Notes for Devi

I want you,
To write poetry,
To compose songs,
To form an
I want you to race your horses,
Through the blood of the
Let the workers come out from their factories
With a pledge to
If you accept this proposal,
Well and good!
If not,
You will remain in my world
A mere flippant playmate
In some poem or
(from ‘To the Sun’, poem from jail, Cherabandaraju)

You who have made the mistake of being born in this country
must now rectify it: either leave the country,
or make war!
(from ‘You who have made the mistake’, Baburao Bagul)

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 too feel ashamed to face myself. For all writers are accountable too their own generation and have to answer for themselves
(Mahesweta Devi, ‘Author’s Preface’ to
Bashai Tudu)

With a much bigger work on revolutionary songs and writing in mind, and in anticipation of the upcoming 150th anniversary of the first Indian War of Independence (about which we meet on Sunday to organise a commemoration/celebration – see the link in the biblio below), here are some initial rambling notes starting from these two fragments of poetry and a couple of sentences from an introduction to a short story having to do with tribal and peasant struggles, and writing, in India. I cannot attempt a study of those struggles myself – there are fine books available written in India such as that by Sumanta Banerjee: India’s Simmering Revolution; Barbara Joshi (ed): Untouchable!: Voices of the Dalit Liberation Movement‘; and Mahesweta Devi Bashai Tudu, among others, and all of which are essential reading. But there is space, perhaps, for a discussion of one aspect of the role of writing in political struggles – even as this is considered at a considerable distance from the geographical site of such struggles. While reading such poets is it strange to be interested in the status of such writings as translated, published and circulated in quite diverse contexts by a far-reaching publishing apparatus, bookstores, footnotes, libraries, blogosphere. This would be another variant of an old routine, often overdone I think, but beginning with questions about authorship.

The question of who writes is interesting in the case of Mahesweta Devi. A writer who conceives her writing as a part of the fight against oppression and exploitation of the tribal people of India and who says she writes on such matters so as to know she has not done nothing, so she can live with herself, even though she also thinks the task is hopeless and that the situation is getting worse.

She is translated by Gayatri Spivak, deconstructionist/marxist/feminist, critical cultural studies figure. Through Spivak’s translations and commentary Mahesweta Devi has became known to the academic classes worldwide. Spivak had first taken up this work as a way to explore the problem of her positioning as an Indian born postcolonial intellectual writing within the Western academic industry. She once said she did not know “how to speak to women out there” and problematised the issue of how academic work might ‘help’ those who are oppressed – while there would be no illusion that translating work is an answer to this problem, it does seem that Spivak’s engagement with these writings is a development in response to the charge of relevance, and a commitment to active struggle. Subsequently the translation work has become a larger, longer, long-term commitment, which extends to more and more volumes (published by Seagull Books) and quietly wins Spivak much-deserved translation awards.

Many of Mahesweta Devi’s stories are about tribals fighting oppression, resisting exploitation, rebelling against authority. Such stories have, many agree, an immediacy and commitment that is not often found, including amongst tribal writers themselves. Though there is a strong tradition of writing among tribals and Dalits, especially fostered by the Dalit Panther movement.
Amongst the most prominent themes of Dalit poetry is a refrain that calls upon all members of society to either ‘wage war’ or ‘leave the country’ (a somewhat more urgent and insistent variant of the slogan: ‘if you are not looking for a solution you are part of the problem’). There are other examples.

The status of these differently placed writers – poet, author, translator – might be raised in a way that questions the role of intellectuals within political struggles – and its not simply that these roles are distinct – the tribal and Dalit poets, perhaps imprisoned, writing-as-struggle; are not necessarily far from the middle-class writer writing in solidarity with the oppressed peoples; who is not always divorced from the first-world ‘post-colonial’ theorist translating for a global market; there are criticisms of ‘position’ to be made in each of these cases, and reasons to support and endorse the political work also, within the apparatus of texts and books and print.

That Devi sees her writing as commitment is unquestioned. Yet sometimes her despairing conclusion that nothing can be done to reverse the continued exploitation of tribals under an uncompromising system is unanswerable in a way that might paralyse. Yet this provokes because her assessment takes critical account of the fact that the left parties have not organised around tribal issues because of vote dependency upon groupings such as the middle peasantry and the urban working class, who are higher in the Indian social hierarchy. She claims she must write in favour of the oppressed so as to never feel ashamed to face herself – and if this seems a particularly middle-class anxiety that would not be shared by the Naxalite poets languishing in Presidency Jail, it is exactly the kind of problem which has exercised the thoughts of the Presidency College trained Spivak and the distance – that Spivak herself would be first to point to – is part of the point.

The poetry of some Dalit writers is wholly infused with the routines of organised political opposition, and sometimes seems overburdened with the wooden exhortations to struggle, to organise, to agitate that are the staple of manifestos and pamphlets. At the other end of the spectrum, if these were just glossy narratives about tribal struggles only for the display tables of Western bookstores, marketed under the signature of a prominent deconstructionist/feminist/Marxist critic, carries a burden of over-determination which might seem wholly irrelevant and inappropriate to those involved today in particular tribal struggles. Yet perhaps all these are the sites of engagement that must coexist in a transnational context, and despite the differences of local and global, of immediacy and generality (from poetry in jail, to middle-class Bengali solidarity, to the reading rooms of the academy) these are somehow what we want to become circuits of ‘the same’ struggle.

The questions that are to be raised here include that of the authorisation of the one who writes, and adjacent to this of the one who translates. The implied audience, motive, identity – Devi writes so as to be able to face herself; Spivak writes to wake up slumbering first-world audiences; a Naxalite poet like Samir Ray writes in anger and as a call to comrades to organise – are all somewhat unusual here, and in each case now belong to a context where immediate and personal writing is translated and distributed through powerful and extensive global networks. The notion of self deployed by the one who writes, and how this may or may not be somewhat different in translation deserves to be considered in the light of how this is related to a middle-class anxiety about the role of intellectual work, and to the general position of intellectuals to activist movements. (Gramsci’s discussion of the organic intellectual, the intellectual capacity of all workers, the choice of the intellectual to work with the subaltern or the oppressor – the rewards of the latter). This question ‘who writes’ is often a masquerade of criticism which achieves little but continued job security for the named author (‘Hutnyk’ at Goldsmiths for example etc)

So, if this were to go anywhere further, there would be things still to study – including old standard themes that might otherwise be avoided – Dumont-esque parables about the problem of caste, its constructionality. Does Dalit organising escape the ingrained fragmentism of caste by organising a conscious underclass who must, as a transformative and emancipatory project, transcend and absorb oppressor culture

Of course caste fragments along collective lines, collectivities become lobby groups within negotiating structures and spokespeople become the arbitrators of identity politics – group against group. The underclass must disappear if the transformation of consciousness and social inequality is to be comprehensively achieved. Such a consciousness raising remains possible and must be practiced every moment

– work among the people always, and creatively, learn to learn from below
– dump the tired old posters in favour of more localised ones
– more creativity
– liberation is something that requires the participation of all (a poet in jail writing to those outside telling them to organise).
– dialectic oscillation between individual reflection and participation in campaign work is the model imagined here
– this possibly begins a transcendence from below
– it won’t work unless all you fight
– go among those who fight (work for new kinds of organisation, cross-sectoral alliances/meetings).
– the role of the intellectual, such as Devi is to be able to find all info everywhere
– Mao – join with the workers…
– liberation is individual and collective
– liberation must before all it cannot be just for the one grouping, the grouping must also have the ambition of dissolving (this question of difference/alliance…)
– especially where the agitating group is the lowest (common denominator)
– thus solidarity writing with the oppressed also has the political project of working to wake up the other sections of society, and must even mean providing education work for the denizens of academia in the west/ Liberation is a joint project, is bound up for all- there is no alternative – extermination or communism. You have made the mistake of being born on this planet, either leave or make war!…

Books in English by Mahasweta Devi [with some annotations, which I may expand as I read again]
Five Plays – Seagull Books 1986 trans Samik Bandyopadhyay [includes the powerful ‘Mother of 1084’, which I also saw a film version of at the London Film Festival years ago]
Bashai Tudu – Thema 1990 – trans Samik Bandyopadhyay and Gayatri Spivak
Imaginary Maps – Theme Calcutta 1993 trans Gayatri Spivak
Breast Stories – Seagull 1997 trans Gayatri Spivak [has the texts Gayatri has published in her books, and some new ones]
Dust on the Road – Seagull 1997 trans Maitreya Ghatak [Devi’s activist writings]
Rudali – Seagull 1999 trans Anjum Katyal [also made into a play and a film – as Rudaali]
The Queen of Jhansi – Seagull 2000 trans Mandira Sengupta [originally published 1956, Devi’s first book is based on historical fieldwork and is a rollicking great read in the run up to the 150th anniversary of the first war of Indian independence – see our campaign site]
Titu Mir – Seagull 2000 trans Rimi b Chaterjee
Till Death Do Us Part – Seagull 2001 trans Vikram Iyengar
Old Women – Seagull 2002 trans Gayatri Spivak
Bitter Soil – Seagull 2002 trans Ipsita Chanda
The Glory of Sri Sri Ganesh – Seagull 2003 trans Ipsita Chanda
Chotti Mundu and His Arrow – 2003 Blackwell trans Gayatri Spivak [big, great, challenging – with a prose rhythm in English that I can imagine feels like how one walks across hot scorched earth. No?]
Dewana, Khoimala and the Holy Banyan Tree – Seagull 2004 trans Pinaki Bhattacharya
Romtha – Seagull 2004 trans Pinaki Bhattacharya
Bait – Seagull 2004 trans Sumanta Banerjee [yes, the simmering Sumanta]

There is also a film about Mahasweta Devi by filmaker and blogger Shashwati Talukdar and a 1997 interview here. – which is from where the pic is nicked.

– and finally a red salute to Comrade Saiffuddin of the CPI ML(Towards New Democracy) group for the time in the early 1990s he spent talking with me about Charu Mazumdar in a way that let me write about Indian left history in Critique of Exotica. There are many comrades who’s glorious names will become crossword clues in our leisure time games after we win… (farming in the morning, philosophy in the afternoon, sportscars [for all] on the way to dinner, and weird commie wordplay fun after…)


4 thoughts on “Notes for Devi

  1. Nice post.

    Thank you for introducing me, to an important revilutionary and humanistic person.

    To Devi: Do what you can, with your writing.



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