Mahasweta Devi was raised in Bengal, India, where her mother and father settled their family after the 1947 Partition of Muslim Pakistan from Hindu India. Her father was a poet and her mother was a writer while both were activists in the fight against analphabetism, which is the inability to read and write. It is no wonder that, coming from a family of outspoken writers and activists, including other relatives who were also writers or actors and directors, that Mahasweta would become both a writer and an activist herself:
[A]ctivism is central to Mahasweta Devi’s understanding of the role of a writer in society [as Devi says of herself]: "I think a creative writer should have a social conscience. I have a duty towards society. Yet I don’t really know why I do these things. The sense of duty is an obsession. I must remain accountable to myself." (Shibani Baksi, "Devi, Mahsweta." Postcolonial Studies @ Emory 2012)
Themes to her works represent the issues her activist stance finds most significant to the story of India as it "towards the twenty first century" (Devi, Imaginary Maps). Some of these pressing themes include oppression, the fight for independence, adivasis, denotified tribes, landless workers, bonded laborers, equity in political, social and economic concerns:
- the oppression of India's indigenous peoples, called adivasis, for "original" and "first," by the past British colonial government and by the present Indian government;
- documentation of the fight for independence from the British (1947), which occurred during her youth (born 1926);
- advocacy for bonded laborers, landless workers, denotified tribal people (notified, 1871, denotified, 1952);
- advocacy for political, social and economic advancement.
Her inspiration came from her experience teaching English to refugees from Bangladesh, which was followed to a visit to to Palam in Bihar, India, where she for the first time saw the adivasis "without roads, education, healthcare and chance for development" about whom she wrote ever after.
[Devi] found employment in a Bengalese newspaper, Jugantar, as a wandering reporter in the region inhabited by indigenous tribes. She wandered from village to village, collected stories and legends. In her reports, she depicted police misconduct, incompetence of the authorities, mistakes and scams during the implementation of governmental assistance programs. She wrote about the exploitation of farmers and miners, the harm of the unemployed and those without land, environment degradation and the need to protect indigenous languages and cultures. ("Mahasweta Devi," Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Poland)
Devi's short story "Salt" is printed in her collection Imaginary Maps, which was translated to English by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Salt holds a special symbolic place in India literary and cultural traditions. The ancient saying, "Love like salt," is said to have originated in India. The meaning is that love that is like salt--the flavoring that makes all food palatable and that has been universally highly valued from ancient times--makes life palatable and beautiful while it adds incalculable value to living. The parable is told of an exiled daughter who teaches her king father the true value of her rejected love by secretly preparing him a feast of unsalted food; she appears to him without her disguise when he calls out for salt for his food. When this symbolism is applied to Devi's stories about the outcasts and the oppressed of the indigenous tribes of India (dalits, adivassis, denotified ones), her stories speak of the love that these rejected ones deserve that should be demonstrated through equitable political, social and economic advantages.
Salt also holds a special metaphoric place in modern Indian culture. Salt is a metaphor for British oppression and the process of exploitation during the British colonial period. Indians had always produced their own salt. Yet the British colonizers forbid the making of salt and forced Indians to purchase imported salt, which had a tax on it (like a sales tax on salt) and which cost a good deal more for Indians than salt they made themselves. In 1923, the salt tax was doubled raising even further the cost of salt. In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi and his followers protested the salt tax by gathering salt encrustations from Dandi Beach in Gujarat. The salt tax, the law forbidding the making of salt by Indians and the hastening of rebellions agitating for India's independence all form the metaphor that links salt with process of exploitation.
"Mahasweta Devi (b. 1926)," Bengali Authors.
Shibani Baksi, "Devi, Mahsweta." Postcolonial Studies @ Emory 2012.
"Mahasweta Devi," Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Poland.
Freny Manecksha. "Not your land anymore." India Together 2012.
"The Spice of Life, the story of Salt and Pepper." Brighton Museum 2012.