Mahasweta Devi was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay award in 1997 in recognition for her “compassionate crusade through art and activism to claim for tribal peoples a just and honorable place in India’s national life.”
In the award’s acceptance speech, Ms. Devi said, “My India still lives behind a curtain of darkness. A curtain that separates the mainstream society from the poor and the deprived.”
“It is important that we all make an attempt to tear the curtain of darkness, see the reality that lies beyond and see our own true faces in the process,” she said.
This is the story of her life and the stories she narrated for all of us.
A striking short story that makes the ground under us tremble is “Draupadi.” The story of a dalit Santhal tribal- Dopdi whose husband is killed and she is captured by the policemen who subject her to brutal humiliation and gang rape to extract information about her Naxalbari accomplices.
Senanayak, the army chief torments Dopdi. She tears her clothes and stands in defiance “What’s the use of clothes? You can strip me, but how can you clothe me again? Are you a man? There isn’t a man here that I should be ashamed… What more can you do?”
The epic Mahabharata has the public humiliation/ disrobing of Draupadi. Here Dopdi is brutalized and insulted but refuses to bow down. Instead she tears the tatters on her and stands proud and naked, striking fear in the enemy.
It is the paradox of our times that we are immune to insults and brutalities around us, as long as it does not affect us and the curtain of darkness that Mahasweta Devi talks about is now almost an iron one and more difficult to tear. The “Senanayaks” are also paying her their condolences.
But the deprived behind the curtain will no longer accept the falsehood. In the process many more Dopdis are challenging the age old gender, caste and class disparities. Everywhere Dalits and tribals are in the forefront of the stuggle for self determination. Why else are the Dalits in Gujarat so defiant? After the brutal lashings meted out to them for fulfilling their traditional role of skinning dead cows , they can now shout in defiance-“ You are the “gau rakshaks. Take care of them now-dead or alive.”
Who says that Mahasweta Devi is dead? She lives on in the struggles of the poor and deprived.