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Giving Voice to the Voiceless

June 1, 2024 | By

Mahasweta Devi’s ‘Draupadi’ portrays a tribal woman’s resistance against state oppression, highlighting gender violence and subaltern identity through Dopdi Mejhen’s powerful defiance. A critique by Sampurna Chowdhury.

Mahasweta Devi

Noted author and social activist Mahasweta Devi (Pic: PTI)

“An erotic object transformed into an object of torture and revenge where the line between (hetero)sexuality and gender violence begins to waver” as put forth by Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak while she introspected the theme of ‘Draupadi’ by Mahasweta Devi.  But Draupadi is not only a short story about a woman’s resistance, her struggle is embedded for her tribal community, which the state wants to record or number. Devi’s literary output is an endeavour to stir the veiled conscience of man, not to turn a deaf ear to the problems of society.

Tracing the root

In the Indian subcontinent, tribals or Adivasis are regarded as the “first settlers”, even before India had a national identity. But when India started to have a national boundary, the government had tried to trace its citizens, keep a track of its activities and to decipher its language. Long before, tribals started to face forced displacement by Aryans and became migrants. And when India became independent, the nation tried to enlist all the languages and culture inorder to control the people, and the rest of them were made oblivion. To counter attack this deliberate oblivion, Mahasweta Devi resisted through her pen, as she said that tribal communities are also part of this subcontinent. Remaining in the infringes of national boundary and having an autonomous structure, doesnot make them alien from the mainstream community.

According to critic Dhillon, “The tragedy of the exploitation of the landless peasants in India, and particularly West Bengal is an ageless one. So is the history of revolt, from the sanyasis and the indigo cultivators to the Naxalbari explosion”.  Through the title of the story Draupadi itself, Devi wanted to create a subversive resistance. The changing of the name from Sanskrit version of Draupadi Majhi to Dopdi Majhi, tribals resist Aryan culture, retaining their individualism. The Naxalite movement resisted the hegemonic forces of the nation, which tried to crumble down this political unrest, by armed battalion. Sen acknowledged that through the hands of Naxalites, the exploitation of Bengali peasant woman at the hands of the landlords, received national attention.

Resisting the forces

Dopdi Mejhen, the protagonist of the short story ‘Draupadi’, rose to become a representative figure of the subalterns. She belonged to the community, where she felt reminiscent of her forefathers who stood guard inorder to protect their women with armours. But she subverts the notion, “Your sex is a terrible wound”. Dopdi is devoted to her family, has trained herself to sacrifice herself for her community, that despite being mutilated, she did not betray her oath. “If mind and body give way under torture, Dopdi wil bite off her tongue. That boy did it.”

Through Dopdi, Mahasweta Devi has tried to raise certain questions of responsibility, as she herself demands certain political responses from her readers. She expects the readers to know about the Naxalbari movement and she also wants to understand something about the revolution that Dopdi is fighting. She is fighting shoulder to shoulder with her husband, Dulna Majhi.

Presence of this strong woman, created anxiety in the minds of the army officers of the state as “the blood sugar level of Captain Arjan Singh, the architect of Bakuli, rose at once and proved yet again that diabetes can be a result of anxiety and depression.”  Senanayak who pretends to be a liberal bourgeoisie gentleman in theory has a huge gulf in his execution of work. In practice, he is only a brutal puppet of state as he wants “every world must have the credentials to survive with honour”. After Senanayak and his team succeeds in catching Dopdi with their tactics, they started cross interrogating her. But when she refuses to utter a single world, i.e. she ramins incomprehensible to them, Senanayak immediately takes advantage of her subjective position, commanding the soldiers “Do the needful”.

The characterization of Draupadi or Dopdi by Mahasweta Devi is projected in a stark contrast with Draupadi of Mahbharata, which indeed serves as an interesting point when juxtaposed.

Modern Revolutionary Posture

The Mahabharata has remained as a vital narrative which addresses Hindu morality and history. It is mainly the story of the fight between Pandavas and Kauravas. But the central female character of the epic, Draupadi remains as a vital point of discussion because of her polyandrous marriage. She is viewed as much as object of the patriarchal narrative as she is viewed as an object by the men, without narrative. In the game of dice (Pasha khela), the eldest son of Pandu, Yudhishthir kept himself, his brothers and even their common wife Draupadi at stake after losing all their wealth and property to Kaurava brothers. After losing their position and becoming slave, Draupadi was lost.

Draupadi is brought to the court, by dragging her hair; she says “What kind of man stakes his wife in a game?” But she lacks her self-agency and so does not emerge as a powerful woman. Like a helpless victim, she prays to Lord Krishna to save her from the disgrace of her public undraping of saree. When Dushasana starts to pull out her saree, Lord Krishna miraculously saves her honour as the saree starts to grow six yards longer. Finally, the tormentor became restless, ceasing the entire process. This might seem that Draupadi’s honour was apparently saved. But ironically, Krishna’s miracle also proves that women are perceived as objects and a male or divine aid can only help her from facing humiliation.

In Devi’s story, a miracle does not happen, and divine Krishna does not appear to save her honor. The reality is unraveled by her where a woman is literally a ‘target’ on which men can inscribe their power. Dopdi refuses to behave in accepted norms and feel shameful of the deed where she had no role to play.  Shoba Venkatesh Ghosh says in this regard “Dopdi acts in not acting”, “we submit rather the effectiveness of Dopdi’s resistance is not the refusal to act, but the refusal to act predictably…”

Subalterns can speak

Dopdi Mejhen after being caught at the hands of power holders had to face double marginalization, being a woman and belonging from Santhal tribe.  But the characters portrayed by Mahasweta Devi held their high even in their suffering. After the command from Senanayak, many soldiers came and started to molest her throughout the endless night.

This tragic incident shakes every reader’s mind and makes them numb. But Dopdi even after seeing her “pure black blood” getting impure did not howl or got crooked in a shell. She emerges as a radiant source of power for every woman, for her tribe, as she turns her wounded body into a weapon. This goes beyond the coalition of the intellectual and the peasant, where the former in the process of obliterating the later, tries to silence her completely, and overpower by brutal force.

When the guard gives the water pot to Dopdi, she pours down the water on the ground. An animalism instinct overpowers her, when she tears her white saree with teeth, and in the bright sunlight, with her head high, walked towards Senanayak.

The powerful narrative, narrated by Dopdi Mejhen shows a subaltern woman who speaks loudly, literally, and metaphorically. Her body is no longer the object of the patriarchal gaze, but in turn, she gazes back, fighting back with her two mangled breasts, and her voice is as terrifying, sky-splitting, and sharp as ululation. This language of the body of the ‘unarmed target’ terrorizes the plunderers and threatens Senanayak’s manhood who is “terribly afraid”.  This challenge to acceptable behaviour, norms and language gives Dopdi Mejhen, a bold stance, even a shocking representation of the return of the repressed.


The power structure operates in a society in such a way that the oppressed always gets entrapped under the feet of the oppressor and it is considered general, for those meek and trampled beings to behave guilty of their birth, shameful for their sex and remain servile to labour as animals. When these non-entities unleash their barbaric instincts, their real self becomes their agency through which they resist. Since, their resistance is unknown, unheard, it unsettles the power holders. Mahasweta Devi tried to project this resistance by deconstructing classical Draupadi, who does not depend on divine aid rather makes her vulnerability as strength, and arose as the queen of her ‘black blooded’ Santhal community.

Works Cited

  1. Spivak, Chakravorty Gayatri. ‘Breast Stories by Mahasweta Devi’, Seagull Books, Kolkata, 2020.
  2. Festino, G. Cielo and Marins, Cristina Liliam. “Literature, Resistance and Visibility: ‘Draupadi’ by Mahasweta Devi in Translation”, Commonwealth Essays and Studies, July,2021.
  3. Silva, Neluka. “Narratives of Resistance: Mahasweta’s ‘Draupadi’”, South East Asian Review of English, Volume 55, Issue 1, 2018.
  4. Githa Hariharan. “When Bodies Speak.” World Literature Today, vol. 91, no. 2, Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, 2017, pp. 16–20
  5. Grace, Priyadarshini Appadurai. ‘Treatment of downtrodden women in select works of Mahasweta Devi’, Avinashilingam Deemed University For Women, Shodhganga, November, 2018.

(The views expressed by the author are personal)

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Sampurna Chowdhury is a student of English Honours in Gokhale Memorial Girls’ College. Her writings have been published in The Times of India student editions and various magazines including LLP Magazine (June and December 21), and 'Feminism in India'. She has also presented her paper in the National Level Online Seminar on ‘Education in its Juxtaposition with its Aims and Reality’.
All Posts of Sampurna Chowdhury

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