Eminent writer and social activist Mahasweta Devi, a crusader for the rights of tribals and the oppressed, died at a city nursing home on Thursday following prolonged old-age complications. She was 90.
“She passed away at 3.16 p.m. following a cardiac arrest and multi-organ failure,” an attending doctor confirmed.
The Ramon Magsaysay winner is survived by her daughter-in-law and grandchild. Mahasweta Devi’s son pre-deceased her two years back.
The Jnanpith and Padma Vibhushan awardee was undergoing treatment for age-related illnesses and renal problems at the private clinic for over two months.
In a six-decade literary career, she authored over 120 books, comprising 20 collections of short stories and around 100 novels, and contributed innumerable articles and columns to newspapers and magazines, a large number of them woven around tribal life.
Adopting a simple style laced with colloquial words and expressions, Mahasweta blended oral histories with contemporary events to portray the sufferings of the tribals in the hands of upper-caste landlords, money lenders and government servants.
The novel “Aranyer Adhikar” (The Occupation of the Forest), dwelling on Birsa Munda’s revolt against the British, fetched Mahasweta the Sahitya Akademi award in 1979. “Choti Munda evam Tar Tir” (Choti Munda and His Arrow), “Bashai Tudu”, “Titu Mir”, are among other masterpieces.
Her short story collections including “Imaginary Maps” and “Breast Stories”, “Of Women, Outcasts, Peasants, and Rebels”, and short stories “Dhowli” and “Rudali” also deal with tribal life.
Another famous novel published in 1975 – “Hajar Churashir Maa” (Mother of 1,084) – inspired by Maxim Gorky’s “Mother”, has the backdrop of the Maoist movement.
Born in 1926 at Dhaka, presently capital of Bangladesh, into a family of poets, writers, and artists, Mahasweta Devi was moulded as a child in the rich milieu of Bengali high culture. Her father poet-novelist Manish Ghatak and mother writer-social activist Dharitri Devi shaped her liberal outlook.
She cleared her graduation with English honours at Rabindranath Tagore-founded Visva Bharati at Santiniketan, and later got her M.A. degree from Calcutta University.
Her Magsaysay award citation says, alongside her creative writing, “Devi bombarded the government with complaint letters and published a profusion of articles documenting abuses by police, landlords, politicians, and officials against tribal communities. Passionately, she made their cause her cause.”
In the 1970s, she began to intervene directly and championed the cause of two tribal groups – the Lodhas of erstwhile Midnapur district and the Kheria Sabars of Purulia – who were among those notified by the British in 1871 as “criminals”.
She came to be revered as “The Mother of the Sabars”. Simultaneously, she lent her weight to the tribal struggles in various other states.
She also successfully campaigned for the release of women kept in West Bengal jails for years as non-criminal lunatics.