Mahasweta Devi (1926-2016) was a writer extraordinaire, someone who took up the causes of the underprivileged and the under-represented with as much fire in real life as in her writings. Her works straddled the boundary between writing and activism, as she told an interviewer once, ‘My writing is my activism‘. Devi received multiple accolades throughout her life — the Padma Shri, the Jnanpith, the Padma Vibhushan, and the Ramon Magsaysay Award — but it was her writing that spoke volumes.
Here, in this 2002 conversation (republished with permission from Scroll.in) with her publisher Naveen Kishore, Devi talks about the imagery of words, and the power they contain within them:
An excerpt from a conversation with her publisher Naveen Kishore, at Mahasweta Devi’s home in Kolkata, on September 10, 2002.
When you’re actually sitting down, do you see things in pictures? Do you worry about form and content in a certain way? Do you actually get preoccupied with the craft of writing? Do you just let it flow? Or is it a conscious plan?
No, no, nothing flows that easily. I have lots of things scribbled down. Let me see… my notebooks are scattered. There was a time when I would write down words I came across.
Here, for example. Parnanar. Made of polash leaves. This refers to a strange ritual. Say a man has died in a train disaster. His body couldn’t be brought home. His relatives then, using straw or other materials – the area I speak of is full of the flame of the forest trees, the polash. So they use its leaves to make a man.
There’s another extraordinary word. Subhhikshma. You’ve heard of durbhikshma. Or famine. When one describes a year as being subhhikshma, it means there was no crop failure that year. Su means good.
Paap purush. Something out of folk belief. Doomed to eternal life. He keeps vigil over other people’s sins. He appears. Doesn’t appear. He has not sinned himself. But he keeps account of everybody else’s transgressions. Of their paap. Ceaselessly. And so he walks the earth. Taking note of the smallest things. A goat. Punished. Tethered to its post under the blinding sun. Unable to reach water or shade. Then the paap purush leaves behind his words. “That is a crime. What you have done is wrong.”
Actually it is not a person. Merely the embodiment of an idea.
Yes, I realise that. But just imagine. Say I was entrusted with the job of keeping an account of all the paap. What sort of qualifications would I have? Am I taken because I am trusted or because I am being punished? Because it is a very punishing task.
It might be a punishment. He may have committed some grave crime. Some unforgivable sin. And so now, he is doomed to be a paap purush through all eternity. And in fact, there is never just one paap purush. There are many. Just as there are many places that believe in this.
And there are so many more beautiful words. Bengali words. Chorat. Meaning planks. Then, dak shankranti. This refers to the Chaitra shankranti. Dak meaning call. Only those who are extremely conscientious and vigilant can hear this call. Of the old year as it leaves. Questioning. The old year ends today. And the new one begins tomorrow. What have you not done? What have you still left to do? Finish it now.
Garbha daan. This is very interesting. A woman is pregnant. Someone promises her that if a daughter is born, she will be given this and this. If a son is born, then something else. Garbha thaktey daan korecchey. The gifting has happened while the child is still in the womb. This legend claims that the unborn child can hear this. And can remember. And record it in its mind. Later, he or she may ask that person about the promise. About the garbha daan that is still due.
Our India is so very interesting. Take for instance the pardhi tribe of Maharashtra. Denotified tribals. Because they are tribals, girl children are in great demand. The husband of a pregnant woman can easily auction off or sell the unborn child. Pet ki bhaaji. What’s still in the womb. Auctioning the fruit of the womb.
Hell has many names. One name which I like in particular is oshi patra bon. There are so many kinds of hell. Oshi means sword. And patra is a kind of plant with sword-like leaves. An entire forest of such plants. And the dead soul must walk through this forest. The sword-like leaves tearing into him. You are in hell, after all, because of your sins. And so your soul must now suffer this agony.
Whenever I come across an interesting word, I write it down. All these notebooks. So many words, so many sounds… I’ve just been collecting them wherever I came across them.
See here, these are the detailed accounts of the expenses of conducting sati. In the early nineteenth century. Think about it. A girl is tied up in a corner of the house. She will be burned. Her husband is dead and now she too will be killed. But the rest of the household is abuzz with activity and excitement. In the same manner in which they would bustle and plan and arrange for a marriage or any similar celebration.
The master of the house is calculating and dictating the costs of this particular celebration. Ghee. To burn along with her. Teen taka. Three rupees. Oronparon bastra. That is the garment to cover her with. Ek taka. One rupee. The girl is possibly eight years old. Or somewhere around that age. Sati bastra ek joda. A pair of saris. The sari that the sati will wear. There were no blouses or petticoats in those days. Only a sari. The pair amounts to two and a half rupees. Kath. Wood. Teen taka. Three rupees. The priest will also take three rupees. The sati has to give to the others before she dies. That is a rupee. Which means she would distribute in small change. Chaal. Rice. Ek anna. What the price of rice was in those days! Supuri. Du poisha. Betel nuts.
Korpur. Camphor. For ek anna. Shiddhi. Also for ek anna. This is very important. Shiddhi is bhang. It would be used to intoxicate the girl. Holud. Ek anna. Turmeric, required for all auspicious occasions. Sandalwood, incense and coconut, one poisha in all.
There’s more. Behara. The men who will carry her in the palki, the palanquin. Five annas. Four plus one anna. Dhuli. Those who will beat the drums. Eight annas. And the naptani, she will get…
Naptani? Who was that?
We have seen such women even in our childhood. Like the barber or napit, she would visit the houses to trim women’s nails, clean their feet, put alta. And the tabaldar, to play the tabla. Three annas. The total came to fifteen rupees, five annas, three paise. And there you are. There’s a satidaha for you. Your seat in eternal heaven is guaranteed.
Here, I had noted the source. Satidaha, by Kumudnath Mullick.
There are two categories of sati. Sohagun sati and dohagun sati. Sohagun is when the wife is actually with the husband when he dies. Dohagun is when the husband is somewhere else and the news is brought of his death.
So in the Rigveda it says, addressing widows, take shelter in fire. Instead of suffering the hardship of widowhood, pour sandalwood paste and ghee on your husband’s body, and then, wearing your finest jewellery, take shelter within the (funeral) fire.
The second part says Woman, return to the family. The person you wish to lie down by has died. Come away. Your obligations to the man who married you and give you children are over.
Thus, both pro-sati, and anti-sati. You get both in the scriptures. I found this very interesting. I used this in my Amritashanchaar. Just for a page and a half. I have always done fieldwork like this before writing any of my works. Suddenly the thought will strike me. And I will then have to read up something. Or write it a particular way.
Excerpted with permission from Romtha, Mahasweta Devi, translated by Pinaki Bhattacharya, Seagull Books.
This interview was first published in Scroll.in here; reprinted with permissions.