Sunday, January 14, 2018

Mahasweta Devi's 92nd Birthday

Today is my aunt Mahasweta Devi's birthday and it was a pleasant surprise to see her featured in  Google doodle

She was the eldest of nine brothers and sisters, with my father Maitreya being the youngest brother, and number seven in the overall age line up. Their names reflected my grandfather Manish Ghatak's fascination with Buddhism - Mahasweta, Saswsati, Anish, Abolokitesh, Apala, Shameesh, Maitreya, Soma, and Sara. (In fact, most of the nicknames were pretty interesting too - Khuku, Mitul, Anish, Abu, Konchi, Falgu, Tantu, Buri, and Sari). Of the nine siblings, only three of the sisters - Apala, Soma and Sara - are alive. 

Given the age gap of nearly sixteen between my eldest aunt and my father, she was more a mother-figure cum mentor to him and was undoubtedly the most important influence on him. He accompanied her in many of her trips to tribal areas all across the country. I have heard countless fascinating stories of these trips (including one where they discovered a famous leader of the Tebhaga movement in Kakdwip, Ashok Bose, still a fugitive from law living in apparent anonymity under a pseudonym in Madhya Pradesh). My father mentions some of these anecdotes in the introduction to the book of my aunt's activist/political essays that he edited in a volume published by Seagull called Dust on the Road.

I suspect some of the influence my aunt on had my father rubbed off on me as well, in terms of trying to understand the root causes of poverty and social exclusion. Of course, when I did talk to her I was argumentative as usual!   

Leaving aside Baropishi's literary achievements (she won India's highest literary award, the Gyanpith, the Sahitya Academy, and many others) or activism (she won the  Padma Bibhushan, the Padma Shree, and the Magsaysay award for her work with tribal and marginal communities) or her being such a towering public figure, about all of which I have not much to add to, what I recall most fondly after all these years is her wicked sense of humour, her children's stories such as Nyadosh (the crazy non-vegetarian cow!), and her being the grand matriarch of the extended family after my grandfather Manish Ghatak passed away, always helping those who needed it. And I admired her work ethic.

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