Battling With The Ecological Ego: Mahasweta Devi’s Bitter Soil As Docufiction

- Rajshree Trivedi

In this chapter, the principles of ecopsychology, a branch of psychology has been applied to the reading of Mahasweta Devi’s short stories anthologized in Bitter Soil. Certain theoretical terms such as “ecological ego,” “ecological unconscious,” “environmental reciprocity” and “ecofeminist” ideology will be studied in this chapter with a special slant and emphasis on spatial, social and situational conditions of the personae in Devi’s works.

Keywords: ecology, ego, degradation, collusive madness, therapy

BioNote:Dr. Rajshree Trivedi is Principal and Head, Department of English at Maniben Nanavati Women's College- Re-accredited with ' A' by NAAC and affiliated to SNDT Women's University,Vallabh bhai Road,Vile Parle West,Mumbai 400056.

An offshoot of psychology, ecopsychology, as a theoretical term, was first introduced in 1992 by Theodore Roszak in his book The Voice of the Earth. Basically, the ecopsychologists examine the establishment and connections between human mind and nature and strongly advocate the retreat to nature as therapy for psychological imbalances. Alyson Pompeo-Fargnoli, an ecofeminist, attributes the emergence of ecofeminism as a strong reaction to “a toxic mindset of domination and control that degrades both women and the environment” (2018:1) which is also a major concern of study for ecospychologists. Roszak’s theory of ecopsychology suggests a few therapeutic solutions to work on this degradation. He borrows the psychological term “ecological unconscious” and enunciates that the “repression of the ecological unconscious is the deepest root of collusive madness in industrial society; open access to the ecological unconscious is the path to sanity” (Roszak, 1992: 6). More than industrialization and urbanization, the major (and long prevailing, too) effect, on the human psyche and non-human entities in the last two centuries has been caused by colonization and wars. The direct consequence of it has been dislocation and alienation. While the field of psychology has concentrated on devising therapies to heal the alienation between person and person, person and family, person and society, ecopsychology “seeks to heal the more fundamental alienation between the person and the natural environment” (6).

Mahaweta Devi’s works have repeatedly been described as “docufiction.” As an activist, she closely interacted with the Adivasis of Purulia, Munda, Palamau, Jehanabad, Kuruda, Hesadi, Jarkhani and other areas that fall in the states of Bihar and West Bengal. The indigenous tribes labelled as “criminals” by the British government during the precolonial as well as post independence times have been reduced to the state of landlessness, poverty, unemployment and cultural distortion. The tragedy of India at independence, she believed

 [was] not introducing thorough land reform. A basically feudal land system was allowed to stay. A feudal system is anti-women, anti-poor people, against toiling people. It is the landowners who formed the ministry, and became the rulers of the country. why should they do anything else? (‘Telling History,’ 2002, xv)

In the same interview to one of her critic- translators, Devi raises an outcry against “criminalization of politics, letting the lumpen loose in the lower caste and tribal belts. Inhuman torture and oppression. [and] resistance. [and the] continuing struggle” (2002: ix). Spivak further establishes a theoretical considerations where Devi’s prose continuously attempts to

[bend] into full fledged “historical fiction, history imagined into fiction. The division between fact (historical event) and fiction (literary event) is operative in all these moves. Indeed, her repeated claim to legitimacy is that she researches thoroughly everything she represents in fiction” ( In Other Worlds, 2006: 336).

 In the light of reading Devi’s selected texts from the point of view of Subaltern studies, Spivak suggests, “fiction of this sort relies for its effect on its “effect of the real” (336). Historical narratives such as Devi’s short fiction are “a bit of both in. both cases.” Like her protagonist Jashoda in ‘The Breast-Giver,’ Spivak metaphorizes India as a ‘mother -by-hire.” Interrogating the deeply prevailing infectious patriarchal mindset and the cultural sham of worshipping the Mother figure, Spivak advocates Devi’s protest:

All classes of people, the post-war rich, the ideologues, the indigenous bureaucracy, the diasporic, the people who are sworn to protect the new state, abuse and exploit her. If nothing is done to sustain her, nothing given back to her, and if scientific help comes too late, she will die of a consuming cancer. I suppose if one extended this parable, the end of the story might come to “mean” something like this: the ideological construct “India” is too deeply informed by the goddess-infested reverse sexism of the Hindu majority. As long as there is this hegemonic cultural self- representation of India as a goddess-mother (dissimulating the possibility that this mother is a slave), she will collapse under the burden of the immense expectations that such a self-representation permits. (337)

Spivak observations are obvious outbursts to the flawed socio-cultural trait of mother-worship system but at the same time they sound to be narrow interpretations of what requires a more secular outlook in terms of saving the nation(s) from what environmentalists call “planetary crisis” or “ecological crisis.” A more serious attention and action by multiple agencies on the planet are expected to operate on a colossal as well as collective level.

The giver is always to be revered, irrespective of any beliefs or ideologies that social or religious theorists fundamentally draw upon for institutionalizing norms or customs. Survival and existence when challenged
need to be addressed from more solemnly universal and engaging multiple perspectives. Colonization, industrialization, urbanization and more recently the onslaught of digitalization have witnessed the horrors arising as a result of ecological unconsciousness that has wrapped the minds of the human kind. From anthropocentric to biocentric is the current paradigm shift to break the myth of supremacy of the human race. Environmentalists advocate “biological egalitarianism—recognition of the intrinsic worth of everything in nature—in order to restore ecological harmony of the world” ( Alyson:2)
Although Mahasweta Devi’s docufiction seems to raise an alarm against the so called developmental policies of governmental and capitalist agencies by exploiting the marginalized, they, in fact, represent the “voice of the earth.” They cross the peripheral vicinities of tribes, clans, communities and societies to speak for all those who are at the receiving end. If her texts speak for the “lumpenproletariat,” they also speak for the “bitter soil,” “seeds,” “salt,” “hillocks,” “ravines,” “forests,” and “coal mines under the earth.” They speak for the burning earth and air on the mythological battlefield of Kurkshetra that had been turned into a cremation ground with heaps and heaps of rotting dead bodies waiting to be cremated (‘the five women’ in After Kururkshetra, 2005: 10-11) after the great war was over. The short story certainly speaks volumes of the catastrophic and devastating scenes left by the two historical World Wars followed by many cold as well as clandestine ones that the nations fight in a more contemporary situation.
“So the sole purpose of my writing is to expose the many faces of the exploiting agencies,” surmises Mahasweta Devi in ‘Introduction’ to Bitter Soil And Other Stories (1998: ix). Further, she enlists, “the feudal-minded landowner, his henchmen, the so-called religious head of the administrative system, all of whom, as a combined force” who join hands to exploit and contribute to the “lop-sided development” of India have to be exposed. In her more direct statement, she declares:
 I have not written these stories to please my readers, if they get under the skin of these stories and feel as the writer feels, that will be reward enough. [These] stories written in 1980s are becoming whatever is written in these stories What she states is the reflection of hideous contemporary realities everyday in India. Whatever is written in these stories is continuing unabated. So where is the time for sleep? The situation demands immediate response and action. (1998: x)
Mahasweta Devi, in fact, raises the fundamental question, “Are we ecologically unconscious?”( Roszak, 2).The “combined force” is operative out and ought to be driven to self-realization. Samik Bandyopadhyay, another critic-translator of Mahasweta Devi’s works notes:
It is an illegitimacy that Mahasweta Devi locates throughout society, in the administration, in the cultural-intellectual establishment, in politics, in the existence of the whole antisocial fringe of killers prepared to serve the interests of any organized political force anywhere between the extremes of the Right and those of the Left. In a narrative style that allows simultaneously for an evocation of the illegitimacy rampant at all these levels as more than a setting and focussing on an individual’s independent self-realization ( ‘Introduction,’ Mother of 1084.2001:viii)
Glenn Albrecht, a philosopher and professor of sustainability at Murdoch University, Perth coined a term- “solastalgia,” a combination of the Latin word solacium (comfort) and the Greek root –algia (pain), which he defined as “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault . . . a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at ‘home’( quoted by Smith, 2010, np).The other important terms that Albrecht uses are ‘place pathology”and “psychoterratic syndromes” that diagnoses mental-health issues attributable to the degraded state of one’s physical surroundings. 

Mahaweta Devi’s short stories (four in all) in Bitter Soil problematizes the basic ecopsychological issues such as mental anxieties, hallucinations, grief, unsettledness, restlessness, despair resulting out of displacement, conflict or natural disaster-affected zones in the backdrops of poverty, illiteracy and unemployment mingled with caste based hierarchical status of the people residing in the villages of Toru, Juhujhar, Lohri, Hesadi and Kuruda located in between the territories of Bihar and West Bengal. The plight of these inhabitants is by no means local. Mining of iron, sand and coal in quarries, open-pit mining, polluting of rivers and streams, oil spills in oceans and on lands, deforestation, increasing wastelands and other man made disasters are serious concerns related to environmental risks.Albrecht calls it a “global condition”- the ongoing degradation of the environment. “Little Ones’ documents the social, moral, cultural and biological degradation of the Aagariyas, the aboriginal iron and coal miners of Kubha (a hilly forest settlement ) in the Lohri village. Mahasweta Devi describes the “damned terrible place” as:
[the] entire area is a burnt-out desert. As if the earth bears a fire of unbearable heat in her womb. So the trees are stunted, the breast of the river, a dried out cremation ground, the villagers dim behind a film of dust. The earth is a strange colour. Even in the land of red earth, such a deep brownish-red is rarely seen. Of course, before fresh blood dries and congeals, it just turns such a dark, lifeless red. (1)
The Aagariyas were believed to belong to the asura clan and it was only their community that was allowed to enter “the netherworld and bring back iron. Only the Aagariya.” (Bitter Soil,4). During the immediate post independence times:
[the]Bharat sarkar sent people to search for iron ore in Lohri.The villagers of Kubha were trouble-making Aagariyas. They said- Our three demon gods live in. that hillock. Don’t dig that up. Two Punjabi officers, a Madrasi geologist, why would they believe in these junglee tales of asur deotas? They blasted the hillock flat.(5)
The outcome was “The Aagariyas of Kubha attacked and cut down everyone. Then they vanished into the jungle (5). The far reaching effect of this forced dislocation was starvation and alienation. In a surrealist manner, the story ends on a note of shocking discovery made by the newly appointed relief officer in the famine-stricken Lohri village that the actual stealers of the relief material were none other but the Aagariyas who were reduced to the size of pygmies due to continuous starvation. Thus, revolt for saving their own land had transformed them into “ghoulish vengeful” adult-children.

In Roszak’s theory:
This great act of collective alienation, I have suggested, lies at the root of both the environmental crisis and individual neurosis. In some way, at some point, a change of direction, a therapeutic turning inward, had to take place within a culture as maniacally driven as ours has been by the need to achieve and conquer. (2002:276)

For the Aagariyas, there is no “therapeutic turning inward” but a persistent state of “individual neurosis” for all the fourteen members left out of the 154fugitives. On the other hand, for the relief officer, the terror they cast upon him by the pygmied Aagariyas, circling naked around him, is an experience where empathy overshoots fear or anger against them. It becomes a pathway to experience a catharsis that leads to “liberation:

Standing under the moon, looking at them, hearing their laughter, feeling their penises on bis skin, the undernourished body and laughable height of the ordinary Indian male appear a heinous crime of civilization. He feels like a criminal condemned to death… [They] dance, they laugh, scaly penises brushing against him, his only liberation lies in going mad, rending the atmosphere with the howl of a demented dog. But why isn’t his brain sending the order for this throat shattering stream? Tears stream from his eyes. (20)

The deliberate reference to the agents of change for the betterment of the planet is made in the story with reference to World Health Organization, Christian missionaries, government appointed Block Development Officers, relief centres and the religious bodies.

The rich calorie food when not consumed for the normal development of a human body is “construed as a crime by the World Health Organization.”This is what the relief officer believes. For the Aagariyas, the only way to survival is to resort to the act of crime of stealing. Against it, for the relief officer. “If this is true, then all else is false. The universe according to Copernicus, science, this century, this freedom, plan after plan.”(19) The sum of everyone’s happiness if, is the sum of all happiness, the synergy seems to have been broken. And this is the fundamental tenet of Roszak’s theory. He deduces:
Ecopsychology holds that there is a synergistic interplay between planetary and personal well-being. The term ‘synergy’ is chosen deliberately for its traditional theological connotation, namely that the human and divine are cooperatively linked in the quest for salvation. Or in contemporary ecological terms: the needs of the planet are the needs of the person, the rights of the person are the rights of the planet. (Roszak, 1992:7)
 Dulan Ganju, the ‘lowborn old man in the short story ‘Seeds,’ finds solace and redemption from all his sins in sharing the harvested paddy with his fellow villagers. Dulan had been gifted this piece of land by Lachman Singh, the “powerful Rajput mahajan of Tamadih. The place is described as:
[uneven], arid, sunbaked. The grass doesn’t grow here even after the rains. The occasional raised serpent hoods of cactus plants, a few neem trees. In the middle of this scorched wasteland where no cattle graze is a low-lying boat shaped piece of land. Around half a bigha.(21)
Dulan’s apparent day time preoccupation of life was to guard crops on this land that comprised of “aloe plants, leaves thorny like the pineapple” but beneath this façade of being the “ Lord of a thorny wasteland,” he had been guarding the land that buried the dead bodies of Lachman Singh’s victims. subtle, dark overtones mixed with dry, black humour, Mahasweta Devi unfolds the agonizing story of Dulan and taps the moral, philosophical, spiritual thresholds between the person and his or her ‘ecological ego.’ It finds maturity much on the planes of social relations or cultural obligations rather than being operative on political or lawful forces. In eco psychological terms, “The ecological ego matures toward a sense of ethical responsibility to the planet that is as vividly experienced as our ethical responsibility to other people. (Roszak,1992: 8) The “fundamental alienation between the person and the natural environment” can be restored only by giving and sharing, by love and empathy, by giving it back to nature. Dulan’s efforts exactly exemplify the “ethical responsibility” he has towards the land he had polluted and the need to depollute it. The answer lies in turning all the dead bodies of Lachman’s victims to “seeds.” Having shared all his paddy harvest,
Dulan returns to his land. His heart is strangely wonderfully light today! [Karan]. Asrafi, Mohar, Bulaki, Madhuban, Paras and Dhatua-what an amazing joy there. Is in the ripe green paddy nourished on your flesh and bones!Because you will be seed. To be a seed is to stay alive. Slowly, Dulan climbs up the machan. A tune in his heart. Stubbornly disobedient. Returning time and again. Dhatua made up this song.. Dhatua-Dulan’s voice trembles as he says the name. Dhatua, I’ve turned you all into seed. (56)
Among the victims, Dhatua was Dulan’s son who had rebelled against Lachman Singh’s exploitative policies against the labour. Dulan’s silence over his own son’s burial in his “wasteland” becomes instrumental in relieving the villagers from Lachman Singh’s malpractices.
Whether it is the privileged or unprivileged, victim or victimizer, mahajan or pahaan,the suffering and redemption of Mahasweta Devi’s people are closely woven with the earth and her therapeutic measures. The earth is not a ”rightless realm” but an entity that the human, inhuman, sub-human and non-human must integrate this idea in their ecological consciousness. Both, Ekoa, the mad elephant in the jungle of Palamou and Purti Munda,“the most vocal personality” from the adivasi village of Jhujhar in the story “Salt” violate the norms of nature. Mutual co-existence and harmony are what the planet has offered unconditionally to all the species on the earth and the penalty for invading each other’s terrain or exploitation of resources is death which is the end of all agonies.
Salt, the most essential “inorganic and mineral constituent of the body”(131) is the cheapest available commodity in the consumers’ market for humans and the same is true of the animal kingdom for whom the mineral is easily available ingredient of soil. Apart from the mainline story which seems to be a stretched, exaggerated imagination of Mahasweta Devi’s oeuvre of historical fiction, the plot insinuates the fundamental right of existence denied by power and tyrannical forces. Behind the story lies the colonial struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi for Indian independence and freedom from the British rule. The famous Dandi March and the salt satyagraha against the heavy taxes laid by the British government on the Indians. It was an act of nonviolent civil disobedience movement that continued for 24 days against the salt monopoly of the British rulers.
Uttamchand, the village mahajan’s monopoly in Jhujhar for selling salt and then withdrawing its sale from all his shops is reminiscent of the atrocious crimes committed by the British Raj. Such an act was a reactionary response to the satyagraha launched by the villagers against the betbegari (wageless labour). On comparing the events-Dandi March and Jhujhar’s non-violent ways of handling the salt crisis- one realizes that the common enemy was the political force that disallowed the basic rights of people. In Jhujhar’s case, the animal kingdom is also affected because of the human actions. After the struggle with Uttamchand, the conflicting party changed from him to ekoa whose salt-licks Purti and friends started invading. A similar situation was witnessed in the post-independence era when the British left but the new enemies were the existing feudal lords joining hands with the newly formed government’s ministers who were more opportunists than the former ones. In both instances, there is a “collusive madness” that hosts the repression of “ecological unconsciousness” (Roszak, 1992:1) of not being sensitive to the needs of the millions who are deprived because they have no access to avail their rights on the planet. Roszak’s advice, thus is:
Whatever contributes to small scale social forms and personal empowerment nourishes the ecological ego. Whatever strives for large-scale domination and the suppression of personhood undermines the ecological ego. Ecopsychology therefore deeply questions the essential sanity of urban-industrial culture, whether capitalistic or socialistic in its organization. It counsels that we ”scale down, slow down, decentralize, democratize. (1992:8)

It will not be a hyperbolized statement that India, like Jhujhar, was driven to “saltless darkness” in the post-independence era. Mahasweta Devi’s concern was an extension of all her Marxist ideological constructs. Her voice against the establishment has been documented in her fiction making it more of the “leftist intellectualism and struggle” (Spivak, 1981:385)
Maysar Sarieddine, an ecopsycholgist at the Lebanese-American University, Lebanon argues in her paper ‘Oppression and Violence Against Women: An Ecopsychological Perspective’ (2018):
The issue of violence against women has been discussed, debated, lobbied, and fought for in recent decades; and much research on the incidence, reporting, and implications of such violence against women has also been conducted in many regions and countries. These concerted activist efforts led to the first declaration that recognized the need to provide women the rights to equality, security, liberty, integrity, and dignity of all human beings. Even with such global efforts, and despite the existence of laws that punish men who perpetrate violence against women, the problem continues to persist worldwide (2018:np)

Ecopsychology examines the “parallel split between nature and humanity and between women and men” (Sarieddine, 5). Barring ‘Little Ones’ and ‘The Witch,’ the other two stories in Bitter Soil do not project female personae who are directly shown to be the victims of the patriarchal order. Nonetheless, all the four stories do strongly have an undercurrent of the exploitation of resources lying in the womb of Mother Earth. The female figure in ‘The Witch’ paradoxically is shown in a reverse form- a different one than the otherwise archetypal image of stree as a form of shakti.In the Indian context furthermore, she is a birth-giver, nurturer, creator, producer and in many other socially accepted stereotypical forms. Daini who is equally a symbol of power and strength is associated with famine, chaos, terror, death, blood, nakedness, calamity and anything that disturbs the normal life style of villagers of Tura. She is the one who can shake the foundations of the patriarchal order. The only weapon to combat her is collectively stone her to death.

Mahasweta Devi’s witches are actually the victimized and not the victimizers. In yet another story ‘Bayen,’ Chandi Dasi, like Somri in ‘The Witch’ are the victims of jealousy and lust, respectively, who have been forced to turn into dainis. In both figures, the reflection of earth as a female, ruthlessly corrupted, polluted and exploited for vested interests, throws back the mirror image of a society contaminated by inequality, injustice and indifference that would lead humankind to the brink of destruction. Such an approach unquestionably asks for a revaluation of “compulsively masculine character traits’ and offer remedial measures to curb them.

Mahasweta Devi’s fictive texts are woven with the threads of historical facts and well blended with folklore, songs, narratives, legends, mythological renderings and popular material of the region she selects as locales for her narratives. With the use of surrealist techniques, humour, sarcasm and docu-linguistic-corpuses, Devi is able to draw a large number of registers so as to add richness of language on one side and ferocity of words on its other side. By doing so, she intends to push her reader to develop a strong sense of social and moral responsibility so as “to awaken the inherent sense of environmental reciprocity that lies within the ecological unconscious. ”

Mahasweta Devi (2005). After Kururkshetra(translated by Anjum Katyal).
Seagull: Calcutta.

___ (1995) Imaginary Maps. Trans. by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. London.
-----(1997) Breast Stories. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Calcutta
 Seagull Books.
 ----- (1998) Bitter Soil. Trans. by Ipsita Chandra. Calcutta: Seagull Books.

 -----(2001) Mother of 1084. Trans. by Samik Bandyopadhyay.Calcutta: Seagull
 -----(1994) The Book of Hunter. Trans. by Sagaree & Mandira Sengupta.
Calcutta: Seagull Books
 -----(2002) Chotti Munda and his Arrow. Trans. by Gayatri Chakravorty
Spivak.Calcutta: Seagull Books.
----- (2004) In the Name of the Mother. Tran. by Radha Chakravarty. Calcutta:
Seagull Books.

Pompeo-Fargnoli, Alyson (2018). ‘Ecofeminist Therapy: From Theory to Practice’ inJournal of International Women's Studies, Volume 19 | Issue 6, Aug-2018, pp. 1-16
Roszak, Theordore (1992). ‘The Voice Of The Earth: Discovering The Ecological Ego’ in Trumpeter, pp. 1-6

(2002) The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology. Phanes Book, USA,

Sarieddine, Maysar (2018) ‘Oppression and Violence Against Women: An Ecopsychological Perspective.’ Clinical & Experimental Psychology. Vol.4 (1), 189, pp.1-8.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty (2006). In Other Worlds:Essays in Cultural Politics. Routledge, London,pp. 271-370.

(1981). ‘Draupadi by Mahasveta Devi.’ Critical Inquiry. Vol.8, No.2, Writing and Sexual Difference(Winter 1981 ), pp. 381-402.

Smith, Daniel B. (2010) ‘Is There an Ecological Unconscious?’ in The New York Times Magazine. Jan. 27, 2010.

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