Class in Mahasweta Devi’s ‘Rudali’

Mahasweta Devi is a Bengali writer and activist who is known for her strikingly social and poignant stories. She wrote several works ranging from novels and plays to essays and short stories. Her most notable works include Hajar Churashir Maa, Rudali, Aranyer Adhikar etc. She has received highest literary merits in India like Jnanpith Award and Padma Vibhushan. As an activist, she has also worked towards the empowerment and rights of tribal people from West Bengal, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh.

Rudali is a thought-provoking short story that deals with the underlying class and caste issues prevalent in India. Originally written in Bengali, it follows a raw narrative that depicts the struggles of the subaltern in a vastly power-imbalanced society. Rudali follows the story of Sanichari who labours hard all her life to make ends meet. The story begins by establishing her caste and how despite being the majority, the Ganjus and Dushads live in desperate poverty. They work as cheap labourers for the ‘Malik Mahajan’ who are the wealthy landlords and money lenders of the village. After losing her in-laws and her husband, she works hard to sustain for her son. But after his marriage, he slowly deteriorates due to tuberculosis and eventually after his death, his wife leaves, leaving Sanichari to look after their new born son. Later after he runs away from home, Sanichari finds an unlikely partnership with Bhikni, an old friend.

The two women forge a strong companionship and together they play a cunning game of getting back at their exploiters. ‘Rudali’ refers to a particular Rajasthani culture wherein women of lower castes are hired as professional mourners by the upper-class to mourn the deaths of their family members. The two women build a business together, harnessing this profession to get jobs to local lower-caste women who have been exploited and ostracised and exploited by the society. In no time, the upper-class people try to one up each other even in funerals and even go as far as purposefully killing themselves or the elders to hold grand funerals.

Entitled by the power of money, Devi reinforces the fact that people in power compromise morality to maintain their position through the shenanigans of the upper-class folks who are known as the ‘Malik Mahajan’. Historically, they were Rajput soldiers who pillaged and killed innocent tribes and conquered these lands. And then, Dulan says that “From century to century, their holdings and power increased. Even now, they take possession of land…” (Devi 73) They built up their power over the tribes and the lower caste through violence and debt traps. They spend lavishly on funerals to ‘uphold honour’ and ‘raise prestige’ by extracting money from the poor. Their greed for more lessens their humanity even with respect to their own kind. In this society, the rich are constantly rich while the poor are perpetually poor.

Where the privileged are divided amongst themselves due to greed for more, the powerless, though diverse, are united in their struggles against the elite. In Rudali, the lower caste and the shunned women look out for one another due to their shared resistance against the Malik Mahajan. Mahasweta Devi narrates this story of oppression without overtly emotionalising it and yet, it affects the readers in such a way that it provokes these emotions within us. To bring out maximum impact, she portrays reality as it is in all of its rawness which makes us question the power play prevalent in the society.