A few years back, I was commissioned by Bhasha Research and Publication Centre to make a celluloid profile of Dr. Ganesh Devy Sir, whom the nation honoured with Padmashri primarily for his work among Adivasis, his writings and his tireless efforts to preserve endangered languages on the brink of going extinct.

I have known Devy Sir since 1998 and he has been an abiding influence on my social and political understanding of our world. But the aspect of him as a writer of stature was relatively unknown to me. So, whenever he would speak in public, I made a point to interact with him, and follow him with my camera. In this amazing quest to fathom Devy Sir’s work by documenting it on film, I chanced to meet Mahasweta Devi (Amma) once or twice, when she happened to visit the Adivasi Academy founded by Dr. Devy and dedicated to Amma. The academy is fortunate to have her blessings.

During the documentation, I had the opportunity to capture Amma and Sir interacting with each other in Bhasha’s office. Amma was explaining what Indians gained post-Independence, among other things. I feel a transcript transcription of that footage alone would do justice to her vision.

Amma in disappointment, “What does our country do? Nothing. Nobody got anything after our Independence. Nothing.”

“What do you think about death?” Sir asks Amma out of the blue.

“What?” she remarks.

“What do you think about death? Is it tragic, or is it a logical conclusion?”

“No no…it’s a logical event”, Amma responds. “I do also believe so,” Sir says.

“What happens after death?” he poses another conundrum.

“As far as I am concerned, I want to live forever. I will live through my writings. After my death that’s why I have asked you not to cremate me. I have no belief in being cremated and turned to ashes. I want to be somewhere. I would love to be buried in Purulia, but they are such old-fashioned Hindus, that they won’t allow it. So, Tejgadh is the best option for me and I feel I should be buried here. What I want is for a Mahua tree to be planted above me. I nurse an affection for Mahua, the tree will help me survive” says Amma, making her intentions clear.

“Extraordinary” quips Dr. Devy.

“Is it extraordinary?” Amma counters. She expatiates, “No, it’s not like that, you can’t go into the river; earth is the ultimate giver and receiver. Let the earth receive us, keep and eat us.” propounds Amma.

“But I want to flow…I like to flow”, responds Dr. Devy.

“Aree…I know, while flowing, fish will eat you but if you are buried, insects will also eat you as well and you will become nutritious fertiliser. There will be organic farming on us, this is good, na? jokes Amma.

Looking at the camera Dr. Devy intones:

“Tejgadh is a small place, and she is much larger than the tribal academy. I believe that there is an energy in all of us. This 5.5’ feet Mahasveta Devi is not working, it’s her energy that works through her body. That energy never dies. I asked her about queen Jhansi, who also shared the same energy. Budhha too had similar energy, Christ also had the same energy. Our bodies are specially gifted with that perennial energy that never dies and has no limits of time or borders.”

deviAmma listens, while simultaneously reading and signing some papers related to the Bhasha trust.

Sir continues, “Otherwise, we all are animals. Other animals are a little better than us. I always say that they have not created teachers and doctors. Only we humans have created teachers and doctors, which is totally unnecessary. Animals take care of their body and mind. We have invented teachers to develop minds and doctors for bodies, not a necessity at all. The difference between us and other animals is that we can capture the energy that is passed to us and we can create its manifestation like film, literature, music, in social work, in thoughts. We can show it and this is the reason that we become bit different animal…”

I, who was documenting the conversation between two great souls so casually talking about death, I felt a sudden stab of fear. What would my life be without these two individuals? Nothing. I kept on documenting.

Now, as Amma is battling for her life, with death  hovering over her and on life support in a hospital in Kolkata, this encounter between two persons  who have inspired me, flashed  in my mind’s eye.

I first met Amma in 1998 when she first time visited our Chharanagar locality in Ahmedabad. Before she could enter Chharanagar, she was detained at local police chowky for nearly an hour. The cops were against her coming to visit us as it was dubbed a ‘Criminal hub’ and the police suspected that we would loot her. Devy Sir accompanied her.

Finally, when she honoured our community by meeting us, we had no clue as to her identity. Amma, Dr. Devy and Marathi writer Laxman Gaikwad mentioned to us a gist of our history.  For the first time we came to know why our friends in schools and colleges kept their distance from us. It was quite an education.

The positive outcome of this event was that we got a small library in the so-called “Criminal Tribe” community, with both Amma and Devy Sir donating books. The library harnessed the creative and literary energies of our youthful Chharas and an epi-centre of the Denotified Tribes movement that ultimately resulted in the National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes (NCDNSNT), chaired by Balkrishna Sidram  Renke.

Vipul Kapadiya of Bhasha shared this nugget with me. In 2007, while lobbying for formation of a National Commission on DNTs, along with Dr. Devy and Udaynarayan Singh of IAS cadre, Amma met former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh. She warned of her anger if he were not to do anything for DNTs. The honorable PM smiled and gave a commitment that he would certainly do something to resolve this long pending contentious issue. After 10 days, the government announced First National Commission for NTs and DNTs, mentioned earlier!

Within a few months, library gave birth to the Budhan Theatre (BT) Group. Budhan Theatre raised social and political awareness about DNT issues across the country.  BT performed its first play, Budhan, based on the brutal killing of Budhan Sabar, a DNT from Purulia, by West Bengal police. Amma filed a case and Justice Roma Pal issued an order to give compensation to Budhan’s wife.

I wrote this play based on Justice Roma Pal’s interim judgment. It became so popular that we stopped counting shows after 300 performances! In 1999, my second play Encounter based on the killing of Deepak Pawar in Maharashtra was staged. After watching a performance in National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, Amma beckoned me and told me to sit in her lap. She kissed my head and told me that I have this huge responsibility to use theatre to voice DNT issues across the country. To date, I have done plays based on her short stories and novels like Ulgulan (Aranya Adhikar), Breast Givers {Choli Ke Pichhe kya hai}. I am still striving to live up to my commitment.

Once, she came to our library and I asked her what should be done to unite DNTs for social and political causes. Her response was “Organize Melas” {Mele Karo}. In this she resembles one of the greatest of our social reformers, Sree Narayana Guru and Tajudeen Abdul-Reheem, a giant among pan-African activists, whose signature line after every email was – Don’t agonise, organise! She believed that people will unite for a common cause and express their anguish creatively through art, songs, dance, music and the like. Collective energy was her motto. She wanted to bring rebels from all over the country to Tribal Academy and wanted them to plant a tree there. She worshipped the earth,  considered it her mother and loved everything that  belongs to earth.

In 2011, she came to Bhasha’s office in Baroda. During that phase she was very much active in Singur and Nandigram struggle. She noticed me and called me over, and gave me a paper of piece. It was a Hindi poem. She told me to read it out loudly. I did. I still recollect, how every word was a taunt as to why I was not part of that just struggle. I felt that I should participate in such struggles for the real democratisation of India.

I can only pray for her long life. Her energy would always envelope me, infuse my writing, my actions, enlighten my performances, spur me in my fights for just causes, permeate my creativity and inspire my thoughts.

Amma is synonymous with Ulgulan, an unceasing fight. What I learned in my 18 years of association with her is that she is a fount of a rebellious energy dedicated to real democratisation of our country. This rebellious energy is reflected in her body of work.

Love you, Amma!

(The author, Dakxin Bajrange, is the Honorary Director of Budhan Theatre and Managing Director of Nomad Movies (P) Ltd. He belongs to the Chhara nomadic tribe branded as ‘criminal’ by the British, since ‘denotified’ in independent India, thanks to the efforts of Mahasweta Devi, Dr. Ganesh Devy and other activists.)