“The desire to live again is a mischievous one.” Witty yet wry, poetic but grounded in cold reality, Mahasweta Devi’s keynote address at this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival held the crowd for the better part of an hour. Introduced by Naveen Kishore, who has published most of her seminal works in English translation at Seagull, Mahasweta Devi, one of the most important writers and social activists of our times, spoke movingly about the slowing down of time and the ebbing away of vitality as she inches towards her 90th year—“trying to trap it like catching butterflies with a net”.
However, the gusto with which she spoke, together with the courage of her convictions, proved, on the contrary, that this octogenarian writer continues to be a fount of ideas and inspiration to a generation of thinkers and activists. “I talk to people, I make notes, I research, then I let my thoughts form a crystal clear hard core in my brain,” Mahasweta Devi said. Marked by a brutal honesty, unabashed in its use of street language, her prose has a searing effect, especially on middle-class consciousness.
The opening ceremony was also graced by Margaret Alva, the governor of Rajasthan, and Ashok Gehlot, the chief minister of the state. As Alva spoke of the current mood of impatience and public disaffection with governance, Mahasweta Devi’s account of her becoming a writer fitted in beautifully. She spoke, with her usual reckless candour, about falling in love with one of her remote cousins as a teenager. In a tragic turn, the young man, who had a history of suicide in his family, killed himself too. “Everybody said he did this out of love for me, but I don’t think it was so,” she explained. “I was crushed by this event,” she added. This was one of the decisive moments in her life which pushed her into writing, almost as a way of making sense of this tragedy.
“All of you are aware that most women’s first sexual experience in India comes from within the family,” she explained. “I grew up surrounded by an ambience of middle-class morality, which I considered a sham.” The need to react to this ethos, together with her defiant spirit, made her join the Communist Party. “I was a girl who did not understand her body’s attraction,” she added. So writing became, for her, a way of figuring out her body’s reaction to the tugs and pulls of society.
Mahasweta Devi’s rich oeuvre draws on her lifetime’s experience of working with some of the most disadvantaged sections of society, especially the tribals, and is often noted for its searing honesty and hard-nosed realism. In her speech, she touched on a variety of themes, but most memorably on some odd customs prevalent among the Pardhi tribes with whom girl children are much in demand. As a social activist, Mahasweta Devi is known for her war cry—“Body phele debo”, I shall throw my body into the fray—a threat she has carried out quite literally many times over in the course of her long and illustrious career.
Although visibly weakened by age, Mahasweta Devi’s speech kicked off the festival to a stirring start, shaking its participants out of their comfort zone and hopefully paving the way for five exciting days of debate and discussion.