immediately turns to regret as I hear ‘Mahasweta Devi is here.’ Swallowing down the snack like an enormous guilt, I snuggle closer to get a clear view. She looks frail but determined and I wonder what the source of her energy is! After a few minutes the conversation starts. We, the students, bombard her with questions, ranging from her inspiration, writer’s block to more complex ones of ideals, commitments and nostalgia. Mahasweta Devi answers all of them. When one of us asks her if she missed out on herself, if she neglected herself, if she ever fought for herself, she responds with an amazing grace: ‘I wouldn’t bother!’ She despises urban culture and worries about a future where nature is abused. We get to know that neither she has neglected her needs nor has she pampered herself: ‘What’s good for the man on street is good for me.’. We learn about her dedication to writing, that she wrote for 18 hours a day and we are amazed that she still wants to continue writing, ‘It is part of my existence,’ she says cheerfully. We learn from Samik-da a hitherto unknown facet of her multidimensional personality: ‘She sings, especially 1950s Hindi songs,’ he tell us and she nods in agreement. She shares background stories of Chotti Munda and his Arrow and about how she de-notified the criminal tribes by moving the High Court almost singlehandedly and almost without a penny to her name.
We, the young enthusiastic group of learners have exhausted our questions, but Mahasweta Devi sits strong, ready for more. I look closely and realise that each fold of her skin has a story to tell, the sharp eyes behind the glasses have seen so much and that hand has created masterpieces. I am fascinated by her optimism, her will to create even now. I go forward for an autograph and she signs the book with blessings, a memento I will cherish for years to come. Following me, many others ask for autographs and she happily obliges them all.
As I sit now and recollect from memory, I find slipping words, missed quotations, and I wonder at the 87-year-old wonder who still reads her own creations and can remember almost every word, right down to the germ of the story!
We wish the legend goes on . . .
URMI RUPA PAL.