Biography of Mahasweta Devi

Mahasweta Devi was a famed Indian novelist and writer of short stories, usually featuring female and/or subaltern characters.

Devi was born on January 14, 1926 in what is now Bangladesh. Her father was a writer and her mother and aunt educated illiterate girls in Dhaka, which inspired in Devi a life of service.

In 1947 Devi married playwright Bijon Bhattacharya, and they moved to Calcutta (now Kolkata) where they had a son. Devi had to work odd jobs to supplement her husband’s income. She received a master’s degree in English from Shantiniketan, an experimental university founded by experimental poet Rabindranath Tagore.

Devi’s first novel was The Queen of Jhansi, a story based on an actual figure of a princess who fought and lost her life in the Mutiny of 1857 against the British, published in 1956 when she was 30. She researched the story throughout northern India, and once said, “I have a firm opinion that the most precious historical material is what is preserved in the memory of the common people.” Other novels include Mother of 1084 (1974) and The Occupation of the Forest (1977). Overall, Devi wrote more than a hundred books, most of them in her native language of Bengali. She also contributed to literary magazines and was an English lecturer at a Kolkata university.

Rahul Ranjan writes, “Mahasweta Devi’s powerful publications on themes of social realism, caste and most important, Adivasi (indigenous people) allows the readers to meander through the complex, often intense, struggle faced by the most defenseless people on the map of nation-state. Even when negotiating language differences, Devi’s words never fail to construct her character as docile, disempowered. Her writings are drawn from personal ‘field’ experiences and ‘texts’ reflect the interaction between the two and emerge organically as one.” She was involved with bonded labor and worked to secure public interest against the state on behalf of the aboriginal people in 1998; the government of India named her Padmashree (distinguished citizen) for this work.

Devi was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2009 and won the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1997.

She and Bhattacharya divorced in 1964, and in 1965 she married the writer and journalist Asit Gupta. They divorced in 1976. Devi’s son passed away in 2014. Devi died of a heart attack and organ failure on July 28, 2016.

Study Guides on Works by Mahasweta Devi