The Two Ws – World and Womanhood : situating Mahasweta Devi in World Literature

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The two Ws – World and Womanhood : Situating Mahasweta Devi in World Literature

By- Ragesree Roy, Vol.III Issue.XXIV, January 2017

About the Author: 

Ragesree Roy is a final year student pursuing M.A. in English Literature at Christ University, Bangalore. She has presented a research paper at the National Conference on Feminine Genius at Dharmaram Vidya Kshetra, Bangalore. She has interned with various newspapers like Deccan Chronicle and Times of India, and has got her flash fiction published in the Haunted Waters Penny Fiction issue (Washington DC). She has written for many magazines and has taught at British Institutes and various start-ups providing English Language training for competitive exams. She loves travelling to new places and her hobbies include gardening and listening to Indian Classical and Western Rock music.

“She is free in her wildness, she is a wanderess, a drop of free water. She knows nothing of borders and cares nothing for rules or customs. ‘Time’ for her isn’t something to fight against. Her life flows clean, with passion, like fresh water.”
                                                                                                                                 ― Roman Payne

The above quote encapsulates the quintessence of the spirit that every woman in the world possesses, but doesn’t, is not let to, or cannot realize. The perennial journey to strive for one’s rights is an integral part of a woman’s identity – be it in fiction, or in reality. This struggle is not an idiosyncratic struggle, which is identifiable to only a particular category of women. “Womanhood” is like a blood relation that binds the women across the world and amalgamates their suffering as one. Hence, Margaret Atwood’s Offred (The Handmaid’s Tale) is not different from Toni Morrison’s Pecola (The Bluest Eyes). Similarly, Anna Akhmatova’s depiction of a suffering mother (Requiem) is akin to the plight of Mahasweta Devi’s Sujata (Mother of 1084). Hence, despite geographical, economical, social, religious, and cultural variations, the notion of suffering remains universal for women. As Mohanty posits :

The relationship between “Woman” (a cultural and ideological composite other constructed through diverse representational discourses—scientific, literary, juridical, linguistic, cinematic, etc.) and “women” (real, material subjects of their collective histories) is one of the central questions the practice of feminist scholarship seeks to address. It is an arbitrary relation set up by cultures.  (310)

Mahasweta Devi, a renowned writer from Bengal, strikes this chord of universality and her literary works envisage the feminist’s struggle that women across the world can relate to.


Mahasweta Devi (14 January 1926 – 28 July 2016) was an Indian Bengali author and social activist. Her famous works include Mother of 1084, Rudali, and Breast Stories. She has worked extensively for the empowerment of women in the rural areas, especially Dalit women. Her fictional works epitomize Bengal feminism in a new angle. She has been honoured with prestigious literary awards such as the Sahitya Akademi Award, Jnanpith Award and Ramon Magsaysay Award along with India’s civilian awards Padma Shri and Padma Vibhushan.

World Literatures is an endeavour to illuminate the vicissitudes of “other” cultures. This new world encompasses the “other” corners of the world which till now have been shrouded in bleak ignorance. The literatures that emerged from this new world came to be termed as World Literatures (coined by Goethe). Hence, the birth of World Literature includes the transition from the “old world” to the “whole world” (Damrosch 5).

According to Suzy Kassem, “To become a true global citizen, one must abandon all notions of ‘otherness’ and instead embrace ‘togetherness’.” (167) Devi’s characters silently embrace this “togetherness” and invites global readers to envision their histories through the lens of a different culture. Devi’s characters are essentially the “subaltern” voices that dwell on the marginalized peripheries of society. She provides an agency of voice to the abjects of the society. Devi herself asserts that :

I have always believed that the real history is made by ordinary people. I constantly come across the reappearance, in various forms, of folklore, ballads, myths and legends, carried by ordinary people across generations. … The reason and inspiration for my writing are those people who are exploited and used, and yet do not accept defeat. For me, the endless source of ingredients for writing is in these amazingly noble, suffering human beings. Why should I look for my raw material elsewhere, once I have started knowing them? Sometimes it seems to me that my writing is really their doing.  (176)

Hence, Devi’s characters represent the subjugated women of Bengal. Damrosch argues that literature is representative of the culture and the milieu of places in a particular time period. Devi’s literary works represents the predicament of Bengal’s women during the Naxalite movement. Any political resurgence culminates in the violence against women. Urvashi Bhutalia’s The Other Side of Silence and Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier delineates the excruciating pain that a woman endured through the Partition of India and the First World War respectively. Similarly, Devi’s novels and plays portray the agony of the women during civil agitations which are predominantly patriarchal in nature. Devi highlights the vicissitudes of her motherland. Her sketched characters find familiarity with literary renditions across feminist literatures of the world. Damrosch’s posits that World Literature anthologies “assist in the formation” of more “refined, thoughtful, self-aware, and self controlled” readers (3). Devi’s intricate plots and character delineations evoke universally endearing emotions that captivates the sentiments of readers across the globe.

Devi delineates her local space – Bengal and its history in the light of the global world. Here, she performs as a “glocal” figure. Her play Mother of 1084, novel Rudali and her short stories stimulate emotions that have a universal appeal. Devi’s works are unique as she strives to provide an agency to the “voiceless”. The quintessential question ‘Can the Subaltern (as women) speak?’is highlighted through her works. Spivak’s inference of ‘speaking about’ and ‘speaking for’ the female consciousness manifests the popular and established belief that is skilfully subverted in Devi’s stories. Rege illustrates this subversion through his poetical dictum of Devi’s Draupadi :

“What a degradation of womanhood,
what a parody of human good!
She makes a hollow pleasure of sexual pain,
a sex complex, a surreptitious parade!”

Throughout history, a female’s existence has been the object of a ubiquitous male dominance. Sarah Grimke observes:

Man has subjugated woman to his will, used her as a means of selfish gratification, to minister to his sexual pleasure, to be instrumental in promoting his comfort; but never has desired to elevate her to that rank she was created to fill. (67)

Third World Feminism, the realm to which Devi’s works chronologically as well ideologically fits in, strives to counter this distorted image of a woman whose reiterated pleas for freedom and emancipation is left unheard and un-responded to in this patriarchal maze. Hence, as Kamala Das writes:

I don’t know politics

But I know the names

 Of  those in power.

And can repeat them like

Days of weeks or names of months

Third World Feminism refutes these masculine approaches to study the sufferings of women. It aims at looking things from “a woman’s point of view…an outlook sufficiently distinct to be recognizable through the centuries” (Rege 243). Devi adopts this approach and recounts the atrocious tortures that have been inflicted upon woman through female narratives. Similar structures are adhered to Chitra Bannerjee’s A Palace of Illusions (recounting Draupadi’s experience in the Mahabharata) and J.M Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costella (Molly Bloom’s recounting of James Joyce’s Ulysses).

These stories are representative of the places and the times from which they sprang and they have helped to tint the fabric which makes up the composite imprint of our culture. (Damrosch 7)

Damrosch’s essay posits an “Arnoldian view” (4) that the purpose of world literature is to broaden the reader’s horizons through the encounter with cultural difference

The tremendous widening of our literary horizons, in turn, is nowhere more evident than in the field of world literature, which until recently usually meant “Western European” literature, but which now seems to encompass everything from the earliest Sumerian poetry to the most recent fictional experiments of the Tibetan postmodernists Zhaxi Dawa and Jamyang Norbu. (8)

Devi smoothly fits under this banner as her repertoire is dedicated to present Bengal’s idiosyncratic culture and history to the world. Before Devi, Bengal has been represented primarily through Rabindranath Tagore’s works like Home and the World. Devi accentuates the plight of the Bengali women and creates a malleable space among the pages of her books where her characters can share their stories with the characters from other parts of the country as well as of the world. Hence, Devi’s Dopdi (Draupadi) is as feisty as the daring female of Kamala Das and she cultivates the endurance to rebel like the protagonist of Taslima Nasreen’s Lajja  or Shame .

Literature envisages stories that form the zeitgeist of the world in a particular time frame. The world used to be synonymous of the Western world. Hence the stories that thrived and were circulated used to mimetic of the Western civilization alone. However, Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen (Western feminist icons) are not the only writers who could pen down the “sad tale of a woman’s life” (Herr 38). Devi’s Joshoda’s (Breast Stories) pain is similar to that of Charlotte’s (Elizabeth Bennett’s friend in Pride and Prejudice). Both women sacrifice their desires to bring economic and social security for their families. Though the context is different, the essence of a woman’s helplessness remains the same. When she sees that her family is in need, Joshoda beseeches her Mistress for a job to sustain her family. The economically empowered Mistress orders her to become the wet nurse for her family. Here, the Mistress’s act of taking advantage of economically deprived women is similar to Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s vanity in Pride and Prejudice. Jashoda becomes the sole wage-earner in her family. She refuses to lament like the damsel in distress and takes the reign of her life in her own hand like Charlotte Bronte’s Jane (Jane Eyre). Similarly, Devi’s Dopdi decides to not succumb to the ruthlessness of the ‘zamindars’ and the patriarchal law system but resist it, whereas despite witnessing deaths since her birth, Sanichari (Stanadayani) decides to use death to survive her economic destitution. She becomes a professional mourner. Here, the actions and emotions that are intrinsically feminine (breast feeding, crying) becomes a tool for these helpless women to sustain themselves.

The realities of poverty regularly struck me especially when it is written, ‘For them, nothing has ever come easy. Just the daily struggle for a little maize gruel and salt is exhausting. Through motherhood and widowhood, they are tied to the money lender. While those people spend huge sums of money on death ceremonies, just to get prestige.  (Devi 129)

What makes Devi’s works so relatable to readers from various ethnic backgrounds is her conspicuous use of the woman’s body as an agency. If Charlotte Perkin’s Jane (The Yellow Wall Paper) uses her imagination as her agency, Devi’s Dopdi, Rudali, and Joshoda use their body.

Joshoda utilizes her “always full” (Devi 11) breasts to earn livelihood for her family. Here, she masters the authority over her body to become her ally in her need, much like Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath, who uses her sexuality independently to suit her predicament. To earn a living, Jashoda can only use what she has as a woman: her breasts and milk. The Mistress praises Jashoda about the amount of milk she produces and Jashoda comments that that there was “a flood of milk although she was between pregnancies and she didn’t have any special food or pampering” (Devi 825). When the Mistress gives Jashoda the job, Jashoda goes home that night and says to her husband, “Look, I’m going to pull our weight with these” ( Devi 833).  Morton explains Spivak’s careful observation of Devi’s descriptions about “Jashoda’s cancerous body in the closing sequence of the story, especially the phrase, the sores on her breast kept mocking her with a hundred mouths, a hundred eyes” (26). Her motherhood, the considered essence of a woman is ‘commodified’ like an object for sale. Morton argues “what is more, Jashoda’s revolting and cancerous maternal body offers a powerful and situated counterpoint to the universal valorisation of women’s embodied resistance and political struggle” (26). Devi delineates the “performative mode” of female existence in her own context that no male and social phenomena could defy. Jashoda is revered for her physical endurance, as her body becomes the constructive space for the story.

Jashoda’s painful death depicts the deplorable condition of women. Her plentiful breasts that had nurtured other’s children, becomes her own poison. She doesn’t get assistance from the family after her Mistree dies. Devi portrays Jashoda’s existential struggle in chilling realistic terms :

[she] showed him her bare left breast, thick with running sores and said, ‘See these sores? Do you know how these sores smell? What will you do with me now? Why did you come to take me?” (839)

Like Western Feminism (Beauvoir for example), Existentialism becomes an integral part of a female identity. Beauvoir asserts that

One is not born, but becomes a woman.

Devi’s characters struggle with this Existential strife too. Jashoda became mother to all, but is left alone to perish in grief and pain. Identifying the female body as an integral part of women’s existence, Devi shows how the “breast” becomes the boon and curse simultaneously. Marion claims that :

The chest, the house of the heart, is an important centre of a person’s being. I may locate my consciousness in my head, but myself, my existence as a solid person in the world, starts from my chest, from which I feel myself rise and radiate.    (28)

Jashoda did not lack being female. She clung on to her image of the “mother” that society was unable to deprive her of. Motherhood becomes a sensitive terrain in Devi’s works. Her play Mother of 1084 renders a grieving mother, Sujata’s, struggle to find justice for her son despite extreme resistance from her indifferent family. Here, she is not different from Thetis, Achilles’s mother in Iliad (Homer), who mourns the absence of her son. Sujata’s sorrow finds familiarity in the tears of the mothers of Anna Akhmatova’s poems where they are waiting for their sons outside Leningrad prison.

Immediately a flood of tears,
Followed by a total isolation,
As if a beating heart is painfully ripped out, or,
Thumped, she lies there brutally laid out,
But she still manages to walk, hesitantly, alone.



Again, Devi’s Draupadi displays the discourse of the dispossessed and triggers the traumatizing experiences of male voyeurism and chauvinism that introduces a narrative in Dalit Feminism. Spivak asserts :

Between patriarchy and imperialism, subject-constitution and object-formation, the figure of the woman disappears, not into a pristine nothingness, but a violent shuttling which is the displaced figuration of the ‘third-world woman’ caught between tradition and modernisation. There is no space from which the sexed subaltern can speak. The subaltern [as woman] cannot speak. There is no virtue in global laundry lists with woman as a pious. Representation has not withered away”. (102)

Draupadi” depicts how a marginalized tribal woman derives strength from her body and her inner feminine core to fight against her marginality. Here, the woman’s body becomes an instrument of vicious denunciation of patriarchy and hegemony. “Thus “woman” is caught between the interested “normalization” of capital and the regressive “envy” of the colonized male” ( Morton 9) In “Draupadi” the victim’s body is brutally mutilated since she speaks with her body. Dopdi’s body becomes her agency, her voice.  Beauvoir posits:

“If the respect or fear inspired by woman prevents the use of violence towards her, then the muscular superiority of the male is no source of power”.  (212)

Senanayak, the army chief, Dopdi’s rapist is not stopped by the divine intervention of Krishna as in the epic. The modern day Dopdi; the Dalit Dopdi; the ‘subaltern Dopdi” rises to her own defence with her only weapon – her beaten body. As a distraught victim, who has been mercilessly raped many times, she doesn’t take refuge in tears and self pity. She knows she cannot afford to. Instead, she tears her clothes and makes herself naked as a figure of refusal in front of Police authorities, displaying her crushed body. Rajan observes:

“Dopdi does not let her nakedness shame her, the horror of rape diminish her. It is simultaneously a deliberate refusal of a shared sign-system (the meanings assigned to nakedness, and rape: shame, fear, loss) and an ironic deployment of the same semiotics to create disconcerting counter effects of shame confusion and terror in the enemy” (352-3).

Dopdi heralds the self emancipation of the female entities that will shatter through the protective enchantments of illusory male figures.  Dopdi maniacally grins and screams:

“What’s the use of clothes? You can strip me, but how can you clothe me again? Are you a man?” (37)

Here, Dopdis’s plight is similar to Celia’s rape narrative in Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple. The vivid depiction of rape torments the readers like William Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece. Devi situates Dopdi in an Indian context, but the torture she encounters is a universal one. “Draupadi” shares the cultural memories with ‘secret encounters with singular figures,’ but its ‘subject- representation and constitution is deliberately palimpsest and contrary” ( Herr 199).

Surprisingly, the turning point of Draupadi proves to be a an example citing the crux of an eminent Western philosophical hypothesis. Dopdi’s female nudity questions the enemy: “negation of negation” (Sacrfe 79), and thus, Hegel’s double negation is superimposed. Dopdi is projected as an ‘unarmed target’ and a ‘terrifying super object’ with her horrifying gestures: “There isn’t a man here that I should be ashamed… What more can you do?” (Devi 37) Dopdi’s action is “a visible explosion of unorthodox sexualities [Herr 187] which becomes a repressive response to the superior power (49). Foucault entitles it as ‘instrument- effect’ which explains the reverse mode of protest against perversion of [male] power. It also imposes that Dopdi’s consumed body becomes an instrumental strike back against the suppression of superior authority.

This is the beauty and significance of World Literatures, as theories and frameworks across disciplines and nations accommodates the nuance of the “other”.

“Draupadi” is a reincarnation of mythical Draupadi, as both represents the inherent semiotics of subjugation. As Hira Bansode articulates the spirit of Dalit women:

“Where Sita entered the fire to prove her fidelity
Where Ahilya was turned to stone because of Indra’s lust
Where Draupadi was fractured to serve five husbands
In that country a woman is still a slave”

Bansode enumerates with a concluding epigraph that, “To be born a woman is unjust” (74). It evinces the discourse of the discontent and the politics of difference among Dalit feminist perspective.

One striking feature of Devi’s works is how she scintillatingly fuses the image of the rural woman with that of the urban, thereby bridging the difference across classes. Joshoda is the provider for her family, yet she cannot be extricated from her responsibilities as a domestic woman. She must simultaneously perform her household chores alongside being a working lady. This mirrors the prevalent situation of urban women in India and of across the world.  As is illustrated in The Hopkins Medical Review– The Double Life of a Resident Mom :

lf Janey does become a doctor, she

will feel guilty at not being a mommy,

or as good a mommy as she ‘ought’ to

Johnny will not feel at all

guilty about being a doctor, whether

he is a Daddy or not.

This preposterous duality is pondered over in Devi’s stories, though not explicitly, since her primary setting is the rural lands of Bengal.

Damrosch states :

It may safely be said that the soul of a language and the beauties of style which it is capable of exhibiting can only be found and studied in the productions of writers who not only think in the language in which they write, but to whom that speech is native, the inalienable birthright and heritage of their race or country. (6)

Devi’s works are permeated with the petrichor of Bengal, where instead of rains; the tears of women have caused the soil to become wet and fertile. Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak’s translation of Devi’s works has enhanced their readability and availability to readers across the world who may or may not suffer similar subjugation but can definitely appropriate the experience in their “grand narratives”. Such is the fervour of originality and personal affiliation in Devi’s works. Dopdi, Jashoda, Rudali, and Sujata are not merely are sketched characters but her sisters, her daughters, her mother, her own self. Devi declares :

“…I was writing her to be read, and I was certain not claiming to give her a voice. So if I’m read as giving her a voice, there again this is a sort of transaction of the positionality between the Western feminist listener who listens to me, and myself, signified as a Third World informant. What we do toward the texts of the oppressed is very much dependent upon where we are” (172).

As Helene Cixous claims that “writing the self” is an agency to create an identity, Devi creates her own niche in the vast domain of World Literature not only for herself, but also for her characters. Dismissing Dopdi’s rape to be lesser than the rape in Anthony Burgesse’s A Clockwork Orange, or ignoring Sujata’s plight as less than the sorrow of Maurya’s maternal grief in John Synge’s Riders to the Sea is the imbecility of an ignorant reader. An appreciative reader of World Literatures would cherish the essence of Devi’s characters with supreme reverence.

After all, be it Sita, or Damayanti, or Eve, the woman is the bearer of sorrow, of agony, of blame, of shame… in every society, in every era, in every history.

Throughout them all, giving up her individuality, she would become the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might vivify and embody their images of woman’s frailty and sinful passion. Thus the young and pure would be taught to look at her, with the scarlet letter flaming on her breast,—at her, the child of honorable parents,—at her, the mother of a babe, that would hereafter be a woman, —at her, who had once been innocent, —as the figure, the body, the reality of sin. And over her grave, the infamy that she must carry thither would be her only monument.

-Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

Works Cited

De Beauvior, Simone. The Second Sex. London: Pan Books Ltd, 1988. Print.

Damrosch, Dube. “World Literature Today : From the Old World to the Whole World.” (2000): 1-14. JSTOR. Web. 1st  July 2016

Devi, Mahasweta. “Breast-Giver.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Print.

Devi, Mahasweta. Mother of 1084. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Print.

Devi, Mahasweta. Rudali. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Print.

Herr, Ranjoo Seodu. “A Third World Feminist Defense of Multiculturalism.”  Social Theory .      and Practice 30.1 (2004): 73-103. Web.

Kassem, Suzzy. “Towards a Global Perspective.” Literature and World Theory 32.2 (2004): 165-170. JSTOR. Web. 1st  July 2016

Grimké Sarah M. “Sarah M. Grimké’s “Sisters of Charity”” Signs 1.1 (1975) 62-75. JSTOR. Web. 6th September 2016

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. ““Under Western Eyes” Revisited: Feminist Solidarity through Anticapitalist Struggles.” Signs 28.2 (2003): 499-535. JSTOR. Web. 6th September 2016

Morton, Stephen. In Gayatri Chakravarti Spivak. Routledge: London, 2003. Print.

Novetzke, Christian. “TWICE DALIT: The Poetry of Hira Bansode.” Journal of South Asian Literature 28.1/2 (1993): 279-95. JSTOR. Web. 8th September 2016

Rege, P.S. “My Life is My Own: A Study of Shashi Deshpande’s Women.” Feminism and Recent Fiction in English. Ed. Sushila Singh. New Delhi: Prestige, 1991. Print.

SCARFE, ADAM. “The Role of Scepticism in Hegel’s “Doctrine of the Concept” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 17.2 (2003): 77-91. JSTOR. Web.8th September 2016

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