Explained | The context and import of Mahasweta Devi’s ‘Draupadi’

Powerful short story has been dropped from syllabus by Delhi University.

One of writer and activist Mahasweta Devi’s (1926-2016) most widely read books is Hajar Churashir Ma (Mother of 1084), which was adapted for theatre and film. Set in the backdrop of the violent Naxalite movement of 1970s Bengal, the novel begins with a mother waking up to the news that her son is dead and reduced to a number. In Sujata Chatterjee’s quest to understand the revolutionary movement that brutally took her son Brati away, she discovers other things, including her place in the feudal world. Devi set a short story too around the movement, Draupadi, which the Delhi University’s academic council decided to drop from the BA (honours) syllabus on August 24.

What is the story about?

In a retelling of the powerful eponymous character from the Mahabharata, Mahasweta Devi’s Draupadi — or Dopdi as she is called — is a rebel who is cornered by the police trying to put down the forces she represents. “What’s this, a tribal called Dopdi?” asks a security personnel, at the beginning of the story. “The list of names I brought has nothing like it! How can anyone have an unlisted name?” The second officer responds: “Draupadi Mejhen. Born the year her mother threshed rice at Surja Sahu’s at Bakuli. Surja Sahu’s wife gave her the name.”

Literary critic and translator Gayatri Spivak points out in her foreword to Draupadi that the two versions of her name mean that either she cannot pronounce the Sanskrit one or that the tribalised form, Dopdi, is the proper name of the ancient Pandava wife. “Dopdi is on the list of wanted persons, yet her name is not on the list of appropriate names for tribal women.” The Special Forces have searched long and far for Dopdi and her husband Dulna Majhi who have gone underground in “Neanderthal darkness.” Belonging to the Santal tribe, they are on the run in the forests of Jharkhani from people like Senanayak, an expert in “extreme Left” politics. Operation Jharkhani Forest cannot stop till Dopdi is captured so that she can lead the police to the others.

Portraits of inequality

Devi, who taught English at a Kolkata college, spent three decades of her life among tribals listening to their stories and telling the world about them. The inequality and injustice in the tribals’ lives bothers Dopdi: why, for instance, Surja Sahu’s home has “unlimited water” when there is not a drop in drought-struck Birbhum, particularly for “the untouchables.” Dopdi, who loses her husband in an encounter, enacts a final act of chilling and powerful defiance. Hours after she is caught, she walks up to the police personnel, her sari flung away, making them “terribly afraid” of an “unarmed target.”

Reactions to the DU decision

On August 24, the academic council, despite protests from at least 14 members, decided to drop Devi’s short story and also works of Tamil feminist writers Bama and Sukirtharani from the BA (honours) syllabus. The decision also sparked furious reactions from academics and writers, who say Devi’s writing will be relevant as long as there is oppression and injustice in the world against the poor. Mithuraaj Dhusiya, an academic council member, told PTI, “We strongly protest against the overreach of the Oversight Committee, which arbitrarily changed texts… bypassing statutory bodies like Faculties, Committee of Courses and [the] Standing Committee.” The matter of dropping texts will be taken up for discussion by the executive council of the university.

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