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  • Writer's pictureShruti Jain

Book Club Theme for January 2024: Mahasweta Devi’s Writings

NOTE: January, 2024 Book Club Meeting to be held on Sunday, January 21st, 8:30 pm IST. Details will be shared on your mail, once you have filled this form:

Mahasweta Devi (1926-2016) was a renowned Bengali writer and social activist. Her impactful literary works focused on the struggles of marginalised communities, particularly tribal groups. Beyond writing, she actively participated in social movements, advocating for the rights of the oppressed. Recognised with awards like the Sahitya Akademi and Jnanpith, Mahasweta Devis legacy endures as a powerful voice for the marginalised in both literature and activism.

In a conversation with Rajiv Mehrotra, Devi spoke of the indigenous people: They were here. We came later. If we think of India as a nation, they came earlier

A tribal girl asked me modestly: When we go to school, we read about Mahatma Gandhi. Did we have no heroes? Did we always suffer like this? I repay them their honour. They want to feel that they are tribals.

Why read the works of Mahasweta Devi?

As a prominent Indian writer and social activist, Mahasweta Devi used her writings to address and highlight various social issues. Her stories often depict the lives, cultures, and histories of marginalised communities that are often overlooked or misrepresented in mainstream literature. Reading her works will provide an opportunity to engage with narratives that offer alternative perspectives and challenge dominant societal norms.

She was a feminist writer who explored and critiqued gender roles and power dynamics in her works. Her stories often feature strong female characters who resist oppression and discrimination. For readers interested in feminist literature and gender studies, Mahasweta Devis writings provide valuable insights into the experiences of women in different socio-cultural contexts.

Known for her powerful narrative style, Devi was a skilled storyteller. Many of her works revolve around the themes of human rights and dignity. She sheds light on the exploitation and injustices, advocating for the protection of basic human rights. Reading her works inspire readers to reflect on these issues and engage in discussions about social and human rights.

Mahasweta Devis Writings: Book Recommendations

For this month's book club, we will be reading texts that are written by Mahasweta Devi. A few recommendations [descriptions from back cover of the respective books]:

As Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak points out in her introduction, the breast is far more than a symbol in these stories—it is the means of harshly indicting an exploitative social system. In Draupadi, the protagonist, Dopdi Mejhen, is a tribal revolutionary, who, arrested and gang-raped in custody, turns the terrible wounds of her breast into a counter-offensive. In Breast-giver, a woman who becomes a professional wet-nurse to support her family, dies of painful breast cancer, betrayed alike by the breasts that had for years been her chief identity and the dozens of ‘sons’ she had suckled. In ‘Behind the Bodice’, migrant labourer Gangor’s ‘statuesque’ breasts excite the attention of ace photographer Upin Puri, triggering off a train of violence that ends in tragedy. Spivak introduces this cycle of ‘breast stories’ with thought-provoking essays which probe the texts of the stories, opening them up to a complex of interpretation and meaning.

Mother of 1084 is one of Mahasweta Devi’s most widely read works, written during the height of the Naxalite agitation—a militant communist uprising in the 1960s–70s that was brutally repressed by the West Bengal government, leading to the widespread murder of young rebels across the state. The novel focuses on the trauma of a mother who awakens one morning to the shattering news that her son is lying dead in the police morgue, reduced to a mere numeral: Corpse No. 1084. Through her struggle to understand his revolutionary commitment as a Naxalite, she recognizes her own alienation—as a woman and a wife—from the complacent, hypocritical, and corrupt feudal society her son had so fiercely rebelled against.

Imaginary Maps presents three stories from noted Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi in conjunction with readings of these tales by famed cultural and literary critic, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Weaving history, myth and current political realities, these stories explore troubling motifs in contemporary Indian life through the figures and narratives of indigenous tribes in India. At once delicate and violent, Devis stories map the experiences of the tribals and tribal life under decolonisation. In The Hunt, Douloti the Bountiful and the deftly wrought allegory of tribal agony Pterodactyl, Pirtha, and Puran Sahay, Ms. Devi links the specific fate of tribals in India to that of marginalised peoples everywhere.

‘I had but that one arrow,’ says chotti Munda, the hero of this epic tale. A ‘magic’ arrow that stood for the pride, the wisdom, the culture, of their society, a society threatened with inevitable disintegration as its traditional structures crumbled under the assault of ‘National development’. The wide sweep of this important novel encompasses many layers. It ranges over decades in the life of chotti-the central character-in which India moves from colonial rule to independence and then to the unrest of the 1970s. It probes and uncovers the complex web of social and economic exchange based on power relations. It traces the changes, some forced, some welcome, in the daily lives of a marginalised rural community. And at its core, it celebrates chotti, legendary Archer, wise and farsighted leader, proud role model to his younger brethren. Written in 1980, this novel is also remarkable for the manner in which it touches on vital issues that have, in subsequent decades, grown into matters of urgent social concern. It raises questions about the place of the tribal on the map of National identity, land rights and human rights, the ‘minimisation of ‘ethnic’ cultures and the justification of violent resistance as the last resort of a desperate people, amongst others.

Titu Mir, a peasant leader, led a revolt against the British in Bengal in 1830 31, in the course of which he was killed. He has remained a hero in the popular imagination. This was a period of transition in agricultural Bengal. The evil effects of the Permanent Settlement were beginning to be felt by the rural people. Traditional zamindars were being replaced by absentee landlords. Indigo plantations were eating up fertile agicultural land. Titu, a hotheaded, headstrong young man, a natural leader, found himself defending the rural poor against he exploitation of the landlords and the British, at the cost of his own life. In this warmly told historical adventure tale, Mahasweta Devi brings history alive in the presence of a charismatic hero, all the time, as is typical of her, embedding him in the larger socio-economic situation of the times. We get to know Titu as a young boy, fearless and restless, always standing up for victims of injustice, and then trace his gradual development into a rebel leader after his conversion to the Wahabi sect.

Book Club Details

Have you signed up for the Book Club yet?

Read the details here.

January, 2024 Book Club meeting to be held on Sunday, January 21st, 8:30 pm IST. Details will be shared on your mail, once you have filled this form:

Looking forward to fruitful discussions. Stay tuned for further updates.


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