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December 24, 1997


The Rediff Interview/Mahasweta Devi

'Now it is very difficult to isolate who is the anti-social and who is the politician'

Mahasweta Devi Do you see them rising in anger at the status quo, at the injustices perpetrated upon them by the rest of Indian society?

Yes, yes, definitely. Not against the status quo… once one tribal was mercilessly beaten and killed by the police. About a thousand tribals cordoned the thana and demanded justice. Now if one Shabar is attacked or oppressed or killed, hundreds of them will go and protest.

Also, we’ve taught them to fight in a democratic manner. So they lodge a FIR at the local thana, the copy will go to the sub divisional police officer, then a copy of that will go to the SP, one copy will come to the Samiti and one copy will come to me. Our Samiti keeps a legal cell in town; that cell fights their battles.

Do you think a tribal revolution is improbable?

No, no, we are not thinking of a revolution. We always expect to live in comfort ourselves, and expect the naked and the poor and the starving people to do the revolution. That is not correct.

As a writer, you are essentially a chronicler of life -- the Indian life. What are the most evident social and political changes that you have witnessed, and felt so far?

Many kind of changes, I’ve seen. Politics bhi dekha, politics ka social-anti social nexus bhi dekha. Now it is very difficult to isolate who is the anti-social and who is the politician. In these days it is better to keep silent. I don’t believe in talking much, specially politics which I refuse to understand. I believe in work alone.

If I may ask, why do you refuse to understand politics?

I refuse to understand…what is there to understand? Cram my brains with what is happening in the name of politics? Why should I cram my brain with such rubbish?

Is it because you are disillusioned by politics?

Illusion aur disillusion ka baat nahin hai. Kaam bahut hai. Kaam karne ka hai. Yeh sab sochega to kaam karne ka time kaise milega. (It is not a matter of illusion and disillusion. I have a lot of work to do. If I begin to think about all these things, where will I find the time to write?

Many observers feel that 50 years after Independence India today is diseased. Corroded with corruption, the death of idealism, communalism and deep casteist divisions which has resulted in a steady degeneration...

What Independence? For the denotified tribes of India Independence has not come.

In 1871 the British notified them as criminal tribes. Like the Pardhis of Maharashtra, the Bauriyas of Delhi and Haryana; Parahaiyas of Bihar, Kheria Shabars of Purulia, Lodhas of Madanipur… for them Independence has not arrived.

So don’t talk to me about Independence. Independence is for our class. I belong to a privileged class. We have got education and everything. I am getting prizes, things like that. What has reached them? What benefits have reached them? Nothing.

What is your assessment of India today?

Why should I assess? I am not a godperson or someone who gives vaanis like that. I have not taken the contractorship of giving all the answers. It is better to keep silent.

Do you think…

I have not taken the thekedari of so many questions… to answer all the questions.

The increasing gap between the haves and have-nots …

I just told you that I have not taken the thekedari of giving answers to all the questions, or giving vaanis or messages. You can see there is an increasing gap – it is increasing…

Independence has failed. People are not independent. Independence has not reached the denotified tribes and other underprivileged people of India. 80 per cent to 90 per cent people live below the poverty line. Men, women and children, all live under the poverty line. So what Independence is there for them? Tribal, non tribal poor -- what Independence is there for them?

You once compared West Bengal to your protagonist Jashoda in Stanayadayani. Of a woman who breastfed other’s children for a living and later died of breast cancer.

Not West Bengal, but India.

Why is India Jashoda?

I think we take from the country everything but don’t give anything back.

Having worked for tribal rehabilitation for so many years in Bengal, what is your view on the tribal restlessness in the neighbouring North-East?

It is there. It is there. It is there. Everywhere development has not reached. They have not received anything from the country, so why should not people be restless? Why tribals alone? Others are restless too.

Mahasweta Devi with Govind Nihalani Are you satisfied with Hazar Chaurarsi ki Ma? What do you think of the performances in this film? Do you think Jaya Bachchan did justice to the character?

I am overwhelmed and impressed with the film. It was very satisfying. Excellent performance by everyone. I have watched the film only once. Of course, Jaya Bachchan acted extremely well, but every performance has been very good. The entire work is very well orchestrated.

As an Indian writer, how do you see contemporary Indian writing?

I don’t get much time to read. Poetry, I never read. I have seldom read fiction for the last twenty years. I seldom go to film houses or to the theatre, or go to musical functions. I do not get the time.

Do you have any favourite writers?

No, no.

Writers that you liked to read earlier…

There are many writers whom I like to read, but that doesn’t mean that I have a special favourite one whom I like. Every writer has some books that I have liked, not all the books.

Favourite writers would mean all their books.

The few that you have liked…

There are many na. Right from Bankim Chandra’s style. Krishna Kamal Bhattacharya, whom very few have read; Tara Shankar Banerjee, Manik Banerjee…there are many.

You are a rare writer who has donned an activist avatar. How did that transformation come about?

No, this was no transformation. It was a logical course that my life has taken. In the Selected Writings of Mahasweta Devi -- volume V titled ‘Activist writer,’ the introduction explains all this.

What in your impression is the writer’s role in contemporary Indian society? Do you think a writer can bring about change by his/her writing? Or is that time past?

It is not that writing will change society, but definitely if there is good writing, inspiring writing -- it influences. I have not taken the contractorship of thinking every thought. I know that I know very little and I believe in less talk and more work.

The awards, this film, the media intrusion -- do you get irritated by the media for asking so many questions of you…

No. I have come specially for this purpose to Bombay. So I am giving interviews. Jnanpith, Magsaysay if one gets it, it is only expected that the media will come. I may or may not like it, but that question does not arise. It is because I have received these awards that people are coming. It is because this film is released that I have come to Bombay and that’s why all of you are converging upon me.

What about Calcutta, do people …

From morning to night people in distress, not only tribals, they come to me.

When do you write? Is there any writing schedule?

For no one does the day extend beyond 24 hours. So whatever has to be done has to be done within those hours. If people come in the night, I can’t write in the night.

What is it that you are writing these days?

I am not writing anything. Right now I am sitting here in Bombay.

Do you miss Calcutta when you are not there?

No, but if I have to live anywhere I’ll live in Calcutta. Calcutta is a smaller city, easier to handle. Here I am entirely dependant on Govind’s car or anybody else’s car. Is Govind not late?

Photographs: Jewella C Miranda

The Rediff Interview

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