draupadi: Mahasweta Devi’s 96th birthday: Remembering the fierce author and his masterpiece ‘Draupadi’

In August 2021, Delhi University dropped Bengali writer and activist Mahasweta Devi’s short story ‘Draupadi’ (1978) from the BA (Hons) English course. The decision, made during the approval of changes to the curriculum, sparked controversy with 15 members of the Academic Council (CA) submitting a memo against the Oversight Committee for courses and its operation.

A common question here is what about Devi’s ‘Draupadi’ that it was removed from DU’s curriculum? Was it because it shed light on the struggles faced by Adivasi women? Or was it just because of “changes in the program”? Or does it mean something else entirely that we need to understand?

Today, on her 96th birthday, let’s try to answer those questions while remembering the avid writer that Devi was.

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, are responsible for the death of Surja Sahu , the owner of Bakuli. The story follows the efforts of local police and army officers, led by the Senanayak, to capture Dopdi, after tracking down and killing her husband. Later, the Senanayak orders his men to rape Dopdi in order to extract information. After the heinous act, when they ask him to “cover up”, Dopdi rips off his clothes instead and walks towards the Senanayak saying, “There isn’t a man here I should be ashamed of. I don’t Won’t let you put my clothes on me What more can you do Come on, against me, come on, against me?

Mahasweta Devi’s specialization was based on the studies of Adivasi, Dalit and marginalized citizens, with an emphasis on their women. She has lived in Adivasi villages in West Bengal, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh for years, befriending them and learning from them. In her fiction, she often depicts the brutal oppression of tribal peoples and untouchables by powerful authoritarian upper-caste landlords, moneylenders, and venal government officials. During her six-decade literary career, she has written more than 120 books, including 20 collections of short stories and around 100 novels, and has contributed countless articles and columns to newspapers and magazines, many of them were linked to tribal life.

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

This points to yet another problem – that of language. “What is it, a tribal called Dopdi?” asks a security guard, at the beginning of the story. “The list of names I brought is nothing to compare! How can anyone have a name not listed?” The second officer responds, “Draupadi Mejhen. Born the year her mother threshed rice at Surja Sahu in Bakuli. Surja Sahu’s wife gave her the name.”

Devi describes here very ably the inability of the state to understand or engage with the language of Dopdi. To be understood, Dopdi must either give up her language and learn a new one, or be labeled as someone who speaks a “wild” language. This inability to understand their language portrays the reluctance of the state to reach out and communicate or engage with the Adivasis. This, in a way, dehumanizes them, reducing them to mere bodies – corroborated by Senanayak’s treatment of Dopdi.

Additionally, Dopdi’s undressing is a modern depiction of the Draupadi epic from the Mahabharata. However, instead of giving space to the savior Krishna, Devi presents the act as a horrific act of bodily violation by men. Dopdi is alone without a rescuer, brutalized, but does not want to bear any form of shame for the atrocities committed against her.

‘Draupadi’ is as important and relevant a text as when it was originally written. Crimes against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes continued to rise in 2020, with peak community crime cases recorded in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, according to the latest 2021 data from the National Crime Records Bureau. (NCRB). It showed that in 2020, simple injury cases (2,247) constituted the highest number of TS crimes or atrocity cases, accounting for 27.2% of cases, followed by rape with 1,137 cases ( 13.7%) and attacks on women with the intention of making her angry. modesty with 885 cases (10.7 percent).

At a time when crimes against SCs and STs continue to rise, was it right or wrong to remove Mahasweta Devi’s ‘Draupadi’ from Delhi University’s curriculum? Has he sensitized the general public against the crimes committed against the marginalized? Or did it hurt and feelings? Or was it “too much” for the students?

Well, that’s a question for readers to answer. For them to remember that this is ultimately their country, their fellow Indians, their rights and their wrongs. Finally, a quote from Devi’s 1993 book ‘Imaginary Maps’ seems apt: “A tribal girl asked me modestly, ‘When we go to school, we read about Mahatma Gandhi. Didn’t we heroes? Have we always suffered like this?’ I give them their honor. They want to be proud to be tribals.

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