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Books > Language and Literature > Bashai Tudu (Mahasweta Devi)
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Bashai Tudu (Mahasweta Devi)
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Operation? Bashai Tudu’, a Novelette, and ‘Draupadi’. a short story, translated by Samik Bandyopadhyay and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak respectively, evoke a modern myth of a tribal peasant revolutionary who turns up whenever the landless farm labourers are driven to a crisis, leads them to a revolt, gets killed, and appears again at the next point, and a dedicated Communist journalist who has to identify Bashai Tudu’s dead body every time—an original mix of documentary realism and revolutionary fantasy, history and fiction, so characteristic of Mahasweta Devi, the outstanding contemporary Bengali novelist and social activist who writes about women, tribals, revolutionaries, in their confrontations with an elaborate exploitative system and writes with both passion and a profound sense of history, and from her direct involvement with the lives of these people.

Preface

The long history of peasant insurgency in India (where the landless peasantry number nearly fifty million and constitute 26.33 per cent of the country's total labour force) has shown up, time and again, the nature of the exploitation that has been the fate of the peasants. The uprisings, from the Sannyasi revolt, the Wahabi movement and the Indigo revolt to the Naxalbari rebellion, have voiced almost the same fundamental demands.

The peasant movement in the Naxalbari region in north Bengal in May-June 1967 and its background would explain something of the spirit that has gone into the making of these stories. Most of the inhabitants of Naxalbari, Khadibadi and Phansidewa in the Darjeeling district are adivasis, landless peasants. The different ethnic communities represented here include the Medis, Lepchas, Bhutias, Santals, Oraons, Rajbanshis and Gorkhas. The local jotedars have exploited them for ages under a sharecropping system that enabled them to provide the landless peasants with seeds, ploughs and plough cattle, some food and a little money, and to appropriate the major share of the harvest. The peasants protested against the jotedars' extortion and their right to evict the sharecroppers at will, and suffered from the primeval hunger for land that has afflicted them for ages. The protests and the resultant clashes led the government to bring in the Estate Acquisition Act in 1954, imposing a 25-acre limit on an individual's holding of cultivable land. The good intentions behind this legislation notwithstanding, the larger landowners lost little of their property in the process, as they managed to retain almost all their land under different false names. The revised act prescribing the ceiling on the landholding of an agricultural family, passed in 1971, proved equally ineffective, for there was no provision under the law to prevent agricultural land being recorded as fisheries, tea gardens and even industrial estates.

The movement in Naxalbari began in the estates under the tea planters who had imported most of the labourers working for them from different regions. Living there for generations, they had in course of time become part of the local population. Ground down by the worst kind of exploitation, they were in 1967, according to the Statesman, 'almost in a state of slavery.' The additional agricultural land in the hands of the tea planters had been distributed among 'loyal labourers'. The government had once thought of taking over this land, but given up the idea later. That is how discontent started brewing. In the mid-fifties the adhiars (sharecroppers on a half-share arrangement) in the tea garden areas rose in revolt against their landlords. They demanded that the additional land attached to the tea plantations should be taken over by the government, who should then redistribute it among them. In 1959 the movement took a violent turn. The planters evicted the adhiars by force and set their elephants to raze their huts to the ground. The peasants of Naxalbari mobilized against such persecution and exploitation and rose in an insurrection that inspired the deprived and exploited peasantry in the neighbouring states of Andhra, Kerala, Tamilnadu, Bihar and Orissa. The Naxalbari movement has been given several labels, being branded as extreme left deviation, the manifestation of the frustration of a group of idealistic and over-enthusiastic young men, or a case of subversion planted and supported by outside forces and organizations. All the factors that led to the eruption of violence remained unchanged long after the movement had been crushed by brutal repression. The exploitation of the starving peasant continues. The jotedars have cornered almost all the cultivable land in the country, so that a few thousand families own all the agricultural land today. The extortion of interest on loans at a compound rate and forced labour in repayment of debts have grown into a system. Rural India has the appearance of an enormous graveyard. In summer and in times of drought the adivasis and the so-called low-caste communities have to dig into the dry riverbeds in search of water, and live on the waste water drained out of cooked rice or on seeds of shrubs. All the reasons that triggered off the Naxalite movement remain. Researchers normally occupy themselves with documenting the causes behind a popular uprising. Naxalbari is one of the rare issues where the scholars have been concerned more with its character and tendencies than with its causes; and the administration on its part has shown ruthless efficiency in its suppression. They all seem to be silent on why the grasslands burnt up in a conflagration, however shortlived it might have been. But can the silence of the administration negate the truth?

Beyond their direct relevance to my stories, the happenings in Naxalbari and their background constitute the most significant and inspiring events in the life of the country over the last few decades. Bashai Tudu and Draupadi and their peers are the products of these events, and their makers as well; for it is they who change society and come to symbolize the time and the place, transcending their names and the local situations. No movement in itself represents the final truth in its means and ends, for it is history that ultimately evaluates it. The struggling masses at all times and in all lands destroy the paths that they have laboured to build, and dream of constructing new ones. In the dialectical course of history it is the truth of evolution to higher and higher levels of struggle that stands out as the ultimate end.

The problem is not always confined to land. The peasant as an agricultural labourer is denied his legitimate wages. He has to struggle continuously for water, for seeds, for fertilizers, and live his life out in hunger and poverty. The lower middle classes, the workers and the agricultural labourers have profited little from the economic progress accomplished in post-independence India. It is the rich that have become richer. A whole new rich class has emerged, revelling in its ignorance, arrogance and ruthlessness. The lower middle classes are on the verge of extinction. The bigger landholders have become more affluent. The small landholders have been forced to sell out their last scraps of land to the jotedar- moneylender and join the army of landless agricultural labourers. While nobody cares to pay heed to their claims to the right to survive, the hired writers pandering to the middle and upper classes content themselves with weaving narcissistic fantasies in the name of literature. When Rome burnt, Nero fiddled, for that was how he thought he could shut his eyes to the logic of the conflagration. But he had to pay for it by being wiped away. For a long time now, Bengali literature has indulged in a denial of the reality and has been plagued by an atrophy of conscience. The writers refuse to see the writing on the wall. The conscientious reader is turning away from them in revulsion. What can be more surprising than that writers living in a country bedevilled with so many problems- social injustice, communal discord and evil customs-should fail to find material for their work in their own country and people? Such indifference to people is possible probably only in a semi- colonial, semi-feudal country like India, still suffering from the hangover of foreign rule. Are even our cities immune? Unemployment grows apace, prices soar to the skies, there is anarchy in education, the middle classes are squeezed and are merging into the proletariat. The area of class struggle is expanding fast. At a critical historical point like this, a conscientious writer has to take a firm stand in defence of the exploited. Otherwise there is no way that history would absolve him or her.

'Operation?-Bashai Tudu' was written during the first spell of the Left Front rule in West Bengal (1977-82). The hunger for land felt for ages by the sons of the soil and their long struggle to retain their rights in the land found a climactic expression in the Naxalbari movement. It was a shortlived affair, but its importance has been tremendous. The Tebhaga movement in 1946-47 and 1948-50 had not entirely been confined to the struggle for the rights of the sharecroppers. Drawing inspiration from the movement in Telengana, the peasantry in Kakdwip and the Sundarbans struggled for State power. It is significant that the belt in north Bengal where Charu Majumdar led the Tebhaga movement in 1946-47 saw a bitter struggle that left twelve adivasi peasants, men and women, dead. The intensity of the Tebhaga war in this region drew on the militancy of the sons of the soil. The Tebhaga movement lies behind the Naxalbari rising, which in its turn underscored some major features of our land problem. The position of the agricultural labourer in our land tenure system is one such. Agricultural labourers can be of several kinds: the completely landless, the marginal peasant, or those reduced to the status of bargadars under the impact of a single bad harvest. These agricultural labourers have fought in the Tebhaga and the Naxalite movements, but no peasant organization led by a political party has ever acknowledged them.

Between the writing of 'Operation ?-Bashai Tudu' and the second spell of the Left Front rule (1982-87), the government had launched its Operation Barga, which, though described in government propaganda and records as a signal achievement, served to sustain a system that is feudal in character. While it gave the registered bargadar the right to cultivate a fixed plot of land and get a share of the produce, the absentee landlords remained. The most important development in 1.982-83 was the phenomenon of jotedars holding on to land beyond the official ceiling under different benamdars, and becoming part of the ruling CPI(M) overnight. Thus there was no way to stop the exploitation of the barga cultivators, marginal peasants and agricultural labourers. Some of the big jotedars stayed on with the Congress; for, after all, the exploiters of rural Bengal have never had any reason to fear the ruling classes, whatever be the colour of their flags.

The situation remains unchanged in 1989. Between 1977 and 1989 there has been a steady growth in the number of agricultural labourers, as also in landlessness. The minimum wages have been revised several times; before the 1989 parliamentary elections they stood between rupees nineteen and twenty-on paper. But the people for whom Bashai Tudu fights multiply endlessly, and are denied the minimum wages that are their due. It is the jotedars who are in absolute control in this third spell of the Left Front rule. Besides acting as moneylenders, they trade in paddy and other foodgrains. Before the elections the state government had promised to provide the agricultural labourers with rice at a cheap rate. But this promise has never been fulfilled. A movement for the guarantee of a minumum employment makes no sense; it does not help in the least to ensure that the agricultural labourers be paid two rupees when there is no cultivation to be done; for two rupees have little purchasing power anyway.

The agricultural labourers are now working as contract labour, leaving their hearth and home in search of employment elsewhere. There are too many anomalies in the system of employment through the panchayats. More and more men and women from the adivasi districts are joining the ranks of itinerant labour, and none of the official Left parties dares, or even cares, to organize these hungry sons of the soil into a militant force. With the peasant organizations controlled by the rich peasants, it would look inexplicable not to have separate organizations for agricultural labourers. That may be the only consideration that has led to the development of some such organizations, which, however, for all practical purposes, exist only in name. The Left parties now provide sumptuous lunches at their peasants' conferences, offering delicacies like the hilsa and prawns.

I still believe in men, not in records on paper, nor in the hilsa or prawns. That is where I stand apart from the politics of the Left. And that is what keeps Bashai Tudu relevant, and makes him more so today than ever. The Kali Santras, of course, are as dead as dodos in Indian politics.

It will not avail to look for any definite politics in my writing. Sensitive persons committed to the cause of the exploited and the persecuted stand at the centre of my works. In my story 'Jawl' the teacher is an honest, conscientious Congressite. In 'MW banam Lakhinda', the agitation of the agricultural labourers is led by the CPI. In 'Operation?-Bashai Tudu', Kali Santra belongs to the CPI(M) and Bashai Tudu stands somewhere even beyond the Naxalites. In 'Draupadi' the heroine is an adivasi Naxalite activist. Mentally, they share a common ground, a fact that does not appear contradictory to me. Life is not arithmetic, and man is not made for the game of politics. I believe that it should be the object of every kind of politics to fulfil man's craving to live with all his rights intact. I do not believe that any politics confined to promoting a party's interests can replace the present social system. Forty-one years after Independence I see my countrymen without food, water and land, and reeling under debts and bonded labour. An anger, luminous and burning like the sun, directed against a system that cannot free my people from these inhuman constraints is the only source of inspiration for all my writing. All parties, those to the Left and those to the Right alike, have failed to keep their promises to the common people. There is little prospect of any significant change in these things at least in my lifetime. Hence I have to go on writing to the best of my ability in defence of the dispossessed and the disinherited, so that I may never have reason to feel ashamed to face myself. For all writers are accountable to their own generation and have to answer for themselves.

Introduction

Both the novelette and the short story included in this volume formed part of Agnigarbha (Fire in the Depths), a collection of Mahasweta Devi's stories, published in 1978. In Hajar Churashir Ma (Mother of 1084), published in 1973, Mahasweta Devi (b. 14 January 1926) for the first time turned to the Naxalite movement in West Bengal. In this departure from her earlier modes of historical and domestic fiction, she sought the roots of the revolutionary fervour of the urban guerrillas of the seventies in their discontent with a system that upheld a corrupt and insensitive establishment, both in the family and in the State. The establishment that the urban guerrillas and Mahasweta Devi chose as their target was reprehensible more for its innate corruption than for its tyranny. A working mother, for whom her work is in itself a form of protest and self-assertion against the patriarchal authority of her husband, discovers only too late that her son is part of the Naxalite movement when she is summoned one morning to identify his dead body in the police morgue. The novel records a day in her life, exactly a year after her son Brati had been killed on his birthday. Visiting the house from where Brati had been dragged out and killed by the goons of the Party in power, with the tacit support of the police; talking to the woman whose son also had died in the same encounter and who had given the group shelter for that night; talking to the young woman whom Brati loved and who, blinded by police torture, still swears by the cause; the mother of corpse number 1084 discovers for herself the enormous spread of the power that she had so long identified with her corrupt and overbearing husband alone.

Though Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak found Hajar Churashir Ma still in 'the generally sentimental style of the mainstream Bengali novel of the fifties and the sixties,' a closer reading reveals a passion that has rarely emerged so unashamedly in the Bengali novel, which has traditionally laboured after the values of objectivity and detachment. The vein of irony that gives a special quality to her language in her later works already surfaces here, though it is the drama of confrontations that opens up secret areas of understanding. The confrontations take place across cleavages in the hierarchies of power, of class, and of commitment. Even as she opened up these secret spaces in Hajar Churashir Ma, Mahasweta Devi herself made the passage from urban middle class domesticity to the larger sphere of the age-long exploitation of the tribals and the landless peasantry in rural eastern India. With Sujata, the mother of 1084, Mahasweta Devi too made a discovery-of the roots of revolt. But she followed the roots deeper underground, till she reached the problem of land, which sparked off the uprising at Naxalbari and in the villages around. The movement drew support from the urban intelligentsia, for whom it came to symbolize a kind of atonement for their guilt in acquiescing in the perpetuation of a system of exploitation from which they had reaped benefits for generations. For the urban guerrillas were descendants of the bhadraloks, who had made their way into the agricultural system in the second half of the nineteenth century when the large zamindari estates claiming legitimacy from the Permanent Settlement of 1793 were breaking up due to mismanagement and litigation and splitting up through sub-division, subinfeudation and sale. As Partha Chatterjee explains,

By the middle of the [nineteenth] century, most cultivable lands in Bengal were settled; however, the sizable gap which had been created by then between the fixed revenue that was payable to the government and the total rent that could be extracted from the actual cultivators facilitated the emergence of a vast structure of rentier interests in Bengal's agrarian economy. The Permanent Settlement had envisaged that of the total rental 90 per cent would go to the treasury, the zamindar keeping 10 per cent. An estimate of 1918-19, however, indicates that proprietors and intermediate tenureholders intercepted as much as 76.7 per cent of the gross rental of Rs 12.85 crores, only Rs 2.99 crores being collected as land revenue.

This gap between rent and revenue served as the basis of assets into which flowed the savings of the Bengali 'middle class' -savings acquired through inheritance, dowry, profits from petty trade or commerce, or from professional incomes. Left with few other profitable areas of investment, these people bought proprietary or intermediary rights in land which guaranteed a small but nevertheless secure rent income. A simple method was the straight purchase of the whole or part of an estate. Another was to buy a tenureholding right from a proprietor who was unable to manage successfully the collection of rent in a large and scattered estate, or even more commonly from one who preferred to capitalize his assets by creating subordinate tenures at a high rate of salami. The result of this process of subdivision and diffusion of the rentier interest was the creation in the later nineteenth century, all over the province although in varying degrees, of a structure of landed property in which there were a few wealthy zamindars at the top and innumerable fragmented estates and tenures at the bottom.

By the 1870s, this differentiation between the older wealthy zamindars and the much larger group of petty proprietors-tenureholders-cum-professionals became apparent in the political, social and cultural life of Bengal. From the last decades of the nineteenth century, for instance, provincial politics in Bengal came to be dominated by the class of small rentiers in land. It was also the stratum of society from which came the early generation of successful professionals in law, journalism, medicine, teaching and civil and judicial services. This class formed the core of an expanding status group widely known as the Bengali bhadralok and often referred to as an 'elite' group. It must be emphasized, however, that this 'elite', in most of its distinctive features, was a product of the conditions imposed under colonialism. The system of land tenure, combined with the disincentives to the entry of domestic savings into native industrial enterprises and the destruction of indigenous manufacturing, created the basic economic structure from which emerged this class of rent-receivers, usurers and petty traders totally divorced from, and entirely uninterested in, the conditions of social production. They lived entirely on 'revenue'; only the distribution of the surplus concerned them, they had no role in its creation. Added to this were the new opportunities opened up to precisely this class of people by the expansion of the judicial, administrative and educational apparatus of the colonial state. The fact that higher education in the English language, and solely as a means of entry into a white-collar job or a profession, remained confined largely to the same group of people only replicated in the cultural sphere the enormous distance of this group from the sphere of social production. (Partha Chattetjee, Bengal 1930-47: The Land Question, Calcutta 1984, pp. 11-l3.)

For all practical purposes, the Bengali bhadraloks, the educated urban middle classes, formed the core of the jotedars, a term which later came to identify a wide spectrum of intermediary, non- cultivating tenureholders, till at least the early forties when they began to be replaced by traders in land from other parts of the country and even by some of the original reclaimers of the land or their descendants. While the jotedars had been using sharecroppers to cultivate their land, providing them with seed, ploughs, plough cattle, some food and a little money, and collecting half, and sometimes even more, of the produce, they, according to Andre Beteil1e, 'came to be perceived as an important component of the agrarian class structure for the first time in the context of the Tebhaga movement in 1946-7' (Studies in Agrarian Social Structure, Delhi 1974, p. 138). It was at that time that the sharecroppers demanded a two- thirds share of the crop, and in a spurt of militancy supported by the Communist Party and its peasant organization, carried the crops to their own homes instead of, as was customary, to the threshing floor of the jotedar.

As the jotedar was marked as the target of militant peasant action during the Tebhaga movement, he came to be identified more clearly as the most visible landowner in the highly complex exploitative system that controlled agriculture in rural eastern India. He doubled as the village moneylender, and could extort forced labour against unrecovered debts and thus hold the peasant in his grip. His power flowed also from the substantial landed properties he held in gross violation of the land ceiling laws passed from time to time to bring about a more equitable distribution of cultivable land in the countryside. Holding on to power by a wide range of extra-legal and illegal means, the jotedar had access to the political power brokers, and in some cases even to the political leaders themselves, and would very often have his own private 'army' of musclemen.

The Tebhaga movement had brought the sharecroppers-known in different parts of Bengal under different names like bargadars and adhairs-and the jotedars into collision. But it withered under the brutal repression of the jotedars backed by the police, and in an atmosphere of euphoria generated by the peaceful transfer of power from the colonial rulers to the Congress government in 1947. The bargadars, however, over the years, and especially under the rule of the Left Front government in West Bengal, have come to enjoy some rights and privileges that make their life slightly more tolerable.

It was left to Mahasweta Devi to expose yet another area of exploitation, more vicious and horrible, in the agrarian system: it concerned landless agricultural labourers, a large proportion of whom came from the tribal communities and who made a precarious living, depending totally on the mercies of the jotedar. Without any organization to uphold and fight for their right to survival, they failed to take advantage of whatever little relief they had been granted in the form of minimum wages.

Out of several tribal heroes of the actual Naxalite movement, Mahasweta Devi constructs her tribal hero, Bashai Tudu, who stands outside the Naxalite movement as well as the constitutional political parties, to fight exclusively and doggedly for the cause of the agricultural labourers. Once she conceives Bashai Tudu, she lets him grow into a myth, who dies at every encounter and is reborn to lead the next one. Even as the magic of the myth runs through toe narrative and lends it coherence and unity, one has only to read between the lines to discern the revolutionary project that keeps the myth alive as a strategy by making it obligatory for every successor to Bashai's image to take the place of the dead man. A singular gesture-that of a man in a rage wringing the neck of the air-becomes the sign that identifies every Bashai Tudu. (Incidentally, Mahasweta Devi recalls how she hit upon that gesture as she was coming to my house in a rickshaw, instructing the rickshaw-puller to turn and twist again and again into the lanes and by lanes that led to my house from hers.)

Between Bashai Tudu and his peasant followers at one end and the jotedars at the other, stands Kali Santra, a middle class Communist journalist, a committed but helpless spectator, who could very well be one of the many sympathetic readers of Mahasweta Devi's fiction, one of those who read in her texts a history of exploitation which still continues unabated, and realize at the same time their own helplessness in the face of it, with the parties of the established Left too deeply embroiled in the machinations of power to disturb the status quo. Bashai Tudu's militancy-significantly, outside the programme of the organized Left-and Kali Santra's helplessness-significantly again, inside the organized Left-are the two poles between which the Bashai Tudu experience is laid out. For ultimately it is not a heroic narrative, but a narrative of questioning, with Kali Santra as the point with which Mahasweta's 'helpless' middle class reader is required to identify in order to recognize the guilt and shame of his helplessness. Kali Santra's complicity in the process that seeks to annihilate the myth that is Bashai Tudu and ends up every time killing off only one of the many Bashai Tudus has a touch of irony about it. For Kali has to 'identify' the dead Bashai Tudu every time, till the-death-of-Bashai-and-his-identification routine grows into the work as a narrative device to open up the divide between the two experiences afresh every time. The identification is at one level an attempt by the administration to reassure itself with a kind of assistance/ complicity from one of the established Left; at a different level, it is the representative of the Left 'deceiving' the administration; the double aspect of the identification routine serving as a symbol of the Left's participation in a political scenario defined and controlled by the Right. Kali Santra's helplessness has all of the indecisiveness and prevarication of the organized Left trying to consolidate its power and authority in a Rightist establishment, with the distant hope of toppling it some day from within.

Is the Dopdi Mejhen of 'Operation?-Bashai Tudu' the Dopdi of the short story 'Draupadi'? She seems to be the same person, with the same Dulna Majhi for her husband who died in an encounter. But she is part of a Naxalite group, working under the leadership of urban guerrillas, and that way no part of Bashai Tudu's project. This crisscrossing of identities may be part of Mahasweta Devi's intention to suggest that these movements are bound to overlap. Bashai Tudu insists that he is not a N axalite, but tells Kali Santra that he would not mind accepting support from the Naxalites on his own terms if it was forthcoming, for it was the interest of the agricultural labourers that was uppermost with him. Read with 'Operation?-Bashai Tudu', 'Draupadi' fills in a space left open in the novelette, the space where the individual activist, left to hislher own devices, operates; for spontaneity is one of the essential elements of the revolutionary project that Mahasweta Devi conceives. Draupadi's defiance is an act of militant spontaneity that at a different level also spells a feminist gesture. It is best to let Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, who has translated the story, speak for herself:

The ancient Draupadi is perhaps the most celebrated heroine of the Indian epic Mahabharata ... The tribes predate the Aryan invasion. They have no right to heroic Sanskrit names. Neither the interdiction nor the significance of the name, however, must be taken too seriously. For this pious, domesticated Hindu name was given to Dopdi at birth by her mistress, in the usual mood of benevolence felt by the oppressor's wife towards the tribal maid servant. It is the killing of this mistress's husband that sets going the events of the story.

And yet on the level of the text, this elusive and fortuitous name does play a role. In fact it is Draupadi who provides the only example of polyandry, not a common system of marriage in India. She is married to the five sons of the impotent Pandu. Within a patriarchal and patronymic context, she is exceptional, indeed 'singular' in the sense of odd, unpaired, legitimately pluralized. No acknowledgement of paternity can secure the Name of the Father for the child of such a mother. Mahasweta's story questions this 'singularity' by placing Dopdi first in a comradely, activist, monogamous marriage and then in a situation of multiple rape.

In the epic, Draupadi's legitimized pluralization (as a wife among husbands) in singularity (as a possible mother or harlot) is used to demonstrate male glory. The enemy chief begins to pull at Draupadi 's sari. Draupadi silently prays to the incarnate Krishna. The Idea of Sustaining Law (Dharma) materializes itself as clothing, and as the king pulls and pulls at her sari, there seems to be more and more of it. Draupadi is infinitely clothed and cannot be publicly stripped. It is one of Krishna's miracles.

Mahasweta's story rewrites this episode. The men easily succeed in stripping Dopdi-in the narrative it is the culmination of her political punishment by the representatives of the law. She remains publicly naked at her own insistence. Rather than save her majesty through the implicit intervention of a benign and divine (in this case it would have been godlike) comrade, the story insists that this is the place where male leadership stops. (In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics, London and New York: Methuen 1987, pp. 183-4.)

For both 'Operation?-Bashai Tudu' and 'Draupadi', Mahasweta Devi puts together 'a prose that is a collage of literary Bengali, street Bengali, bureaucratic Bengali, tribal Bengali, and the languages of the tribals', as Spivak rightly points out. Other strands in the collage include 'quotes' from and allusions to a wide range of literature spread from the classics, both Euro-American and Bengali, to popular crime; from political tracts to legal documents; and to a similar range of 'entertainments' from the ubiquitous Tagore songs to film lyrics. The plurality of languages and cultural references serves to locate the marginalized agricultural labourers and their struggle for their rights in a setting that denies them, and exposes the setting itself to a critique that grows from the recognition of the historical truth as it comes splintered through the fragmented readings in the distinctively different languages that carry different social and cultural perspectives on the same experience, from the different languages that different sections and classes use in their negotiations with history. English, the colonial inheritance, functions in the text both as the language of power and as that of rationalization/systematization of living experience into dead abstraction. In our text italicization marks the English words used transliterated by Mahasweta Devi, as also the Indian words.

The plurality of languages was not the least of the translator's problems. Translating 'Operation?-Bashai Tudu' I had the advantage of the author's active collaboration in the form of her own draft of a translation that she handed over to me as a point of reference. There were minor changes and additions worked into the text in this draft and some of these have now gone into my text. Gayatri's translation of 'Draupadi' has already appeared in her In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics, with her 'reading' of the story 'influenced by "deconstructive practice".' But the text that appears here is somewhat different, after a few changes, not quite substantial but significant in some respects, that she has made after I had pointed out some omissions and a couple of mistranslations from oversight.

My colleagues in Thema, especially Kalyani Ghose, Sohag Sen, and Madhuchhanda Karlekar, have prodded me on to complete the work and have shown exemplary patience with a tardy worker. P K Ghosh, our printer, was the first critical reader of the text, questioning and challenging my use of words and expressions again and again, making me ask myself how far I could afford to depart from conventional English usage in my attempt to render the uniqueness of the author's language. In this lively debate that we have carried on through the production of the book, the language hopefully has found the difficult balance that it needed.

Contents

  Introduction ix
  Author's preface to the first edition xix
  Operation?--Bashai Tudu 1
  Draupadi 173
  Reviews/Readings 191
  Ashok Mitra 191
  Malavika Karlekar 194
  Readings 197
  Subhendu Sarkar 197
  Sheya Chakraborthy 205
  Samik Bandyopadhyay 215
Sample Pages
















Bashai Tudu (Mahasweta Devi)

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Back of the Book

Operation? Bashai Tudu’, a Novelette, and ‘Draupadi’. a short story, translated by Samik Bandyopadhyay and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak respectively, evoke a modern myth of a tribal peasant revolutionary who turns up whenever the landless farm labourers are driven to a crisis, leads them to a revolt, gets killed, and appears again at the next point, and a dedicated Communist journalist who has to identify Bashai Tudu’s dead body every time—an original mix of documentary realism and revolutionary fantasy, history and fiction, so characteristic of Mahasweta Devi, the outstanding contemporary Bengali novelist and social activist who writes about women, tribals, revolutionaries, in their confrontations with an elaborate exploitative system and writes with both passion and a profound sense of history, and from her direct involvement with the lives of these people.

Preface

The long history of peasant insurgency in India (where the landless peasantry number nearly fifty million and constitute 26.33 per cent of the country's total labour force) has shown up, time and again, the nature of the exploitation that has been the fate of the peasants. The uprisings, from the Sannyasi revolt, the Wahabi movement and the Indigo revolt to the Naxalbari rebellion, have voiced almost the same fundamental demands.

The peasant movement in the Naxalbari region in north Bengal in May-June 1967 and its background would explain something of the spirit that has gone into the making of these stories. Most of the inhabitants of Naxalbari, Khadibadi and Phansidewa in the Darjeeling district are adivasis, landless peasants. The different ethnic communities represented here include the Medis, Lepchas, Bhutias, Santals, Oraons, Rajbanshis and Gorkhas. The local jotedars have exploited them for ages under a sharecropping system that enabled them to provide the landless peasants with seeds, ploughs and plough cattle, some food and a little money, and to appropriate the major share of the harvest. The peasants protested against the jotedars' extortion and their right to evict the sharecroppers at will, and suffered from the primeval hunger for land that has afflicted them for ages. The protests and the resultant clashes led the government to bring in the Estate Acquisition Act in 1954, imposing a 25-acre limit on an individual's holding of cultivable land. The good intentions behind this legislation notwithstanding, the larger landowners lost little of their property in the process, as they managed to retain almost all their land under different false names. The revised act prescribing the ceiling on the landholding of an agricultural family, passed in 1971, proved equally ineffective, for there was no provision under the law to prevent agricultural land being recorded as fisheries, tea gardens and even industrial estates.

The movement in Naxalbari began in the estates under the tea planters who had imported most of the labourers working for them from different regions. Living there for generations, they had in course of time become part of the local population. Ground down by the worst kind of exploitation, they were in 1967, according to the Statesman, 'almost in a state of slavery.' The additional agricultural land in the hands of the tea planters had been distributed among 'loyal labourers'. The government had once thought of taking over this land, but given up the idea later. That is how discontent started brewing. In the mid-fifties the adhiars (sharecroppers on a half-share arrangement) in the tea garden areas rose in revolt against their landlords. They demanded that the additional land attached to the tea plantations should be taken over by the government, who should then redistribute it among them. In 1959 the movement took a violent turn. The planters evicted the adhiars by force and set their elephants to raze their huts to the ground. The peasants of Naxalbari mobilized against such persecution and exploitation and rose in an insurrection that inspired the deprived and exploited peasantry in the neighbouring states of Andhra, Kerala, Tamilnadu, Bihar and Orissa. The Naxalbari movement has been given several labels, being branded as extreme left deviation, the manifestation of the frustration of a group of idealistic and over-enthusiastic young men, or a case of subversion planted and supported by outside forces and organizations. All the factors that led to the eruption of violence remained unchanged long after the movement had been crushed by brutal repression. The exploitation of the starving peasant continues. The jotedars have cornered almost all the cultivable land in the country, so that a few thousand families own all the agricultural land today. The extortion of interest on loans at a compound rate and forced labour in repayment of debts have grown into a system. Rural India has the appearance of an enormous graveyard. In summer and in times of drought the adivasis and the so-called low-caste communities have to dig into the dry riverbeds in search of water, and live on the waste water drained out of cooked rice or on seeds of shrubs. All the reasons that triggered off the Naxalite movement remain. Researchers normally occupy themselves with documenting the causes behind a popular uprising. Naxalbari is one of the rare issues where the scholars have been concerned more with its character and tendencies than with its causes; and the administration on its part has shown ruthless efficiency in its suppression. They all seem to be silent on why the grasslands burnt up in a conflagration, however shortlived it might have been. But can the silence of the administration negate the truth?

Beyond their direct relevance to my stories, the happenings in Naxalbari and their background constitute the most significant and inspiring events in the life of the country over the last few decades. Bashai Tudu and Draupadi and their peers are the products of these events, and their makers as well; for it is they who change society and come to symbolize the time and the place, transcending their names and the local situations. No movement in itself represents the final truth in its means and ends, for it is history that ultimately evaluates it. The struggling masses at all times and in all lands destroy the paths that they have laboured to build, and dream of constructing new ones. In the dialectical course of history it is the truth of evolution to higher and higher levels of struggle that stands out as the ultimate end.

The problem is not always confined to land. The peasant as an agricultural labourer is denied his legitimate wages. He has to struggle continuously for water, for seeds, for fertilizers, and live his life out in hunger and poverty. The lower middle classes, the workers and the agricultural labourers have profited little from the economic progress accomplished in post-independence India. It is the rich that have become richer. A whole new rich class has emerged, revelling in its ignorance, arrogance and ruthlessness. The lower middle classes are on the verge of extinction. The bigger landholders have become more affluent. The small landholders have been forced to sell out their last scraps of land to the jotedar- moneylender and join the army of landless agricultural labourers. While nobody cares to pay heed to their claims to the right to survive, the hired writers pandering to the middle and upper classes content themselves with weaving narcissistic fantasies in the name of literature. When Rome burnt, Nero fiddled, for that was how he thought he could shut his eyes to the logic of the conflagration. But he had to pay for it by being wiped away. For a long time now, Bengali literature has indulged in a denial of the reality and has been plagued by an atrophy of conscience. The writers refuse to see the writing on the wall. The conscientious reader is turning away from them in revulsion. What can be more surprising than that writers living in a country bedevilled with so many problems- social injustice, communal discord and evil customs-should fail to find material for their work in their own country and people? Such indifference to people is possible probably only in a semi- colonial, semi-feudal country like India, still suffering from the hangover of foreign rule. Are even our cities immune? Unemployment grows apace, prices soar to the skies, there is anarchy in education, the middle classes are squeezed and are merging into the proletariat. The area of class struggle is expanding fast. At a critical historical point like this, a conscientious writer has to take a firm stand in defence of the exploited. Otherwise there is no way that history would absolve him or her.

'Operation?-Bashai Tudu' was written during the first spell of the Left Front rule in West Bengal (1977-82). The hunger for land felt for ages by the sons of the soil and their long struggle to retain their rights in the land found a climactic expression in the Naxalbari movement. It was a shortlived affair, but its importance has been tremendous. The Tebhaga movement in 1946-47 and 1948-50 had not entirely been confined to the struggle for the rights of the sharecroppers. Drawing inspiration from the movement in Telengana, the peasantry in Kakdwip and the Sundarbans struggled for State power. It is significant that the belt in north Bengal where Charu Majumdar led the Tebhaga movement in 1946-47 saw a bitter struggle that left twelve adivasi peasants, men and women, dead. The intensity of the Tebhaga war in this region drew on the militancy of the sons of the soil. The Tebhaga movement lies behind the Naxalbari rising, which in its turn underscored some major features of our land problem. The position of the agricultural labourer in our land tenure system is one such. Agricultural labourers can be of several kinds: the completely landless, the marginal peasant, or those reduced to the status of bargadars under the impact of a single bad harvest. These agricultural labourers have fought in the Tebhaga and the Naxalite movements, but no peasant organization led by a political party has ever acknowledged them.

Between the writing of 'Operation ?-Bashai Tudu' and the second spell of the Left Front rule (1982-87), the government had launched its Operation Barga, which, though described in government propaganda and records as a signal achievement, served to sustain a system that is feudal in character. While it gave the registered bargadar the right to cultivate a fixed plot of land and get a share of the produce, the absentee landlords remained. The most important development in 1.982-83 was the phenomenon of jotedars holding on to land beyond the official ceiling under different benamdars, and becoming part of the ruling CPI(M) overnight. Thus there was no way to stop the exploitation of the barga cultivators, marginal peasants and agricultural labourers. Some of the big jotedars stayed on with the Congress; for, after all, the exploiters of rural Bengal have never had any reason to fear the ruling classes, whatever be the colour of their flags.

The situation remains unchanged in 1989. Between 1977 and 1989 there has been a steady growth in the number of agricultural labourers, as also in landlessness. The minimum wages have been revised several times; before the 1989 parliamentary elections they stood between rupees nineteen and twenty-on paper. But the people for whom Bashai Tudu fights multiply endlessly, and are denied the minimum wages that are their due. It is the jotedars who are in absolute control in this third spell of the Left Front rule. Besides acting as moneylenders, they trade in paddy and other foodgrains. Before the elections the state government had promised to provide the agricultural labourers with rice at a cheap rate. But this promise has never been fulfilled. A movement for the guarantee of a minumum employment makes no sense; it does not help in the least to ensure that the agricultural labourers be paid two rupees when there is no cultivation to be done; for two rupees have little purchasing power anyway.

The agricultural labourers are now working as contract labour, leaving their hearth and home in search of employment elsewhere. There are too many anomalies in the system of employment through the panchayats. More and more men and women from the adivasi districts are joining the ranks of itinerant labour, and none of the official Left parties dares, or even cares, to organize these hungry sons of the soil into a militant force. With the peasant organizations controlled by the rich peasants, it would look inexplicable not to have separate organizations for agricultural labourers. That may be the only consideration that has led to the development of some such organizations, which, however, for all practical purposes, exist only in name. The Left parties now provide sumptuous lunches at their peasants' conferences, offering delicacies like the hilsa and prawns.

I still believe in men, not in records on paper, nor in the hilsa or prawns. That is where I stand apart from the politics of the Left. And that is what keeps Bashai Tudu relevant, and makes him more so today than ever. The Kali Santras, of course, are as dead as dodos in Indian politics.

It will not avail to look for any definite politics in my writing. Sensitive persons committed to the cause of the exploited and the persecuted stand at the centre of my works. In my story 'Jawl' the teacher is an honest, conscientious Congressite. In 'MW banam Lakhinda', the agitation of the agricultural labourers is led by the CPI. In 'Operation?-Bashai Tudu', Kali Santra belongs to the CPI(M) and Bashai Tudu stands somewhere even beyond the Naxalites. In 'Draupadi' the heroine is an adivasi Naxalite activist. Mentally, they share a common ground, a fact that does not appear contradictory to me. Life is not arithmetic, and man is not made for the game of politics. I believe that it should be the object of every kind of politics to fulfil man's craving to live with all his rights intact. I do not believe that any politics confined to promoting a party's interests can replace the present social system. Forty-one years after Independence I see my countrymen without food, water and land, and reeling under debts and bonded labour. An anger, luminous and burning like the sun, directed against a system that cannot free my people from these inhuman constraints is the only source of inspiration for all my writing. All parties, those to the Left and those to the Right alike, have failed to keep their promises to the common people. There is little prospect of any significant change in these things at least in my lifetime. Hence I have to go on writing to the best of my ability in defence of the dispossessed and the disinherited, so that I may never have reason to feel ashamed to face myself. For all writers are accountable to their own generation and have to answer for themselves.

Introduction

Both the novelette and the short story included in this volume formed part of Agnigarbha (Fire in the Depths), a collection of Mahasweta Devi's stories, published in 1978. In Hajar Churashir Ma (Mother of 1084), published in 1973, Mahasweta Devi (b. 14 January 1926) for the first time turned to the Naxalite movement in West Bengal. In this departure from her earlier modes of historical and domestic fiction, she sought the roots of the revolutionary fervour of the urban guerrillas of the seventies in their discontent with a system that upheld a corrupt and insensitive establishment, both in the family and in the State. The establishment that the urban guerrillas and Mahasweta Devi chose as their target was reprehensible more for its innate corruption than for its tyranny. A working mother, for whom her work is in itself a form of protest and self-assertion against the patriarchal authority of her husband, discovers only too late that her son is part of the Naxalite movement when she is summoned one morning to identify his dead body in the police morgue. The novel records a day in her life, exactly a year after her son Brati had been killed on his birthday. Visiting the house from where Brati had been dragged out and killed by the goons of the Party in power, with the tacit support of the police; talking to the woman whose son also had died in the same encounter and who had given the group shelter for that night; talking to the young woman whom Brati loved and who, blinded by police torture, still swears by the cause; the mother of corpse number 1084 discovers for herself the enormous spread of the power that she had so long identified with her corrupt and overbearing husband alone.

Though Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak found Hajar Churashir Ma still in 'the generally sentimental style of the mainstream Bengali novel of the fifties and the sixties,' a closer reading reveals a passion that has rarely emerged so unashamedly in the Bengali novel, which has traditionally laboured after the values of objectivity and detachment. The vein of irony that gives a special quality to her language in her later works already surfaces here, though it is the drama of confrontations that opens up secret areas of understanding. The confrontations take place across cleavages in the hierarchies of power, of class, and of commitment. Even as she opened up these secret spaces in Hajar Churashir Ma, Mahasweta Devi herself made the passage from urban middle class domesticity to the larger sphere of the age-long exploitation of the tribals and the landless peasantry in rural eastern India. With Sujata, the mother of 1084, Mahasweta Devi too made a discovery-of the roots of revolt. But she followed the roots deeper underground, till she reached the problem of land, which sparked off the uprising at Naxalbari and in the villages around. The movement drew support from the urban intelligentsia, for whom it came to symbolize a kind of atonement for their guilt in acquiescing in the perpetuation of a system of exploitation from which they had reaped benefits for generations. For the urban guerrillas were descendants of the bhadraloks, who had made their way into the agricultural system in the second half of the nineteenth century when the large zamindari estates claiming legitimacy from the Permanent Settlement of 1793 were breaking up due to mismanagement and litigation and splitting up through sub-division, subinfeudation and sale. As Partha Chatterjee explains,

By the middle of the [nineteenth] century, most cultivable lands in Bengal were settled; however, the sizable gap which had been created by then between the fixed revenue that was payable to the government and the total rent that could be extracted from the actual cultivators facilitated the emergence of a vast structure of rentier interests in Bengal's agrarian economy. The Permanent Settlement had envisaged that of the total rental 90 per cent would go to the treasury, the zamindar keeping 10 per cent. An estimate of 1918-19, however, indicates that proprietors and intermediate tenureholders intercepted as much as 76.7 per cent of the gross rental of Rs 12.85 crores, only Rs 2.99 crores being collected as land revenue.

This gap between rent and revenue served as the basis of assets into which flowed the savings of the Bengali 'middle class' -savings acquired through inheritance, dowry, profits from petty trade or commerce, or from professional incomes. Left with few other profitable areas of investment, these people bought proprietary or intermediary rights in land which guaranteed a small but nevertheless secure rent income. A simple method was the straight purchase of the whole or part of an estate. Another was to buy a tenureholding right from a proprietor who was unable to manage successfully the collection of rent in a large and scattered estate, or even more commonly from one who preferred to capitalize his assets by creating subordinate tenures at a high rate of salami. The result of this process of subdivision and diffusion of the rentier interest was the creation in the later nineteenth century, all over the province although in varying degrees, of a structure of landed property in which there were a few wealthy zamindars at the top and innumerable fragmented estates and tenures at the bottom.

By the 1870s, this differentiation between the older wealthy zamindars and the much larger group of petty proprietors-tenureholders-cum-professionals became apparent in the political, social and cultural life of Bengal. From the last decades of the nineteenth century, for instance, provincial politics in Bengal came to be dominated by the class of small rentiers in land. It was also the stratum of society from which came the early generation of successful professionals in law, journalism, medicine, teaching and civil and judicial services. This class formed the core of an expanding status group widely known as the Bengali bhadralok and often referred to as an 'elite' group. It must be emphasized, however, that this 'elite', in most of its distinctive features, was a product of the conditions imposed under colonialism. The system of land tenure, combined with the disincentives to the entry of domestic savings into native industrial enterprises and the destruction of indigenous manufacturing, created the basic economic structure from which emerged this class of rent-receivers, usurers and petty traders totally divorced from, and entirely uninterested in, the conditions of social production. They lived entirely on 'revenue'; only the distribution of the surplus concerned them, they had no role in its creation. Added to this were the new opportunities opened up to precisely this class of people by the expansion of the judicial, administrative and educational apparatus of the colonial state. The fact that higher education in the English language, and solely as a means of entry into a white-collar job or a profession, remained confined largely to the same group of people only replicated in the cultural sphere the enormous distance of this group from the sphere of social production. (Partha Chattetjee, Bengal 1930-47: The Land Question, Calcutta 1984, pp. 11-l3.)

For all practical purposes, the Bengali bhadraloks, the educated urban middle classes, formed the core of the jotedars, a term which later came to identify a wide spectrum of intermediary, non- cultivating tenureholders, till at least the early forties when they began to be replaced by traders in land from other parts of the country and even by some of the original reclaimers of the land or their descendants. While the jotedars had been using sharecroppers to cultivate their land, providing them with seed, ploughs, plough cattle, some food and a little money, and collecting half, and sometimes even more, of the produce, they, according to Andre Beteil1e, 'came to be perceived as an important component of the agrarian class structure for the first time in the context of the Tebhaga movement in 1946-7' (Studies in Agrarian Social Structure, Delhi 1974, p. 138). It was at that time that the sharecroppers demanded a two- thirds share of the crop, and in a spurt of militancy supported by the Communist Party and its peasant organization, carried the crops to their own homes instead of, as was customary, to the threshing floor of the jotedar.

As the jotedar was marked as the target of militant peasant action during the Tebhaga movement, he came to be identified more clearly as the most visible landowner in the highly complex exploitative system that controlled agriculture in rural eastern India. He doubled as the village moneylender, and could extort forced labour against unrecovered debts and thus hold the peasant in his grip. His power flowed also from the substantial landed properties he held in gross violation of the land ceiling laws passed from time to time to bring about a more equitable distribution of cultivable land in the countryside. Holding on to power by a wide range of extra-legal and illegal means, the jotedar had access to the political power brokers, and in some cases even to the political leaders themselves, and would very often have his own private 'army' of musclemen.

The Tebhaga movement had brought the sharecroppers-known in different parts of Bengal under different names like bargadars and adhairs-and the jotedars into collision. But it withered under the brutal repression of the jotedars backed by the police, and in an atmosphere of euphoria generated by the peaceful transfer of power from the colonial rulers to the Congress government in 1947. The bargadars, however, over the years, and especially under the rule of the Left Front government in West Bengal, have come to enjoy some rights and privileges that make their life slightly more tolerable.

It was left to Mahasweta Devi to expose yet another area of exploitation, more vicious and horrible, in the agrarian system: it concerned landless agricultural labourers, a large proportion of whom came from the tribal communities and who made a precarious living, depending totally on the mercies of the jotedar. Without any organization to uphold and fight for their right to survival, they failed to take advantage of whatever little relief they had been granted in the form of minimum wages.

Out of several tribal heroes of the actual Naxalite movement, Mahasweta Devi constructs her tribal hero, Bashai Tudu, who stands outside the Naxalite movement as well as the constitutional political parties, to fight exclusively and doggedly for the cause of the agricultural labourers. Once she conceives Bashai Tudu, she lets him grow into a myth, who dies at every encounter and is reborn to lead the next one. Even as the magic of the myth runs through toe narrative and lends it coherence and unity, one has only to read between the lines to discern the revolutionary project that keeps the myth alive as a strategy by making it obligatory for every successor to Bashai's image to take the place of the dead man. A singular gesture-that of a man in a rage wringing the neck of the air-becomes the sign that identifies every Bashai Tudu. (Incidentally, Mahasweta Devi recalls how she hit upon that gesture as she was coming to my house in a rickshaw, instructing the rickshaw-puller to turn and twist again and again into the lanes and by lanes that led to my house from hers.)

Between Bashai Tudu and his peasant followers at one end and the jotedars at the other, stands Kali Santra, a middle class Communist journalist, a committed but helpless spectator, who could very well be one of the many sympathetic readers of Mahasweta Devi's fiction, one of those who read in her texts a history of exploitation which still continues unabated, and realize at the same time their own helplessness in the face of it, with the parties of the established Left too deeply embroiled in the machinations of power to disturb the status quo. Bashai Tudu's militancy-significantly, outside the programme of the organized Left-and Kali Santra's helplessness-significantly again, inside the organized Left-are the two poles between which the Bashai Tudu experience is laid out. For ultimately it is not a heroic narrative, but a narrative of questioning, with Kali Santra as the point with which Mahasweta's 'helpless' middle class reader is required to identify in order to recognize the guilt and shame of his helplessness. Kali Santra's complicity in the process that seeks to annihilate the myth that is Bashai Tudu and ends up every time killing off only one of the many Bashai Tudus has a touch of irony about it. For Kali has to 'identify' the dead Bashai Tudu every time, till the-death-of-Bashai-and-his-identification routine grows into the work as a narrative device to open up the divide between the two experiences afresh every time. The identification is at one level an attempt by the administration to reassure itself with a kind of assistance/ complicity from one of the established Left; at a different level, it is the representative of the Left 'deceiving' the administration; the double aspect of the identification routine serving as a symbol of the Left's participation in a political scenario defined and controlled by the Right. Kali Santra's helplessness has all of the indecisiveness and prevarication of the organized Left trying to consolidate its power and authority in a Rightist establishment, with the distant hope of toppling it some day from within.

Is the Dopdi Mejhen of 'Operation?-Bashai Tudu' the Dopdi of the short story 'Draupadi'? She seems to be the same person, with the same Dulna Majhi for her husband who died in an encounter. But she is part of a Naxalite group, working under the leadership of urban guerrillas, and that way no part of Bashai Tudu's project. This crisscrossing of identities may be part of Mahasweta Devi's intention to suggest that these movements are bound to overlap. Bashai Tudu insists that he is not a N axalite, but tells Kali Santra that he would not mind accepting support from the Naxalites on his own terms if it was forthcoming, for it was the interest of the agricultural labourers that was uppermost with him. Read with 'Operation?-Bashai Tudu', 'Draupadi' fills in a space left open in the novelette, the space where the individual activist, left to hislher own devices, operates; for spontaneity is one of the essential elements of the revolutionary project that Mahasweta Devi conceives. Draupadi's defiance is an act of militant spontaneity that at a different level also spells a feminist gesture. It is best to let Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, who has translated the story, speak for herself:

The ancient Draupadi is perhaps the most celebrated heroine of the Indian epic Mahabharata ... The tribes predate the Aryan invasion. They have no right to heroic Sanskrit names. Neither the interdiction nor the significance of the name, however, must be taken too seriously. For this pious, domesticated Hindu name was given to Dopdi at birth by her mistress, in the usual mood of benevolence felt by the oppressor's wife towards the tribal maid servant. It is the killing of this mistress's husband that sets going the events of the story.

And yet on the level of the text, this elusive and fortuitous name does play a role. In fact it is Draupadi who provides the only example of polyandry, not a common system of marriage in India. She is married to the five sons of the impotent Pandu. Within a patriarchal and patronymic context, she is exceptional, indeed 'singular' in the sense of odd, unpaired, legitimately pluralized. No acknowledgement of paternity can secure the Name of the Father for the child of such a mother. Mahasweta's story questions this 'singularity' by placing Dopdi first in a comradely, activist, monogamous marriage and then in a situation of multiple rape.

In the epic, Draupadi's legitimized pluralization (as a wife among husbands) in singularity (as a possible mother or harlot) is used to demonstrate male glory. The enemy chief begins to pull at Draupadi 's sari. Draupadi silently prays to the incarnate Krishna. The Idea of Sustaining Law (Dharma) materializes itself as clothing, and as the king pulls and pulls at her sari, there seems to be more and more of it. Draupadi is infinitely clothed and cannot be publicly stripped. It is one of Krishna's miracles.

Mahasweta's story rewrites this episode. The men easily succeed in stripping Dopdi-in the narrative it is the culmination of her political punishment by the representatives of the law. She remains publicly naked at her own insistence. Rather than save her majesty through the implicit intervention of a benign and divine (in this case it would have been godlike) comrade, the story insists that this is the place where male leadership stops. (In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics, London and New York: Methuen 1987, pp. 183-4.)

For both 'Operation?-Bashai Tudu' and 'Draupadi', Mahasweta Devi puts together 'a prose that is a collage of literary Bengali, street Bengali, bureaucratic Bengali, tribal Bengali, and the languages of the tribals', as Spivak rightly points out. Other strands in the collage include 'quotes' from and allusions to a wide range of literature spread from the classics, both Euro-American and Bengali, to popular crime; from political tracts to legal documents; and to a similar range of 'entertainments' from the ubiquitous Tagore songs to film lyrics. The plurality of languages and cultural references serves to locate the marginalized agricultural labourers and their struggle for their rights in a setting that denies them, and exposes the setting itself to a critique that grows from the recognition of the historical truth as it comes splintered through the fragmented readings in the distinctively different languages that carry different social and cultural perspectives on the same experience, from the different languages that different sections and classes use in their negotiations with history. English, the colonial inheritance, functions in the text both as the language of power and as that of rationalization/systematization of living experience into dead abstraction. In our text italicization marks the English words used transliterated by Mahasweta Devi, as also the Indian words.

The plurality of languages was not the least of the translator's problems. Translating 'Operation?-Bashai Tudu' I had the advantage of the author's active collaboration in the form of her own draft of a translation that she handed over to me as a point of reference. There were minor changes and additions worked into the text in this draft and some of these have now gone into my text. Gayatri's translation of 'Draupadi' has already appeared in her In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics, with her 'reading' of the story 'influenced by "deconstructive practice".' But the text that appears here is somewhat different, after a few changes, not quite substantial but significant in some respects, that she has made after I had pointed out some omissions and a couple of mistranslations from oversight.

My colleagues in Thema, especially Kalyani Ghose, Sohag Sen, and Madhuchhanda Karlekar, have prodded me on to complete the work and have shown exemplary patience with a tardy worker. P K Ghosh, our printer, was the first critical reader of the text, questioning and challenging my use of words and expressions again and again, making me ask myself how far I could afford to depart from conventional English usage in my attempt to render the uniqueness of the author's language. In this lively debate that we have carried on through the production of the book, the language hopefully has found the difficult balance that it needed.

Contents

  Introduction ix
  Author's preface to the first edition xix
  Operation?--Bashai Tudu 1
  Draupadi 173
  Reviews/Readings 191
  Ashok Mitra 191
  Malavika Karlekar 194
  Readings 197
  Subhendu Sarkar 197
  Sheya Chakraborthy 205
  Samik Bandyopadhyay 215
Sample Pages
















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Titu Mir
Item Code: IDE480
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The Queen of Jhansi
Item Code: IDE481
$28.00$21.00
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Rudali: From Fiction to Performance
Item Code: IDE455
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Indian Literary Criticism: Theory and Interpretation
by G.N. Devy
Paperback (Edition: 2011)
Orient BlackSwan
Item Code: IDE783
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Myth in Contemporary Indian Literature
by K.Satchidanandan
Paperback (Edition: 2010)
Sahitya Akademi
Item Code: NAD185
$25.00$18.75
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Growing Up As A Woman Writer
by Jasbir Jain
Hardcover (Edition: 2007)
Sahitya Akademi
Item Code: NAJ379
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At Home in the World (A Window on Contemporary Indian Literature)
Item Code: IDK710
$22.50$16.88
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Inter-Sections (Essays on Indian Literature, Translations and Popular Consciousness)
by Rana Nayar
Paperback (Edition: 2012)
Orient Blackswan Pvt. Ltd
Item Code: NAG060
$35.00$26.25
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Rupesh
Heramba Ganapati arrived safely today and was shipped promptly. Another fantastic find from Exotic India with perfect customer service. Thank you. Jai Ganesha Deva
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I ordered Padmapani Statue. I have received my statue. The delivering process was very fast and the statue looks so beautiful. Thank you exoticindia, Mr. Vipin (customer care). I am very satisfied.
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Our Nandi sculpture arrived today and it surpasses all expectations - it is wonderful. We are not only pleasantly surprised by the speed of international delivery but also are extremely grateful for the care of your packaging. Our sculpture needed to travel to an off-lying island of New Zealand but it arrived safely because of how well it had been packaged. Based upon my experience of all aspects of your service, I have no hesitation in recommending Exotic India.
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Love the website and the breadth of selection. Thanks for assembling such a great collection of art and sculpture.
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Another three books arrived during the last weeks, all of them diligently packed. Excellent reading for the the quieter days at the end of the year. Greetings to Vipin K. and his team.
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Your products are uncommon yet have advanced my knowledge and devotion to Sanatana Dharma. Also, they are reasonably priced and ship quickly. Thank you for all you do.
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