LITERARY TRIBUTE

Mahasweta Devi (1926-2016) was a fighter all her life, through her books and through her activism

The writer died in Kolkata on Thursday at the age of 90.

A few streets away from where I live, one of the doughtiest fighters I knew has just fought her last battle. This is the thought that shadows me as I attempt to pay a just tribute – to Mahasweta Devi, one of the most remarkable writers and activists this country has seen.

If you haven’t heard that name, or are unsure of who she is – Google her. You’ll learn that she’s ninety years old, that she’s variously described as a social activist and a novelist, that she’s won just about every award for literature that this nation has to bestow, plus the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay award for journalism, literature and social activism, that she is one of the most respected cultural figures in Bengal, and the author of a large number of novels and short stories, many of which have been translated into multiple Indian languages.

You’ll also learn that she dedicated her life to fighting for the rights of those most downtrodden and oppressed in our society – the migrant and the destitute, tribals and dalits, communities written off as criminal and marginal. Part of no one’s agenda, they became her cause and focus. She documented and reported, organised and sued, and, above all, wrote. Haunting, powerful tales filled with unforgettable characters and mythic images.

The writer

As a literary presence in the overcrowded field of Bengali creative writing, she carved a distinct space for herself. The people in her stories were migrant workers, the lowest of the low castes, landless labourers, poor abandoned women, tribals with no rights; and those who exploited, abused and suppressed them. She said that these were men and women she had encountered, real people from whom she constructed her characters.

Her plots and storylines, she often said, were based on actual events. Yet she found a way of lifting them to a mythic level, imbuing them with a universal relevance that rendered them literature rather than reportage. Her language traversed a wide range, incorporating styles of Bengali from all strata of society, including a hybrid Bihari-inflected dialect. Her vocabulary was wonderfully, wildly varied; her tone elliptical, terse, often drily sardonic; her humour, black. Hers was a tough, lean style, with unexpected passages of intense lyricism. Like the woman herself.

She believed in oral histories, in people’s stories, in folk knowledge. She wove these into her writing. Her account of one of our pan-Indian heroines, the legendary warrior queen, Rani of Jhansi, is built out of tales and perspectives she collected while travelling and talking to the common people; one of the first writers to attempt such an alternative history.

She walked and walked through villages and rural India, familiarising herself with the structures of power and governance, identifying with those robbed of their rights, seeking material for her novels and stories. She found the so-called savage and backward people incredibly civilized and cultured. It was her own class, the bourgeoisie, who disgusted her with their hypocrisy and inhumanity.

Parallel to her creative writing, she kept up with her journalistic practice. She reported regularly in the newspapers; she investigated incidents of oppression and injustice, unearthed cover-ups, documented and testified. She helped form organizations of the oppressed to fight for their rights. She published a journal, Bortika, in which the voices of those who were never heard were given space, and dignity.

I have had the privilege of getting to know and work with her in the course of overseeing the translation of several of her works, both fiction and nonfiction. I have also translated a few of her stories. She won my liking and my respect. We became friends.

The person

This was a woman who dared to walk out of an unsatisfactory marriage to a cultural icon in order to claim a space for herself, for her writing. Who faced every kind of social stigma as a result. Who eked out a living as best she could, working at assorted jobs so that she could make ends meet. Who sought fulfilment in her writing. Who lived with the pain and loss of being severed from her only child. Her relationship with her son would always remain complex and troubled.

She was a person who called a spade a spade, who had no time to waste on mealy-mouthed decorum. She looked like someone’s benign grandmother but she could bite your head off if she felt you were wasting her time. I remember her at her desk in the daylight-filled room perched at the top of a winding red cast-iron staircase which was, for many years, home. Surrounded by papers, files, books, and someone or the other seeking shelter or bringing news from the remote hinterland.

And then would come a knock on the door, a hesitant visitor bearing an invitation to some high profile event, or a bouquet of flowers, or a box of sweets. A brusque, “Yes, what is it? I’m busy” would cut short any niceties being uttered. The invitation was usually refused, the flowers brushed away, the sweets returned. Only if she felt it would help her cause in some way – garner donations, raise awareness, pressurize the authorities – would she accept being feted.

But she wasn’t all work and no play. She had a delightfully naughty side, and was capable of being outrageously, wickedly funny. Somehow, no one expected this of her, given her formidable façade, and it came as a pleasant surprise to me. The more solemn the occasion, the more wicked her asides.

She built her reputation for integrity and fearlessness by standing her ground and speaking her mind in the face of displeasure and pressure from those in power; but this reputation was soiled in the last five years or so, her choices criticised by many. I prefer to remember her as she was when she was at her most productive and prolific. I prefer to remember the Mahasweta di who tilted at windmills. Fought dragons. Championed the underdog. And turned the most wretched of the downtrodden into epic heroines and legendary heroes with the magic of her pen.

Anjum Katyal is a writer, editor and translator who, in her tenure as Chief Editor, Seagull Books, worked closely with Mahasweta Devi, whose Collected Works are being brought out by that publishing house. She has translated Rudali and the stories in After Kurukshetra. She is currently Co-Director of the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival and Consultant, Publications, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.