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“Rewind, Push Play” 

(Harvard Review, June 2019) 

Rewind, Push Play 
Harvard Review, June 2019

By Hirsh Sawhney 

I am sitting in the cool of the Yale Library in New Haven, the city to which my parents moved from India many decades ago. Down the road, on the green, doze homeless people and addicts, broiling in the summertime heat. I hold in my hands a beat-up Walkman with a high-bias TDK cassette, the kind of device I once used to make mixtapes and re-cord bootleg performances of the Grateful Dead. But this tape contains no thirteen-minute guitar solos. It documents an interview with a writer from Bengal, Mahasweta Devi, who is well known in India but read mainly in academic circles in the United States. 


Mahasweta was born in 1926 and is dead now, but she dedicated her life to highlighting the plight of South Asia’s indigenous peoples—the Adivasis—communities of forest dwellers and farmers who live outside of mainstream society. The Adivasis were once brutalized by British imperialists, who passed legislation that classified them as criminals and forced them into reformatory settlements, where they were made to perform hard labor. Today they are brutalized by a nexus of multinational corporations and government paramilitary forces, which hunger for the valuable minerals beneath their lands. 


Back in 2005, several years after first encountering Mahasweta’s writing, I was struggling to make it as a journalist in the city of Calcutta, the capital of West Bengal. My base of operations was the home of a Bengali artist, Amit, who sometimes worked as my translator and fixer in exchange for beer. Amit’s home was in the south Calcutta neighborhood of Golf Green, which got its name from the nearby Royal Calcutta Golf Club, the oldest golf club in India and the first outside of Great Britain. This middle-class neighborhood was filled with old-growth trees, affable stray dogs, and drab apartment buildings constructed in the final decades of the twentieth century. The nearby market was quiet, with just a single cybercafé and a couple of sweet shops. Golf Green was unimpressive compared with the city’s northern neighborhoods, with their elegant, centuries-old buildings that blended Indian and European architecture, and a world away from the metropolitan city center, with its seedy bars, bookshops, and international brands. 


When Amit learned of my interest in Mahasweta Devi, he mentioned that she had a flat in one of Golf Green’s apartment towers and also that he knew her son. I began to walk around the neighborhood daydreaming about bumping into my hero. I would ask her to sign a book. I would explain to her that she had opened up my mind. Maybe she could somehow help with my flailing journalistic career. At the very least, she could provide me with some much-needed inspiration. Then, one morning, Amit surprised me by announcing that he had arranged for me to meet her, and a slit of light appeared in the clouds looming over my career. 


I arranged to conduct an interview with Mahasweta and began planning an article that would acquaint people with her groundbreaking vision. After spending an afternoon in her humble apartment, I was all set to pen my piece about this woman and her mesmerizing fiction. But I never even transcribed our conversation. It wasn’t just laziness that kept me from doing it, there were practical forces at play. The prestigious European and American periodicals in which I hoped to publish were keen for articles depicting India as a capitalist success story, a place where open economies and democracy preserved certain cultural traditions while also making people more broadminded and content. They weren’t interested in a story about an aging woman who wrote in a foreign language about the pain inflicted upon innocent people by globalization. They weren’t interested—at least not yet—in a story about how neoliberal economic policy could sometimes bear an uncanny resemblance to the previous century’s brutal and racist imperialism. 


I could have pitched my story to less well-known and more sympathetic publications, but I yearned for the status associated with broadsheets and glossy Euro-American magazines. So I placed my recording of our conversation in a drawer, promising myself that I would return to it later. Months passed, then years. Soon an entire decade. 


As the cassette collected dust and I moved further and further away from our interview, I began to question my youthful fascination with Mahasweta. Maybe I had gotten her wrong. Maybe she was just another narcissistic do-gooder, more interested in talking about her accolades than the traumatized individuals and vital social issues that lay at the center of her work. I began to wonder if she and her work were simplistic. Was she guilty of grinding a one-sided ax against imperial power and globalization when her own prosperity depended on such forces? In my mind, our meeting became a moment of disillusionment and Mahasweta herself a disappointment. 


It has taken more than ten years for me to grapple with these thoughts and questions, and I have emerged from this period with a burning need to revisit that sunny Golf Green afternoon. Was I once right to have viewed Mahasweta as a hero? Or was her thinking simplistic and flawed? I wonder if I’ve avoided listening to our interview for so long because I have known, in some recess of my mind, that it would make me contend with the inadequacy of my own thoughts and actions. 

I first encountered Imaginary Maps, a collection of three stories by Mahasweta Devi, when I was a twenty-year-old college student, five years before I would actually interview her in her Calcutta home. The book was an awakening. Mahasweta’s fiction revealed the world as it actually was, a place defined by inequity and cruelty—a type of cruelty in which my middle-class family members in both India and America were somehow implicated. The book also helped me understand certain truths about my inner life and identity. Mahasweta’s words, along with the words of a few other South Asian writers, prompted me to embrace parts of myself that I had previously hated: the brown Indian parts I had once wished could be burned from my body. 


There were many forces in my American childhood that made me resent my cultural heritage, but one of the most powerful was television. The television was like one of my parents—more of a babysitter really—feeding me snack-size portions of information about my parents’ homeland in between episodes of I Love Lucy and The Jetsons

During a commercial break in The People’s Court, Sally Struthers from All in the Family popped up to beseech viewers to help the impoverished of the Third World, those brown and black Asians and Africans with distended bellies and flies buzzing around their emaciated limbs. Sometimes the networks replayed City of Joy, in which Mahasweta Devi’s hometown, Calcutta, is portrayed as a festering hell of tuberculosis and poverty. And then there was Indiana Jones and his Temple of Doom, with its unhinged Maharaja and his evil handlers. The Indians in this movie eat eyeball soup, monkey brains, and snakes. They practice an indigenous religion that is depraved and nonsensical. Thankfully, Harrison Ford, a rugged white American man, shows up to defeat the crazed Indians and rescue the weak ones. Accompanying him is an Asian boy named Short Round, whose deference toward Ford and imperfect English make him an ideal sidekick—one who is funny and cute but cannot steal the show from the real man on screen. 


I learned from these stories that the country my parents had migrated to and its white inhabitants were worthy and righteous and normal, while the place my parents came from, India, was exotic and weak and wrong. Television was my favorite hobby, and the more time I spent with it, the more loathing I felt for the parts of myself that were associated with my parents and my past. I loved my parents, but I resented them for the pungent odors of their food, for their twangy, effeminate music, which sounded off-key. I loathed their abrasive languages and humiliating rituals, the bringing of candles to icons and idols, the touching of elders’ feet. Television offered me a way of healing; I could better myself by destroying my Indian parts, by embracing all that was Western and American. On trips to the mall, I ripped out my parents’ recordings of ghazals and bhajans from the car stereo so that my friends wouldn’t catch wind of them. I made sure my parents served up pizza instead of their smelly Indian dishes when my friends came to my home. Eventually, I found an even better solution: I stopped having friends over altogether. One day, a schoolteacher commented favorably on the lightness of my skin. I don’t know why, but I bragged to him about an invented English great-grandmother. This fabrication made my teacher smile. 


Things began to change for me around the age of twenty. I stumbled upon a class in which I read books about North American companies that gunned down striking Latin American workers in order to keep profits up and the cost of bananas down for US consumers. I read about characters who were half-breeds like myself—Old World and New, indigenous but also colonized. Reading felt personal for the first time, a way to understand not just the world but also myself. And then I picked up some books by Salman Rushdie. I had heard of this writer in connection with Islam, a faith I didn’t know much about, except that its practitioners wore beards and had murdered Marty McFly’s friend Doc in Back to the Future


As I read The Satanic Verses, it seemed, from my novice perspective, to be more about immigration than religion. One of the novel’s protagonists, a young boy, moves from India to England, where he attends a stuffy boarding school. He is an outcast there because of his cultural background and race. For breakfast at his new school, they give him a many-boned English kipper. He hasn’t yet learned the intricacies of separating the fish’s flesh from its bones, but he is determined to eat it, bones and all, to prove that he can integrate into England. As I read about this boy and his fish, I found myself relating to him; that was how life in America had made me feel. I was relieved that a famous author had represented my feelings and experiences with such powerful words. 


Rushdie’s characters didn’t just articulate my pains and frustrations, they also seemed to have an urgent message about how I could be happier: I had to stop hating my roots and accept them. I had to embrace my past in order to be happy in my mixed-up present. And that’s what I tried to do. I became a proud South Asian American; I flipped on its head the worldview that had guided and crushed me while growing up. Brownness seemed good now and whiteness suddenly deserving of scrutiny. The colonized were the righteous and the imperialists sinister. Did I have a vague sense that my new worldview contained some simplifications? Not really—that would come later. At the time, I was simply pleased to like myself a little bit more. And it was during this phase that I was introduced to the work of Mahasweta Devi. 

Mahasweta Devi wrote in Bengali, a language known for its rich modern literary traditions and the famed Bengal Renaissance, a period in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when South Asian authors published entire libraries of books in Bengali and English. Some of these books were anticolonial texts, and many were subversive in other ways. A Muslim woman named Begum Royeka Sakhawat Hossain wrote a science fiction novel in Bengali during this period, which was a pioneering feminist critique of traditional gender roles and sexism. Mahasweta’s fiction, published in the second half of the twentieth century, advanced this tradition of using literature to shed light on inequity and injustice. When I first read English translations of her work in college, she made me want to try to change the world for the better through writing. When I first read her work, she opened my eyes to parts of India that people who wrote and read in English—people in my family, and authors like Rushdie—had chosen to ignore. 


Mahasweta’s fictionalized portraits of Adivasis are based on the decades she spent in their villages advocating for their rights. Her stories are often set in the 1960s and 1970s. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, died toward the beginning of this period, but his vision of a modern Indian state—one with big dams, big universities, and big farms—was rapidly transforming the country, uplifting some but wreaking havoc on others, including tribals who were (and still are) totally marginalized by the postcolonial power structures based in cities like Delhi and Calcutta, power structures that have supported my own family’s upward mobility. Mahasweta painted a haunting picture of life for Adivasis in an era defined by rapid modernization and intense globalization. Her characters are trapped in endless cycles of debt and slavery. They are sold to Brahmin pimps and work as child sex slaves, contracting deadly venereal diseases upon entering adulthood. Any glimmer of hope in these people’s worlds—a white social worker who promises help, a goat that gives milk which can yield extra income—is quick to die, disappear, or reveal itself to be a deception. What is unique about Mahasweta’s depiction of these frightening realities is that, unlike films like City of Joy, she calls attention to the fact that Third World poverty is a global problem. Yes, it’s caused by local callousness and dysfunction, but also by sociohistorical forces such as neoliberalism and colonialism. 


Why was this stark vision so appealing to a twenty-year-old who had grown up on sappy sitcoms in the suburbs of New England, some one whose parents were professionals, who had an Indian grandparent, born in 1900, who had studied at Cambridge? Was it simply that she tapped into the sense of guilt that burns brightly within people like me? Mahasweta Devi was the first South Asian writer I had encountered who was willing to indict the world in the radical and angry vein of the great Latin American avant-gardists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the ones who had moved me so deeply, writers like José María Arguedas, García Márquez, and Rubén Darío. Yes, Rushdie had shed light on some of the violence of colonialism, but his work was dulled by a sense of irony. Ultimately, he seemed unable to sever his loyalty to the imperial power structures that would one day grant him a knighthood. Mahasweta, in contrast, was willing to free herself from a Euro-American vision of history in which brown people were either freaky villains (the eyeball eaters of Indiana Jones) or pathetic weaklings (those children with distended bellies). 


My favorite Mahasweta story—though it seems strange and cruel to have a favorite depiction of suffering—is called “The Hunt.” This story is about a woman named Mary Oraon, who was conceived when a white Australian raped her Adivasi mother. Mary lives in a remote village bypassed by a train, and the fact that she is biracial enables her to take on a unique role in her community. Unlike most Adivasi women, she speaks freely and boldly with men in her community. She does the same with upper-caste Hindu landowners for whom the Adivasis toil and also with outsiders from faraway places. But her hybrid identity also keeps her on the margins of tribal society. She doesn’t fit in perfectly with any group, and she is often isolated and alone. Despite the vast chasms that separated me from Mary, something about the way she had to straddle two different universes through no choice of her own felt—to a younger, more naïve version of myself—relevant to my own experience. More relevant than Homer or Hawthorne, than Edith Wharton or Thomas Hardy. 


When a sleazy contractor from the city shows up in Mary’s village, life there is turned upside down. The contractor, Tehsildar Singh, talks to the villagers about the world of cinema, with which they are not yet acquainted, and the wealth that working for him will bring them. To my younger self, Tehsildar Singh—with his English words and his European habits—represented the undying legacy of British colonialism. Like the British before him, Singh seeks to extract natural resources from tribal lands, in this case an old-growth forest that can be turned into timber. Some of the villagers are enthusiastic about his plan, for Singh offers them money and liquor. As he attempts to win over the people, he lusts after Mary and tries to coerce her into having sex with him. But she is strong and resists him. She cautions the villagers about collaborating with Singh, explaining that once the forests have been felled and the contractor has fled, they will be left with nothing. 


In the story’s final pages, the scheming Singh provides the Adivasis from Mary’s village with food and alcohol for a ritual hunt. In most years, it is the tribal men who hunt small animals during this particular celebration, but this year it is the women’s turn. As the women drink, dance, and prepare to kill, Mary lures the drunken contractor into the forest, tantalizing him with the promise of sex. She smokes his cigarettes and drinks his liquor, laughing at him the whole while. Singh is gleeful about the thought of penetrating Mary. But in the end, it is Mary who does the penetrating—with a knife. In Mahasweta’s story it is the victim who triumphs and the aggressor who perishes. 


My twenty-year-old, liberal arts–educated self was so gratified to see Mary, an oppressed but strong woman, a brown Indian body, defeat her rapacious capitalist aggressor, a symbol of the broken, greedy systems left behind in India by white imperialists. Mary became a hero to me, as, in turn, did Mahasweta. They were so much more appealing than that antiimperialist Indian who had dogged me since childhood, Gandhi, with his pathetic loincloth and his talk of turning the other cheek, his abstinence and rejection of everything pleasurable. Gandhi didn’t come close to resembling the Anglo-American ideal of masculinity. He didn’t come close to living up to the benchmarks of manhood set by Indiana Jones. Mary Oraon, though, was a hero who could hold her own. And the fact that she overcame her aggressor on the night of the tribal festival made her story all the more appealing. 


This plotting seemed to suggest—allegorically, at least—that Mary needed to embrace her precolonial past, the heritage that some might deem unmodern, in order to overcome her modern oppressor. Had she been totally disconnected from her tribal heritage—her cultural roots— she might not have triumphed. She might not have been able to survive. As I was figuring out how to make sense of my own burdensome past, Mary and Mahasweta seemed to be providing me with another piece of the map that had first been handed to me by Rushdie. They helped me further internalize the idea that the traditions of the past—in my case, the culture of my parents—could be a source of strength, not just shame. 

In the months and years after meeting Mahasweta Devi, as my cassette gathered dust, I gradually grew suspicious of the idea that writers or activists could change the world. It began to seem that humanity was predestined to reenact the same injustices and inequities over and over. British imperialists had left India, but then Indians themselves, and also multinational corporations and institutions, replicated the wrongs of the colonial era. A grassroots campaign helped Barack Obama, a black man, become president of the United States, a country where slavery had once been legal; but then Obama upheld many of the neoimperialist policies of his predecessors. Not only did our systems and leaders seemed unchangeable, those seeking to end injustice often revealed themselves to be interested in their own personal gain. Some hungered for money, but they mainly seemed to be in it for their egos. 


That’s what I began to remember most about Mahasweta as the years passed. That she was a narcissist. That she was less interested in the issues and people she had written about than the fact that writing about them had earned her recognition and a small dose of fame. I came to the conclusion that activists like Mahasweta, in their zeal to rid the world of its problems, saw it as a troubled but predictable place inhabited by people who were either victims or victimizers. To me, such an outlook had come to seem simplistic, for experience had begun to teach me that the world was a place where nobody fit into clean boxes, a place where all sides were neither good nor bad but rather irrevocably messy. 


Mahasweta receded to the back of my mind, along with the goal of alleviating the suffering of others, and my new priority became the articulation of what I referred to as complexity. This might sound grandiose, but it essentially amounted to reconciling the fact that there were multiple sides to every situation and story. I began to believe that possessing an awareness of the complex fabric of human existence was more important that any type of altruistic endeavor, and that people would never be able to do any sustainable good if they failed to understand the mixed-up and convoluted nature of our world. 


Recently, though, I have also grown suspicious of this mindset. When you are perpetually on the hunt for nuance, always trying to see things from diverse perspectives, you might experience moments of brilliance or compassion, but often you just get confused. When a school of competing truths is frenziedly feeding on your neurons, it can be hard to take any sort of stand. And in this moment, with injustice and brutality on the rise in the places I call home, with fascistic, hate-mongering leaders seizing power in every continent and hemisphere, the ability to take some sort of stand once again seems urgent. 


So I have felt a need to rethink things recently, to reconnect with the idealistic twenty-five-year-old I once was, the boy-man who idolized Mahasweta Devi and wanted to make a difference in the world. It took me a couple of days to locate the recording of our interview, which had been moved from a drawer to a box in the back of a closet. I also had to find my Walkman and replace its double-A batteries. Sitting in this fancy library palming this archaic machine, I push play. 


Through my headphones, I hear the hum of Mahasweta’s desert cooler, a machine that would have done little to mitigate the humidity of pre-monsoon Calcutta. I recall her sparsely furnished flat, clean and barren except for the cane furniture on which we were sitting. A gigantic photo of Mahasweta herself hung on a nearby wall. I remember her giant eyeglasses, which made her kindhearted eyes seem huge. I hear the clamor of traffic on the tape, the whining of vehicles with fewer than four wheels. Golf Green remains a placid place in my imagination, but of course it’s not as quiet as New Haven or this library. 


At first, Mahasweta reveals herself to be the egotist that I have come to think her. Twenty-five-year-old me, an impressionable and idealistic boy, asks her about the role of activists in twenty-first-century life. 


“I believe [they] are making some mark somewhere,” she says.“When I went to France, [there were] so many women’s groups, and they were talking about [my] book.” She seems to have faith in the world because there are people in it who have the wisdom to appreciate her talent. It strikes me that the admirers she refers to are white. Seven decades after being liberated from British domination, South Asians still desire affirmation from those with white skin. 


But as she goes on, Mahasweta speaks fluently and passionately about history and politics. She was devastated by the 2002 anti-Muslim Gujarat riots, in which thousands of innocents were murdered and many more left without homes. In her words, the BJP party, which was ruling over the state at the time and continues to do so, presided over a “savage communal bloodbath.” She was particularly disheartened by the fact that, despite this bloodbath—or perhaps because of it—the BJP’s Narendar Modi would go on to win state elections in his home state of Gujarat (ultimately he would become India’s prime minister). She talks about the 1865 Santal Rebellion, an anti-colonial Adivasi uprising that predated any Salt Marches or Noncooperation Movements. She offers a careful explanation of how the horribly oppressive system of bonded labor actually functions. As she speaks, I am overwhelmed by all this knowledge that I wish I could call my own. 


She moves on from sociology to ecology. It’s 2005 on the cassette, and climate change deniers are gaining ground inside the US government. Meanwhile this octogenarian from Calcutta sketches out the environmental consequences of rapid urbanization and uneven economic growth. In Delhi, she tells me, a city where thousands of people live on the street, countless high-rise buildings are being constructed for the new middle classes. These buildings need water, and they get their water from the ground, so the groundwater level is declining. 


“Down, down, down,” she says empathically. “There will be a time when there is no water left. It will happen. It’s bound to happen.” Next come the consequences of deforestation. “We read that Everest is not that high [anymore]. [Its] height is coming down.” There is a link, she asserts, between shrinking glaciers and the felling of trees outside of Calcutta.“These big climatic changes are taking over. It’s happening all over the world.” 


Mahasweta speaks so generously to me, a know-nothing to whom she owes nothing. She seems to consider me one of her countrymen, a fellow subcontinental, and not some foreigner. My older self, the one sitting in this library, tingles as she articulates words of inclusion and affirmation. She lapses into Hindi occasionally, and I understand many of her anecdotes and colloquialisms. But I can’t understand the Hindi jokes. I hear myself laughing extra hard during these moments, pretending. The longer the tape plays, the clearer it becomes that I have remembered her incorrectly. I hit pause. 


If someone in the conversation has a propensity for naivety it is me. It was I who projected simpleminded ideas onto Mahasweta, and also onto the characters in her work. Yes, the contractor Tehlsidar Singh from “The Hunt” might have represented the undying legacy of colonialism, but he was also emblematic of the fact that Indians were as capable of brutality and deception as the British. And Mary Oraon? While her reliance on her indigenous past provided her with strength, it was also the fact that she was mixed race—brown and white—that made her uniquely capable of protecting her community from a dubious predator. Mahasweta’s stories were replete with a complexity that had escaped me, and her words on the cassette possessed this same sophistication. 


I press play again, and she explains that, yes, the British Raj was exploitative and oppressive, but she insists that Indian landowners are just as bad in terms of their treatment of tribals. The United States, from her perspective, is a “capitalist, exploitative system” that has destroyed the lives of countless Native Americans. “And, yet, America preserves its forests. American leaders give ordinary people the opportunity to earn income, even if they do so in order to perpetuate an exploitive system.” 


The end of our conversation turns back to both the power and the limitations of protest. Mahasweta isn’t naïve about resistance movements in today’s world. She admits that people protest Pepsi and Coke for their labor practices and for what they do to the environment, and yet Pepsi and Coke haven’t changed much or left India. People protested the Iraq War, but the war was still fought; millions have been killed, and the war has destabilized the entire region. She worries about the disaffection and apathy of young people who no longer believe in organized resistance. 


“It has become like a river in which the water has become foul because there is no current. If there is no protest movement, then what to do?” 


And yet, Mahasweta seems always to come back to a place of hope. “In Galileo’s time,” she says, “how many persons truly believed the earth is going around the sun? Not many. But the age is known as Galileo’s Age. [It is not named for] the people who killed Galileo.” 


Before the cassette ends, I ask her what role writers can play in making the world better and fairer. I am expecting some sort of canned response, something about the elusive ways in which literature changes society. Instead, she tells me a story. 


There had been massive flooding the previous year in rural Bengal, which led to the loss of property and the destruction of crops, which led to hunger and starvation, which led to pain and death for large numbers of poor people. The national and international newspapers didn’t cover these floods. Mahasweta, however, stayed connected to editors of small local papers, and she published letters in these papers requesting rice and clothes for flood victims.“This room,” she says, “was piled high with clothes.” She was smiling as she uttered her next words. “Today’s younger generation, they have to be taught that you can do a lot if you are just sincere.” 


My younger self pushes back. I tell her that the world doesn’t seem to reward sincerity anymore. Mahasweta shakes her head, still smiling. “I don’t think so. I have never been disappointed.” She tells me that I just need to believe in someone. “Like who?” I ask. On the tape, my voice is cracking; I am my most vulnerable self before this person I have just met. I say, “Who should I believe in?” Both versions of me—the one on the tape and the one in the library—crave an answer from this icon, a woman who clearly perceived the moral murkiness of the world and yet wasn’t afraid of trying to make it better. Her response is a simple one: she tells me there are good people all over in whom we can place our faith. And then the tape hisses, for we are silent. And then she laughs. It’s a youthful laugh. A kind one, to fill the awkward lull.“That’s it,” she tells me. And our session is over. 


The tape hisses. I push stop. I am not sure how to proceed, but I think I know in which direction I should be moving.

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