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In the introduction to Agnigarbha, Mahashweta Devi wrote: “Life is not mathematics and the human being is not made for the sake of politics. I want a change in the present social system and do not believe in mere party politics."

All her life, Mahashweta Devi used her writing as a weapon to do what she dearly believed in: changing the present social system. True to her beliefs, while sympathetic to the left, all her life she stayed away from party politics. To her, while her activism was important, it was the writing that was paramount. She loved words, she loved language, she loved stories and these became her tools and weapons.

It’s a cliché to say that with her passing we have lost one of the greats of Bengali literature and Indian literature, but like all clichés, there’s much truth in this. Writer, activist, teacher, thinker, woman, Mahashweta Devi was all of this and more. She has, for many years, been spoken of as a writer who is likely to win the Nobel. This didn’t happen in her lifetime although had it done so, she would very likely have remained calm and modest, and would probably have given away whatever she earned.

Her work with and commitment to forest peoples, tribals, marginalized people is well known. They formed the stuff of her stories. Long before encounter deaths became commonplace in India, Mahashweta wrote about them: In Draupadi, her tribal protagonist testifies to the commonplaceness of the encounter as she turns it into a verb: “How many times can I run away? What will they do if they catch me? They will kounter me. Let them."

Along with her fascination for words and language, came her love of form. She wrote short stories, novels, serialized novels (like her story on the life of Birsa Munda), journalistic pieces, memoirs and she wrote for children. And long before she was translated into English — and brought to both national and international attention by this language of power — she’d been translated into Indian languages, something that must have pleased her immensely.

The publishing house Kali for Women, where I worked for many years, was among the first to translate her into English. Later she developed a special relationship with a Kolkata-based independent publisher, Seagull, and Seagull then took her into the world.

While her politics was important to her, writing was what became Mahashweta’s real world. She would say that she hated middle class morality and it was that that pushed her into the world of writing; she would retreat into it, become absorbed by the story. “My writing process is anything but haphazard," she said. “Before I write, I think a lot, mull over it, till it forms a crystal clear hard core in my brain."

In many ways, the stories she collected, the words that became her tools, the people she wanted to write about, the characters she wanted to create, all came and lodged themselves in her head. She would let them live there, and then there would come a point when they would be ready to make their exit onto paper. The story would then take shape.

In recent years Mahashweta wrote less – she was in indifferent health, and the memory was failing. She spoke about this, and about how helpless she felt as she forgot things. Close to 90, she made a journey to the Jaipur Literature Festival to deliver a keynote address. She spoke about her life as a writer, recalled her days as a young mother and talked of the desire to live again. She said:

“At my age the desire to live again is a mischievous one. Having arrived at a netting distance from trapping my 90th year, like catching ‘butterflies with nets of wonder’ as the song goes... I must confess this is wishful thinking. Besides look at all the damage I have already done by being around longer than was expected!"

And she went on to present her agenda for the future. Referring to adivasis and forest dwellers, the subjects of her writing, she asked: The people evicted from the forests, where will they go? Common people and their common dreams. ‘This then is my fight," she said. ‘The right to dream should be the first fundamental right."

Urvashi Butalia is a publisher and writer based in New Delhi. She co-founded Kali for Women, is director of Zubaan and author of The Other Side of Silence: Voices From the Partition of India.

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