Jul 2, 2008

Buddhadeb is worse than Modi

When the CPM got its ballot battering in trouble-torn Nandigram and much of rural West Bengal last month, Mahasweta Devi was in Kerala. Doing what comes most naturally to her: aiding the distressed. The 83-year-old writer took a tortuous route—a flight to Chennai, then Kozhikode, followed by a bumpy jeep ride to the site of the controversial Athirapilli hydroelectric project on the Chalakudy River, from where members of the Chalakudy River Protection Forum had sent her a desperate letter, asking for "moral support and intervention". Mahasweta Devi travels wherever she is called to help, intervene, record and write. Back home, Nandigram and Singur are on her everyday radar, as she protests against what she sees as the communist government's steamroller tactics, its deliberate flouting of the wishes of the people and the brutal methods, including rape and violence, to silence movements against the takeover of land for industrialisation. Her way is to speak up, console, heal wounds, provide moral support and harangue the powers that be both in speech and in writing. At her modest rented flat in Kolkata's Golf Green, writing at a table pushed against a window looking out on to a small, wild patch of luscious greenery, the litterateur still has the ability to make powerful people uncomfortable. This is the woman who, following the violence of Nandigram, declared in an interview, "Independence has failed". Her take on chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya: he was worse than Narendra Modi in his repressive tactics. When writer Taslima Nasreen was made to leave Kolkata under threat from fundamentalist groups, she publicly demanded that Bhattacharya resign. This story is apocryphal, but probably true because it is so like her. Years ago, sharing a platform on some occasion with the redoubtable former chief minister Jyoti Basu, she was asked, "What are you writing now?" Which was a bit of a mistake, because she is reported to have retorted, "What difference does it make to you? You don't read!" Whether she said it or not, people believe that she did. The way the tribals, and all those she has worked for over the years, believe that ‘Didi' will do anything for them. They have but to ask. She will deny fiercely that she feels a sense of triumph over Nandigram. But she feels vindicated and content for two reasons. One that people woke up to fight back at injustice. Two, they were supported by the entire community of writers, poets, artists and intellectuals. "Her" West Bengal had stood up to be counted when it mattered. "In contrast, in Kerala, the writers are silent, yet both states are communist", she says reflectively. She takes sides unequivocally and she switches around too. "The West Bengal government has no moral right to continue now, having lost the gram panchayat elections," she says. But when it is pointed out that this was only in Nandigram and Singur and parts of rural Bengal, she's flashing and feisty. The gram panchayat, she says, is the heart of governance. "And for 24 of the 30 years that the CPM has been in power, there has been no hisaab of accounts. Based on false numbers given by village bodies, oceans of rice and wheat are sent by the Centre to the state for the tribals, and handed over to the gram panchayats for distribution. This is then given to ration dealers." She spits the words out like an imprecation, no need to explain why this is such a disaster. She is critical of Narendra Modi but full of praise for the Gujarat he has created. "It's very bad what he did. But when I went there after the riots, I saw that from Ahmedabad to Baroda and Surat, there were good motorable roads to the villages. And even the humblest mud hut had electricity. In contrast, look at our state. No roads, no health centres, nothing." And then, effortlessly, she offers you the impact of years of neglect. "If there had been electricity when Tapasi Malik went to the toilet, she might not have been abducted by CPM goons, raped and burnt alive." This happened in Singur in December 2006, and a CPM zonal leader was picked up in the case that the government said was suicide. Tapasi was 18. Life for Mahasweta Devi is a social conscience that inspires her writing that has made her body of work into an organic whole, so that she is irritable and uppish when you call her an activist writer or ask her whether she's going to write another novel like the path-blazing, heart-breaking Hajaar Chaurasir Maa. "No, no, no. Forget all that. I will write a different reality. Creative writing for me was also activism, but now I think of the best stories, like the classics." Then, changing tack, "Anyway, how much creative writing can you do with one landline to keep up connections with all the people who need help?" And what sort of message does she have for writers? "None," she shrugs, then changes her mind. "Go to the villages," she says, "find out for yourself what is happening. Then write."

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