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.
Draupadi is a thought-provoking short story that deals with the underlying caste system and tribal subjugation in India. Originally written in Bengali, it follows a raw narrative that depicts the struggles of the subaltern in a vastly power-imbalanced society. Draupadi narrates the story of Dopdi Mejhen, a woman belonging to the Santal tribe in West Bengal. Dopdi and her husband Dulna are wanted by the Indian Special Forces as they were the chief instigators in the murder of Surja Sahu, an upper caste man who selfishly drew all source of water to his own wells and tube-wells even during the drought. Their bravery in questioning the authority of the upper caste is seen as a threat and battalions of officers are deployed to capture this ‘untouchable’ couple. Senanayak, the appointed head of the task force, uses the power of knowledge, tactics and violence to capture them. He is pragmatic with his ideology that ‘In order to destroy the enemy, become one.’ He is ruthless and tries everything in his power to achieve this, even going as far as to bait Dopdi with her own husband’s corpse. After her capture, his command allows multiple officers to rape her to extract information. Capturing and torturing them for information becomes a pleasurable game to Senanayak. Where the fugitives struggle for their lives, he takes joy in decoding their language and ‘countering’ them.
Draupadi in this narrative is an implicit reversal of the mythical character Draupadi from the Mahabharatha Mythology. Where the young princess is married off to five princes and leads the life as a fugitive who finally gets back their kingdom, this Dopdi does not grow up in the luxury. She has always been considered an outcast by her country for her identity and she is always on the run. Despite being nearly raped to death, she fearlessly walks out naked and confronts Senanayak, demanding him to ‘Counter’ her.
The people in power always reinforce their power by asserting dominance and by manipulating the internalised stigma against the people born in lower castes. 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. The gradual shift of power in the end can be seen as her way of hinting at a hopeful future.