Two personal tributes to Mahasweta Devi, and her response (though she never heard them)

The writer had forged the deepest of personal relationships with her associates.

"Love is unreasonable. We will not see her like again:" Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak 

I went to see her last month, thinking maybe it was time to say goodbye. I didn’t want to be right but it looks like it was good that I went. She knew me. But how much she remembered of all those luminous magical years from 1979 I can’t tell.

An era comes to an end with her. She sang IPTA songs as my generation also learned to sing them, easily with a different kind of enthusiasm, because the generation that began with her and ended with me had not lost confidence yet. She wrote some extraordinary stories – “Draupadi”, “Breast-Giver”, “The Hunt”, “Douloti The Bountiful”, and that magical text “Pterodactyl.”

Her care for the Adivasis came from the heart. She was always thinking of new ways to improve their lives. She organised Sabar-melas, where the Sabar culture was foregrounded – it was my good fortune to have attended one of them. She brought some Sabar women and men to Calcutta, helped them sell their handicrafts, was a mother-figure in every way.

I remember swimming in the small ponds in our saris in Purulia, I remember taking notes at the first meeting of the Adim Jati Aikya Parishad, sprawled on the floor, translating Bengali fast into English, travelling all night on a co-worker’s bike sandwiched between him and a Jalpaiguri tea-garden activist through what still remained of the Bankura forest, arriving at the co-worker’s Calcutta office at dawn and sending the report directly to the UN. But most of all I remember all the fun I had with her, smoking cigarettes crouching in the upper berths of the small gauge train from Howrah.

When Meghnath Sabar from Bangthupi wanted to go to an all-Adivasi high school, because he felt that the high school run by Mahaswetadi’s old friend and ally, the local landowner, was filling him with information in order to establish a record of an Adivasi student coming first in the high school graduating exam from a regular high school, Gopida understandably took it politically, and closed the schools where I had worked hard for 20 years.

I now understand that Mahaswetadi could not have crossed him. But it broke our bond in a way that we never quite could put together again, though neither of us spoke of it in public. Now that she will belong fully to her readers, I put on record that love is unreasonable, and that we did not lose. We will not see her like again.

"Later, much later, I realised she remembered everything:" Naveen Kishore

Fold them up.
Our conversations.
Put them away.
It’s time to go home.

Yes. We talked. If there is one thing we did we talked. How come you talk to him with so much openness asked the voice from the back of the auditorium when the lights came on at the end of Talking Writing our film together. Pause. Then Naveen talks to me so I talk to him. You talk to me. I will talk to you.

Simple. Direct. Chiselled to the core. Fine this honing of utterance. From years of writing in all the voices that inhabited her. That she carried in her as language. Her being as vessel. A conduit through which words collected over centuries would find their way into the stories she narrated. And yet it was her living the reality of her fictions that made them appear so real.

A lot of our talking happened at the time of Seagull’s new catalogues. Usually I would design these with one of our conversations as a curtain-raiser. I would go to her with a small cassette recorder and my Nikon FM2. We would sit across her bed in her study or her table. And the recorder would rest between us.

She would begin with a mischievous You have to tell me something personal in exchange for every personal story I share with you. I would often cheat and turn the recorder off while “revealing” some deep dark secret and then turn it on again as she began to talk about the odd suicide attempt or her love life. I think she guessed but never let on she knew!

Later, much later, I realised she remembered everything. Like the recorder. Only hers was never turned off. I know this because she once mentioned something about a text I must have talked about. And forgotten. This led me to share the fact that I wrote small texts as a dailyness. She said she wanted to see them. Send me a text every day for the next month she said. So each morning I would print out last night’s text. For a month. She would often comment on the texts. I would send a new text as my response. To hers. Here is the beginning of one such text:

Why angels she asked I mean why do you write about angels as in so much about angels close my eyes and I hear the sound of wings I replied why not bats or flying foxes she jested if its only about the sound of wings flapping oh I said feeling inadequate to the occasion and the question thinking deeply before replying perhaps because their wings were not flapping noisily merely whispering their distress strangled thought half-formed oh she said pausing to let the echo settle also she began afresh letting the word hang make itself visible floating before both our eyes...

Tomar lack of punctuation ta bishon interesting (your lack of punctuation is very interesting), she would comment. And move on to one of her own. Also. Without punctuation. Almost.

Neither sleep nor wake up from our not sleeping or staying wide-eyed awake from lack of sleep or deprived from not having woken up from sleep and so on

question is will we write as if we have never slept nor woken up from deep sleep or an even deeper waking up after having not slept

Will we?

Prophetic. Who knows. Notice I get rid of the question marks. Honouring our lack of the appropriate punctuation. Soon the nature of the conversations would change. Even grind to a halt. To be replaced by shorter visits. No recorded interviews. Or cameras for black and white photographs. She would still smile. And recognize. And do what we call aador to my arm as if to say you are loved. But already the fog was becoming a welcoming place. Maybe. Who knows.

The fog can be a welcoming place but we don't know that till we step into the fog its white walls seem to recede and come at you like milk deprived of gravity floating a slow motion photograph the waves rising gathering momentum before dancing all over you as you go down the hole unaccompanied by Alice your hurtling self protected by the cloudcushionfog fog that takes any shape you sprawl crumple somersault tumble into and then without waiting to take so much as a breath it topsy-turvies your body into a balletic curve and lends your feet the wings of angels so you may fly or pirouette making sure that the blindfold you wear in sympathy is in place and not in any danger of slipping off for how else would you ever begin to sense experience fathom what it must have been like for her as she without legs to stand on and definitely devoid of the wings she never knew were hers for the asking for after all her fog and this the fog I write about are different are they not for they must be. They. Must. Be.

They must have been different fogs these hers and mine for her not to sense that the muscles she put into motion when she looked at me were actually fashioning themselves into a smile only she no longer had words to describe the emotion that may have crept across her face had she remembered to enact it having forgotten even those lines the ones with which she had spread her affections in days when her mind did remember did understand did connect or the fact that her smile had been stolen of its warmth and she had not reported the theft not known how to not known who to not known. Period. What else.

She steps knowingly un knowingly into a fog waiting for her shadow to catch up and does not notice that she no longer has words to cajole persuade beseech and nor does her shadowy self for that matter have the words to recover what is now lost for them both their past adrift its long iron chain gathering rust perhaps the two do not even have a name for this heartbreaking namelessness that they watch together with helpless uncertainty not sure whether to jump in or struggle or rant at this inexplicable embrace of white watching themselves slip. Slip. Slip away.

Yet. In Jaipur a few years ago:

At eighty-eight or is it seven I move forward often stepping back into the shadows. Sometimes I am bold enough to step back into the sunlight. As a young person, as a mother, I would often move forward to when I was old. Amuse my son. Pretend that I couldn’t hear, or see. Flail my hands about like in a blind man’s game, or make mockery of memory. Forget important things. Things that had taken place but a moment ago! These games were for fun. Now they are no longer funny. My life has moved forward and is repeating itself. I am repeating myself. Recollecting for you what has been. What is. What could have been. May have been.

Now it’s memory’s turn to mock me.

Here is something from an older conversation that we both enjoyed. It is her voice I leave you with. Listen.

First I mull and mull over it, while I am moving around, walking, doing something else, the story is sitting there. Gradually, the hard core or nucleus forms (I’m talking of my major writing). I start writing when it turns centrifugal. Then the characters start making their own demands. Communicating. Because they aren’t just characters. I saw her, Mary Oraon, that character. When I would visit McCluskieganj.

Her mother was apparently of the first generation of Anglo Indians. She looked like a memsahib. In a big house, semi-abandoned, because they lived in one room, surrounded by old great literature of yesteryears. A girl who would get up in the morning, eat soaked-overnight rice with chillies and stuff, tie a haldi-coloured cloth tight around herself, knot her hair, go out to graze cattle. She could compete with anyone in grazing cattle in those tiger-infested jungles... she was a great one.

She fell in love with a Muslim boy. I saw the most amazing quality in her... uncaring about the world around her, queen of all she surveys... That’s Mary Oraon. Mary has countless admirers at Tohri market. She gets down at the station like a queen. She sits in her own rightful place at the market. She gets smokes from the other marketeers, drinks tea and chews betel leaf at their expense, but encourages no one. Jalim the leader of the marketeers and a sharp lad, is her chosen mate. They will marry when either’s savings reach a hundred rupees.

They’re individuals, I can see them, acting on their own.

It is very important, this "acting on their own". In my writing, there is a mukti, a liberty. The freedom to act independently which they don't get in their own lives. I feel, this should have been the norm. I want things to be the way they should have been. So the question of justice comes in.

This process of comes from so many things: childhood rhymes, proverbs, containing so many stories.

The un-used, un-consumed body...If a woman is physically happy...most people don't think it legitimate...physical hunger should not be dismissed, it is something very basic...We are taught to be ashamed of our bodies from a very young age. I was always known as a shameless girl – I would run around with my sari lifted high – from the age of 13 I was made to wear a day I will write a story about this – this body has not been used. Enough.

...Writing is my real world. It is where I have lived. And survived.

All photographs by Naveen Kishore.

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