When India was guest nation of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2006, Mahasweta Devi, already frail at the age of 90, was the natural choice for keynote speaker. Though the Sahitya Akademi had sent over 70 writers representing the major Indian languages – including some of the most respected writers in English – her voice was the most credible for listeners from the publishing houses of the West. It spoke in a register which resonated with them, and told of the cicatrice of extraordinary inequalities and exclusions which disfigures Indian society, and of the exploitative structures on which Indian society and culture stand.
Ten years after, the world of Indian literature mourns her loss. Her ability to communicate, across languages and cultures, the simplest, starkest realities of the lives of India’s dispossessed left many in awe. She did receive a strong impetus from postcolonial criticism – her translator Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak was an important figure of the movement – but while her stories were locally inflected, her concerns were universal. Interestingly, the realities of everyday rural life which moved her to start writing in the Sixties, when she taught at a college in the outskirts of Kolkata, were largely those which moved the youth of the city to join the armed agrarian revolt at Naxalbari. Indeed, the setting of her most famous novel, Hajar Churashir Ma (of 1974, filmed by Govind Nihalani in 1998) is the Naxalite movement.
WATCH VIDEO: Eminent Writer Mahasweta Devi Dies At 90
Devi won the Sahitya Akademi and Jnanpith awards for literary excellence, while the Ramon Magsaysay award and the Padma Vibhushan also recognise the political import of her work, both as writer and activist. Her best-known stories were agitprop. In his forthcoming book The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh notes ruefully that authors turn instinctively to nonfiction to address political issues like climate change. But politics – including environmental politics – informs the creative work of Devi, analysing the countervailing forces of nature and civilisation, history and moderisation. It is a unique thread in the story of Indian literature, drawing on the diverse worlds of India’s tribals, dalits, women and the peasantry – the vanquished of history. She has listening closely to them, amplified their concerns and brought them to the attention of the mainstream. This ability to turn subaltern lives into fictional polemic, the ease with which she made the personal the political, was her legacy to modern Indian letters.