[dropcap]T[/dropcap]wo dramatic events happened this week, both involving women who captured the human imagination since years now for their tremendous belief in trying to change the world by sticking to the alternatives they believed in. Irom Sharmila from Manipur who led one of the most relentless activisms against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act for the last 16 years decided to end one of the longest fasts in human memory to join active politics. Literary giant, writer, activist and journalist Mahasweta Devi ended her lifelong fight to give dignity to the marginalized and succumbed to death at 90.
There are probably many more writers and activists who have done equally good work and been lauded for it too, but the stories of these two women are special and strangely connected in more ways than one. When Irom Sharmila began her fast in the year 2000 after being witness to what many Manipuris believed were army excesses on innocent civilians in their State, she was a nobody, and no one knew about what she was doing or why she was doing it. It took both the media and the very people for whom she was fighting a couple of years before they even understood her purpose and single-minded devotion to the cause. The highlight of her struggle had been its sheer selflessness, the reluctance to give it a political dimension other than her single-point demand and the sheer simplicity with which it was conducted. Her struggle both baffled and embarrassed governments because she brought to it a dialogue of peace that was impossible to deny.
But 16 years is a long time, and one feels that Sharmila, who came to this fight without the baggage of having a political identity, has been carrying the weight of a nonchalant society on her dainty shoulders for far too long. There have been numerous opinions following the announcement of breaking her fast, its reasons and the effect it would have on the dialogue that she had set in motion. We forget perhaps in this discourse that the weight of human responsibilities of unaccounted deaths is far too heavy and lonely a struggle — one that she has borne for too long in any case, without taking sides or belonging to a camp in order to facilitate her own interests.
Mahasweta Devi, who died at the age of 90, carried on a lifelong struggle to give dignity to the Adivasis, to the marginalized, to women who bore the brunt of indignity. Her own life has been a struggle with personal problems of earning a livelihood and coming to terms with her relation with her family. Her struggle, like that of Sharmila’s, has also been a lonely one. From time to time, governments and people acknowledge this struggle, some awards are given, and felicitations follow. However, the responsibility of being the voice of an entire generation has taken a toll on their lives. Both of them have denied themselves a private life, a luxury that most of us take for granted. If Irom Sharmila risked her health and even her life to bring attention to the problems associated with AFSPA, Mahasweta Devi fought lonely battles, walked through villages, stayed with the underprivileged and often became their clarion call through her writings. Awards notwithstanding, their journeys have been fraught with uncertainties, running frequently into problems of being burdened by a single-minded devotion to their work while the world had already moved on.
Irom, who is also a poet, writes in one of her works titled, ‘Like a child ‘
Without malice to anybody
Without hurting anyone
With tongues held right
Let me live
Like a child
A three-month old
— Fragrance of Peace (Zuban), 2010
One wonders if her rather straight forward and simplistic intentions became far more difficult to deal with, bringing international limelight on the issues she spoke so passionately about. Mahasweta Devi’s writings, on the other hand, are deeply layered; she speaks the different tongues of the oppressed and brings to them her very own appeal tinted with rusticity, magic and bluntness. When she writes about Draupadi, for example, who became an encounter for the forces supposedly bringing peace to the jungles, she speaks about the pride of women, of the insensitivity that the armed forces sometimes heap on those not strong enough to defend themselves, the loneliness of being the marginalised, the apathy of the mainstream and so much more.
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Then Draupadi Mejhen was brought into a tent and dumped on a bed of hay. Her sari was draped over her.
Then, after breakfast, the newspaper, the radio message saying ‘Draupadi Mejhen apprehended’, the command came for bringing Draupadi Mejhen.
But suddenly the trouble started…
There was an uproar of the kind that ensues when the siren goes off after a jailbreak. Coming out of his tent in astonishment, the commander saw a naked Draupadi walking towards him in the blazing sunlight, her head held high.
What’s all this, he was about to say, but stopped.
Draupadi stood in front of him. Naked. Clotted blood on her thighs and pubic hair. Both her breasts masses of wounds.
What’s all this, he was about to admonish her.
Draupadi went closer. Putting her hands on hips, she said, the person you were looking for, Dopdi Mejhen. You told them to prepare her, don’t you want to see how well she’s been prepared?
Her sari, where’s her sari?
She refuses to put it on, sir. She’s torn it up.
Draupadi’s dark body went even closer. She shook with uncontrollable laughter, laughter that the commander could not understand at all. Her bruised lips began to bleed as she laughed, and she wiped the blood away with her palms. In a sharp voice, renting the skies like her ululation had, she said, the sari, what use is the sari? You can make me naked, but how will you make me dress? Are you a man?
Looking around her, Draupadi chose the commander’s white shirt and spat blood on it, saying, there’s no man here for me to be embarrassed by. I won’t let you dress me. What else can you do? ’counter me, come on, ’counter me…
Draupadi began to shove the commander backwards with the help of her mauled breasts, and for the first time the commander was terrified, absolutely terrified, confronting an unarmed target.
— Translation of Mahasweta Devi’s Draupadi by Arunava Sinha)
In November 2009, Mahasweta Devi had been to Imphal in Manipur to participate in the “Festival of hope, justice and peace” organised by the Justice and Peace Foundation to mark the occasion of Sharmila’s struggle entering the 10th year. But the writer left Imphal disappointed at not being able to meet Irom. The authorities had even denied knowing who Mahasweta was! In retrospect, she said that she would write about Sharmila’s struggle in all her forthcoming books. It is perhaps a strange coincidence that these extremely strong women did not meet. Irom had once said, ‘People just analyse what I am doing; they want me to stand on a pedestal without a voice, making a statue of me. But I am against it because I have bad sides and good sides. Why should they worship me after my passing away from this earth, like a goddess or saint or nun? Instead, I want them to support me physically. I need their support.” Mahasweta, wherever she is, would surely have approved of it.