Mahasweta Devi was surrounded by famous writers and social workers throughout her life. Her parents, uncle and husband were famous Bengali writers and filmmakers. Thus, it was inevitable that Mahasweta Devi inherited this legacy. Coupled with her extraordinary life experiences, this makes her writing not only engaging but also exceptional.
Born on 14th January 1926, Mahasweta Devi grew up at a very exciting time in Indian history. She saw the late years of the Indian Independence movement and experienced first hand the trials of the partition in 1947. She was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh and moved to Kolkata during the partition. She completed her schooling at Shantiniketan, the school founded by Rabindranath Tagore. She was heavily influenced by the communist movement of the 1940s that led her to work for the upliftment of the tribals in southern West Bengal and other marginalized groups.
As a writer, Mahasweta Devi had the unique talent of translating each of these life experiences in her works of fiction. “The people whom she came across in real life slowly made their place in her stories and novels,” says Joya Mitra, another prominent Bengali writer.
She has influenced many lives not only through her writing but also through her deeds. Once a rickshaw puller asked Devi the meaning of the Bengali word jijibisha (the will to live). When she explained it to him, he showed her the book he found the word in. It was a collection of short stories by Devi herself called Agnigarbha. The rickshaw-puller was an ex-Naxalite who had spent 10 years of imprisonment learning how to read and write Bengali from a fellow inmate. This rickshaw puller was none other than Manoranjan Byapari, one of Bengal’s most famous Dalit writers.
She also received many awards such as the Sahitya Akademi (1979), Jnanpith (1996), Ramon Magsaysay (1996) for her writing and the Padmashree in 1986 for her work among the tribals.
Mahasweta Devi has also written a few books for children, each with a poignant message. Her style of writing is straightforward and experiential rather than wordy and sentimental. This is probably why her books for children are powerful.
Unlike many other Bengali writers, Mahasweta Devi’s works have been translated into many languages. Here are a few of her works for children translated into English.
The Why Why Girl | Age 5-8
Most children have a billion and one questions about the world. Moyna is no different. The Why Why Girl is the story of Moyna learning to read and finding the answers to her why whys.
Our Non-Veg Cow and Other Stories | Age 6 and above
This is a hilarious story of a cow whose furious appetite makes her eat textbooks, clothes and anything that is blue – until she gets a taste of ilish fish. This vividly descriptive story has some unusual illustrations done by Ruchi Shah.
The Armenian Champa Tree | Age 10 and above
This is a heartwarming story of a tribal boy who will do everything to save his pet baby goat Arjun. The story comments on religious superstition for its own sake and comments on the troubles faced by the tribals.