For Mahashweta Devi, one of India’s most prominent writers, stories worked as an instrument to reflect reality. Reality, which was not comforting but disturbing for her readers who were and continue to be introduced to the very facets of exploitation that the downtrodden are subjected to in our country. For her, both as a writer and a social activist, it was a way to confront a dysfunctional system that enabled class and gender-based violence in a post-colonial India that failed to offer freedom to its tribals, Dalits and women from oppression.
And perhaps that’s why her characters are not victims but survivors who time and again challenge the men in power amidst great personal tragedy owing to their status in the society.
“The reason and inspiration for my writings are those people who are exploited and used, and yet do not accept defeat,” she said in an interview. And several instances of this kind of resilience can be seen in her literally work over the years.
In Rudali, her most notable work, protagonist Shanichari, is a low-caste woman who never gets to shed a tear on the death of her family members owing to her hardships. So, it is rather ironical to see her build an empire as a professional mourner for the upper caste families later in the story. But, Shanichari never had a choice. She had to embrace the role assigned to her by the society to survive. And she does that by employing several Dalit women like her who were forced into prostitution. This was her idea of empowerment.
But, for Dopdi, empowerment was rejecting modesty and chastity that allowed men to exploit her body.
Dopdi, who is Mahashweta Devi’s short story Draupadi’s protagonist, is a ‘wanted’ santhali women who is disrobed and humiliated in post-colonial India just like the Mahabharata’s Draupadi. But, unlike the latter, there is no Krishna or a divine force to save the former. Instead, she is raped multiple times by police and government officials as a gruesomedisplay of power. While this kind of sexual exploitation is an extremeform of violence against a woman, Dopdi finds it rather liberating. At the end, she refuses to clothe herself as an act of protest and choses to walk away from her abuser after attacking him with her bare chest. In the end, there is nothing to lose for Dopdi as she doesn’t limit her identity or worth to her body anymore whichhas been treated as a commodity.
While both Dopdi and Shanichari may be fictional, their stories are that of real women who Mahashweta Devi encountered during her time spent studying the tribals of West Bengal, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. This way, she expressed her anger against oppression and raised her voice for the marginalised. And though she died in 2016 at the age of 90, her work continues to inspire and offer answers to a new generation that is completely oblivious to the ground reality. That’s why she is still relevant.
Mahashweta Devi was a Bengali writer and activist who was born in 1926 in Dhaka. She was bestowed with Sahitya Akademi Award in 1979 and Padma Vibhushan in 2006 for her contribution to Indian literature. Her notable works include Rudali, The Queen of Jhansi, Breast Stories and Mother of 1084, and the first and the last in the list have also been made into movies of the same name.