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Tribute : Mahasweta Devi & Neelabh Ashk

The unflinching voice of resistance

Mahasweta Devi, whose pen was committed to the cause of India’s most oppressed, passed away at the age of 90. In her sixty-year long career, Mahasweta Devi penned more than one hundred novels, twenty collections of short stories and authored innumerable articles.
She sketched the saga of anguish and rebellion, often offering precious insights into the lives of the most oppressed, in her iconic works like Aranyer Adhikar (Right to Forest) , Rudali , Chotti Munda and His Arrow, Bashai Tudu and Breast Stories. Her lifetime commitment was to the adivasis of India – not as subjects of anthropological study, but as heroes and heroines of their lives and struggles. She told the stories of the Rudalis and Stanadayinis of the oppressed castes, who were forced to place their tears and breast-milk at the service of the exploiting castes.

Mahasweta Devi remains by far the most faithful and seminal chronicler of the Naxalbari rebellion. Her voice undertook to introduce ‘1084’s Mother’ to her Naxalite son, killed in police custody. Her writing sketched the character of Jagdeesh Master – the immortal co-founder of the CPI (ML) movement in Bhojpur. In her chronicling of the “Spring Thunder”, unlike most others Bengali literary figures, Devi said it loud and clear – “Naxalbari is not about a few brave lives lost in a futile battle, but a political task which must be fulfilled”.

Her powerful writing spoke of the Madkam Hidmes, the Thaangjam Manoramas, the Ishrat Jehans ‘encountered’ by the state machinery, the police, the armed forces. In her iconic short story Dopdi, the confrontation between ‘Senanayak’ – the Special Forces officer – and the adivasi Naxalite activist Dopdi Mejhen who is gang raped in an ‘encounter’ is like an open wound in literature. This confrontation reminds us of Manipur’s women who stripped naked in front of the Assam Rifles headquarters crying ‘Indian Army Rape Us’. Devi’s culling of narratives from the horrific times of state repression of Naxalbari days seems even more prophetic today.

Mahasweta Devi will be remembered as a fearless activist. During the Singur-Nandigram agitation, she had stridently criticized the CPI (M) government’s acquisition of fertile agricultural land from farmers to set up industrial plants. Again, during the Mamata Banerjee regime, Devi vehemently protested police atrocities in the state. Just as Senanayak cannot stand face-to-face with the naked and defiant Dopdi, Modi or Mamata Banerjee and several other politicians who hailed the ‘great writer’ on her death, cannot look her literature in the face – cannot face a literature that speaks such devastating truth to power.

Once in an interview, a journalist asked Mahasweta Devi how she keeps activism away from writing. Devi replied, “My writing is my activism”.

Adieu, Mahasweta Devi! We will fight together to keep your dream alive !

Neelabh Ashk

Neelabh Ashk, born on 16 August 1945 in Mumbai and brought up in Allahabad, passed away on 23 July 2016. His contribution to the revolutionary Left cultural stream as a poet, journalist, playwright, critic, publisher, organizer and fighting cultural activist will always be remembered. He played active leadership roles in the Jan Sanskriti Manch for a decade after its inception in 1985. It was Neelabhji who played the chief role in the collection, editing and publication of the poet Gorakh Pandey’s first anthology- “Loha Garam Ho Gaya Hai” by JASAM, after his death. In 1991 he took great pains to publish the first collections of poems by Left revolutionary poets Viren Dangwal and Balli Singh Cheema.
In 1988-89 he led the memorable movement for the autonomy of the North-Central Regional Cultural Centre in Allahabad. He had a strong relationship with the Progressive Students’ Organization and workers’ and human rights movements.

He translated Brecht’s “Exception and Rule” under the title “Niyam ka Randa, Apvaad ka Phanda” and directed it himself for the “Dasta” team. His translations of Pablo Neruda’s poems and Lermetyov’s novel “Hero of our Times” are gems of translation literature. He also translated “King Lear” and Brecht’s “Mother Courage”. Some years ago he was nominated for the Sahitya Akademi award for translation but he refused the award as a protest against the suppressive policies of the government. He also translated Arundhati Roy’s ‘The God of Small Things’ into Hindi.