Mahasweta Devi’s 96th birth anniversary: Remembering the fierce author and her masterpiece ‘Draupadi’ – Times of India

In August 2021, the University of Delhi dropped Bengali writer and activist Mahasweta Devi’s short story ‘Draupadi’ (1978) from the BA (Hons) English course. The decision, taken while approving changes to the syllabus, stirred controversy with 15 Academic Council (AC) members submitting a note against the Oversight Committee on courses and its functioning.

A common question here is what is it about Devi’s ‘Draupadi’ that it was dropped from DU’s syllabus? Was it because it brought to light the struggles faced by Adivasi women? Or it was simply because of “changes to the syllabus”? Or it means something else altogether that we need to understand?

Today, on her 96th birth anniversary, let’s try to answer these questions while remembering the fervent writer Devi was.

Set against the politically-charged climate of West Bengal in 1971, ‘Draupadi’ focuses on a young Santhal woman, Dopdi Mehjen, a feared Naxalite, who, along with her husband, Dulna Majhi, and their comrades, is responsible for the death of Surja Sahu, the landlord in Bakuli. The story follows the efforts of the local police and army officers, led by the Senanayak, to capture Dopdi, after having hunted down and killed her husband. Later, the Senanayak instructs his men to gangrape Dopdi in order to extract information. After the heinous act, when they ask her to “cover-up”, Dopdi rips of her clothes instead, and walks towards the Senanayak, saying, “There isn’t a man here that I should be ashamed. I will not let you put my cloth on me. What more can you do? Come on, counter me-come on, counter me?”

Mahasweta Devi’s specialization lay in the studies of Adivasi, Dalit, and Marginalized citizens with a focus on their women. She lived in the Adivasi villages in West Bengal, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh for years, befriending them and learning from them. In her fiction, she often depicted the brutal oppression of the tribal people and untouchables by the powerful authoritarian upper-caste landlords, money-lenders, and venal government officials.

Devi’s time among the Adivasis and her experiences with them is apparent in her writings. For example, she refers to Draupadi as “Dopdi” in the story. Literary critic and translator Gayatri Spivak, who translated ‘Draupadi’ later into English, explains in the foreword that the two versions of her name mean that either she cannot pronounce the Sanskrit one or that the tribalized form, Dopdi, is the proper name of the ancient Pandava wife.

This underlines yet another issue – one that of language. “What’s this, a tribal called Dopdi?” asks a security personnel, at the beginning of the story. “The list of names I brought has nothing like it! How can anyone have an unlisted name?” The second officer responds: “Draupadi Mejhen. Born the year her mother threshed rice at Surja Sahu’s at Bakuli. Surja Sahu’s wife gave her the name.”

Devi here very skillfully depicts the State’s inability to understand or engage with Dopdi’s language. To be understood, Dopdi either has to drop her language and learn a new one or has to be labeled as someone who speaks a ‘savage’ tongue. This inability to understand their language depicts the State’s unwillingness to reach out and communicate or engage with the Adivasis. This, in a way, dehumanizes them, which reduces them to mere bodies – substantiated by Senanayak’s treatment of Dopdi.

Furthermore, Dopdi’s disrobing is a modern representation of the epic Mahabharata’s Draupadi. However, instead of giving space to the savior Krishna, Devi presents the act as a gruesome bodily violation by men. Dopdi stands alone without a savior, brutalized, but unwilling to bear any form of shame for the atrocities committed upon her.

‘Draupadi’ is as important and relevant a text today as when it was originally written. Crimes against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes continued to rise in 2020, with maximum cases of offenses against the communities being registered in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, according to the latest 2021 National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB) data. It showed that during 2020, simple hurt cases (2,247) formed the highest number of cases of crimes or atrocities against STs accounting for 27.2 percent of cases, followed by rape with 1,137 cases (13.7 percent) and assault on women with intent to outrage her modesty with 885 cases (10.7 percent).

At a time when crimes against SCs and STs continue to rise, how right or wrong was it to remove Mahasweta Devi’s ‘Draupadi’ from Delhi University’s curriculum? Did it sensitize the general public against the crimes committed against the marginalized? Or did it hurt any kind of sentiments? Or was it ‘too much’ for the students?

Well, that’s a question for the readers to answer. For them to remember that it is ultimately their country, their fellow Indians, their rights and wrongs. To end, a quote from Devi’s 1993 book ‘Imaginary Maps’ seems suitable: “A tribal girl asked me modestly: ‘When we go to school, we read about Mahatma Gandhi. Did we have no heroes? Did we always suffer like this?’ I repay them their honour. They want to feel proud that they are tribals.”