In the first week of February 2002, I got a call from the writer Mahasweta Devi. I had met Mahasweta only once—in a boarding house in Delhi where we both happened to be staying—but knew, of course, a great deal about her. I had not read her novels—I don’t read much fiction—but had been profoundly moved by her field reports on the condition of that most disadvantaged section of Indian society, the adivasis. I had read these reports in the 1980s, as they appeared in those remarkable little journals, Frontier of Calcutta and the Economic and Political Weekly of Bombay. (They have now been collected in book form in Dust on the Road: The Activist Writings of Mahasweta Devi.) These essays detailed, with great sensitivity but also with a sometimes barely suppressed anger, the exploitation of adivasi labour, the stealing of their land, the plundering of their forests.
Mahasweta’s reports were mostly from the tribal districts of the Chotonagpur Plateau. At the time, the region was witnessing the renewal, albeit in more militant forms, of the old tribal demand for a separate state of Jharkhand. By official figures, some Rs 3000 crores had been spent by the Government on ‘tribal development’ in Chotanagpur. Where this money had gone it was hard to say, for the people still lived in ‘a primeval darkness’; without schools, hospitals, roads or electricity, with their lands seized by outsiders and their forests closed to them by the state. And the oppression was not merely economic; Hindu and Christian missionaries pressed the tribals to change their faith, and give up their own traditions of art, dance, and music. ‘The Jharkhand demand is set against such a background’, reported Mahasveta: ‘Tales of woe and exploitation on the one hand; the pulse of resistance on the other’.
However, when Mahasweta rang me from Calcutta in February 2002, it was not about the oppression of tribals, but with regard to the persecution of another vulnerable minority in democratic India, the Muslims. The riots in Gujarat were into their second week. Disturbing reports were coming in of state complicity, of mobs being aided by officials in identifying Muslim homes and shops, of the police idly looking on. Mahasweta had written a strong letter to the President of India, appealing to him ‘to immediately intervene as the constitutional head of the country to protect the lives of innocent citizens and prevent the carnage from spreading any further’. She wanted me to ask U. R. Anantha Murty to write likewise to the President. Anantha Murty wrote an equally forceful letter—and, as we now know, the President wrote himself to the Prime Minister of the day, but to little avail.
Two years later I met Mahasweta for the second time—in, as it happens, Gujarat. She had come to inaugurate an Academy of Tribal Learning, whose moving spirit is the scholar and activist Ganesh (G. N.) Devy. Devy was once a professor of literature, an esteemed and distinguished one. But, inspired by Mahasweta, he gave up his career to work among the adivasis of western India. His group, Bhasha, has done outstanding work among tribes stigmatized by society and persecuted by the police. They have also published many volumes of tribal folklore and literature—as its name suggests, among Bhasha’s aims is to protect tribal languages from being swallowed up by the wider world.
The new Academy of Tribal Learning seeks to impart humanistic education to adivasi boys and girls. It is located in Tejgarh, in the Bhil country. We drove there from Vadodara, through land looking unnaturally green. The rains had been heavy that year—excessively heavy, in fact. When we reached Tejgarh we found that the bridge that linked the Academy campus to the roadhead had been washed away. We had thus to walk through slush and mud, which was unpleasant for us all, but more so for the chief guest. For Mahasweta was a full twenty years older than the company, and seriously diabetic, too.
We reached the Academy, admired its elegantly understated brick buildings, and had our meeting. Later, Devy asked us to accompany him on a tour of the campus. Mahasweta insisted on coming. The paths were wet—or non-existent. Here and there they had been colonized by thorny bushes. And it was raining. Every now and then, Mahasweta was asked whether she had had enough. The enquiry was made out of sympathy, for at her age and in her physical condition the struggle seemed too much to bear. Someone then said, with impatience rather than in jest, that they didn’t want to be held responsible if she collapsed. Mahasweta answered that would indeed be a perfect death—for where else would she want to be cremated than in an Academy of Tribal Learning?
Watching Mahasweta that day, I was reminded of that she had told me over the phone that morning in February 2002: ‘hum maidan nahin choddenge, hum maidan nahin choddenge’. She is, in a word, indomitable. On 14th January this year she turned eighty years of age. Happy birthday, Mahasweta. May you stay on the field a good while yet.
Published in The Hindu, 29/1/2006