“They understand ecology and the environment in a way we cannot yet imagine”1: A Reading of Mahasweta Devi’s “Madhu: A Fairy Tale”

Sk Tarik Ali, Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata, West Bengal

Download PDF Version


The process and forces of reckless development in recent times have promoted a thoughtless and indiscriminate destruction of the greens resulting in an environmental apocalypse. Although many climatic disasters including the very recent catastrophic earthquake in Nepal and India have threatened human civilization about its survival on earth, the unrestrained capitalist and nationalist forces have been plundering nature exclusively to their personal interest. This paper attempts an ecocritical reading of Mahasweta Devi’s short ecotopian narrative “Madhu: A Fairy Tale” and endeavours to bring to the fore the grim effects of development-sponsored environmental collapse on a forest-based community of people and their silent protestation against such exploitative ‘developmentalism’.

Keywords: Ecocriticism, Developmentalism, Anthropocentrism, Deforestation, Tribals, Eco-dystopia, Catastrophe.

“The forests and their self-sustaining economy signify the tribal life and its cultural continuity. The misguided notion of national ‘‘development’’ ravages the pristine land, robs it of all its beauty, thus endangering the ecological balance of the region and depriving the local inhabitants of their means of livelihood.” (Gupta 33)

The cultural history of the ‘dalitized’ tribals in India speaks volume of their holistic perception of life, their veneration for nature and their life- long struggle to protect the virginity of forests from the avarice of the mainstream capitalist and nationalist masters. From time immemorial, the tribal peoples, the indigenous inhabitants of India, have been dwelling in the forestlands in an indissoluble harmony with nature getting their sustenance from forest resources and preserving the immaculacy of the forest. For honest earning of their livelihood, these geo-centric groups of people have traditionally been dependent on forest-produce. The tribal history and cultural texts powerfully promulgate their whole-hearted endeavours to stand against the ominous despoliation of nature by the harbingers of ‘developmentalism’ to safeguard their environment and protect their home-nurturer, the forests. It is really important to note that much before the present climate of environmental crisis and the urgency of environmental preservation they used to carry a unique environmental consciousness, something that the civilized human society lacked.

The process and forces of reckless ‘development’ in recent times have promoted a thoughtless spoliation of natural resources and an indiscriminate destruction of the greens resulting in an environmental apocalypse. Although many climatic disasters in recent years including the very recent catastrophic earthquakes in Nepal and India have threatened human civilization about its survival on earth, humanity is not at all interested in putting an end to their irresponsible treatment of nature as a commodity. Without the least consideration for the present climate of crisis and nature’s inability to endure the relentless technological onslaught the unrestrained capitalist moneymakers have been disrupting the rich bio-diversity resulting in the total annihilation of environmental equipoise. The modern human society’s anthropocentric perception of life has transformed our mother earth into so inhospitable and ‘alien’ a place to life of any kind that the human society is moved to rethink the interrelations of man and nature. And herein lies the reason behind the emergence of the relatively new theoretical concept of ecocriticism. Ecocriticism is a postcolonial postmodern environmental theoretical concept whose prime objective is the conservation of ecosystem with all its diversity. It has evolved out of the urgent and pressing need to heighten man’s awareness to stop the continuous despoliation of ecological sanctity and sustainability to keep our planet a livable one. It is the human world’s commercialized treatment of nature and its exploitation to the point of global environmental crisis that ecocriticism aims to review through the study of literary and cultural texts. To quote Cheryll Glotfelty:

“Simply put, ecocriticism is the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment….ecocriticism takes an earth-centred approach to literary studies” (Glotfelty xix)

In India the mass felling of trees largely began during the British colonial regime when the British imperial masters annihilated native ecology by their ruthless plundering of natural resources resulting in the disadvantage of the forest-dependent indigenous peoples. The Imperial excursions and colonial exploitation of natural resources damaged the traditionally sacred interrelations of indigenous communities and their physical environs. And this exploitation of Indian environment perhaps reached its climax with the ‘awesome’ and ‘dreadful’ entry of railways the rapid expansion of which led to a catastrophic contamination of ecological balance in India. Great chunks of forests were chopped down to meet the demand for timbers to make railway sleepers and to use them as fuel for locomotives. The immediate victims of this miraculous invention were the forest-dwellers whose existence was largely dependent upon the forest resources. The wide-scale deforestation hastened by an unabated expansion of railways endangered the local flora and fauna which ultimately resulted in the dispossession of indigenous peoples.

A social activist-journalist-magazine editor-creative writer Mahasweta Devi has certainly attained the status of a living legend through her seemingly distinct but actually interrelated forms of activities. It is an irrefutable truth that Mahasweta Devi’s reality-rooted fictional enterprise is exceptionally designed to bring to the fore the discourses that always victimize the helpless and powerless ‘other’, the ‘dalitized’ have-nots belonging to the periphery.

“If one were to sum up in a word the recurring of Mahasweta Devi’s works and the motive force of her life, it invariably would be: FIGHT AGAINST EXPLOITATION.” (Arya 80)

In her writings, Devi blatantly expresses her serious anxiety for environmental degradation in adivasi areas thoughtlessly done to promote the ‘development’ of the ‘nation’. With her pen, dipped deep in concern for the ecological collapse, she has powerfully raised her voice against the process of modern technology-oriented ‘development’ that negatively affects the natural world. The experience of her social activism has made her realize the very fact that although the forest-dwellers have usually been condemned for being indulged in illicit deforestation, in reality they have never been involved in large-scale destruction of the forests. In one conversation Mahasweta Devi had with Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak, she asserted:

“… the hands that fell the tree are not the hands responsible for the deforestation all over India. Big money is involved in the furniture that you see in Delhi, or Hyderabad, or Calcutta. The local political worthies, local police, and local administration are bribed….All over the world Governments protecting the environment is nonsense.” (Devi xii)

Mahasweta Devi’s short ecotopian narrative “Madhu: A Fairy Tale”, translated by Devi herself, was first published in the book The Politics of Literary Theory and Representation: Writings on Activism and Aesthetics, a volume of critical essays and creative writings rudimentarily designed as a tribute to Professor Jaidev. As a narrative of environmental degradation and outright destruction of forest ecosystem, the story predicts an imminent catastrophe leading to the gradual extinction of a community of people. Being severely critical of the modern ways of ‘development’ Devi in this foreshadowing narrative brings to the fore the aftermath of unremitting onslaughts wrought on the environment by thoughtless human activities. The narrative certainly acquires an extra dimension in Devi’s selection of the victims of the ominous environmental collapse. She has presented here the Korjus, one of the disregarded tribal communities in India, as the helpless victims of what Wordsworth calls ‘outrage done to nature’ by the mainstream imperial masters. Devi’s displeasure with the process of ‘development’ gets manifested here because it is this form of development, as presented by Devi, that benefits a certain section of people at the cost of the victimization of the poorer sections of people.

A large number of Mahasweta Devi’s narratives are certainly ecocritical in the sense that in these radical (non)literary texts she has vigorously criticized the politics of development that ravages the pristine nature with the result of the deprivation of the eco-conscious local inhabitants of their basic means of livelihood. “Madhu: A Fairy Tale” is a powerful dystopian narrative that portrays the grim effects of development-sponsored environmental collapse on a forest-based community of peoples and their silent protestation against such exploitative ‘development’. The Korjus, as presented in the story are essentially the forest-dwellers who use to live in happy mutuality with the non-human forms of life. They are basically the hunter-gatherer people whose survival was largely dependent on the forest resources. They carry a deep reverence for all forms of life on earth: “…the Korjus knew that snakes and human beings should coexist in harmony” (97). Their geo-centric perception of life was so genuine and strong “that if you lift the eyelids of a dead Korju you will find the imprint of the old saga forest on his or her eyeballs” (98). Their style of living was so indissolubly interwoven with the local environment that their existence got tremendously threatened by the large-scale deforestation done to promote railway expansion.

“When the Sagwana, or the saga forests, were felled, the Korjus, who were food gatherers, became a condemned people….The Korjus ate reori seeds, tuber, roots, fruits, nuts, deer, birds, hares and monitor lizards. Their brains ceased to function when the forest died” (98)

In the story the Korjus are presented as the helpless victims of the indiscreet mass felling of trees that was done to facilitate the introduction and extension of rail network in India by the British Colonial masters. This large-scale illicit cutting of trees completely devastated the local environment which badly affected the local economy leading to the existential crisis of some eco-centric communities of people like the Korjus.

“Korjus, hitherto sustained by the forests, first became homeless and then their very existence was devastated. Physically alive, they felt they simply did not exist. They were like drifting, lost kites with their strings cut off” (102).

When they saw before their eyes the ill-treatment of saga trees, the ‘Banadevi’ they worshiped, they felt themselves to be so abusively treated by the harbingers of modern developmentalism that they “began to shed their desire to survive”(102). Physically the forests got destroyed but the Korjus’ bond with the forest was so strong that “The non-existent saga forests found shelter in their heart” (102). It is really interesting that although the whole of the Korju community is on the verge of extinction as a result of their “in-built resistance against progress” (100), yet “The Korjus won’t eat because once a few thousand acres of sagwana/ saga/ teak forests were felled” (101).

The target of Devi’s stringent attacks here is not only the imperial masters, the neo-colonial authorities who have done nothing good for the true progress of the ‘nation’ are also severely critiqued in the story. The story presents the idea of nation as homogenous with empire. Disregarding the beliefs and values, tradition and cultures of the forest–dwellers, men like Joshis employed scientific means to understand “a century-old grievance” (101) of the Korjus. It is again of utter importance that instead of taking necessary steps to prevent the deforestation that has still been continued in the tribal areas compelling more Korjus “to shed their desire to survive” (102), the system was busy in concealing the truth to keep up the image of the ‘nation’. When Dr. Apte tried to make the Korju question an issue

“…the collector asked Apte not to come back ever again…. Scandal-mongering about the GOI in the name of research would no longer be tolerated. Sarkar would take necessary steps” (103). And ultimately “The settlement became a forbidden area, a ‘nishiddha bhumi (104).

Devi here in this fairytale is unambiguously critical of the anthropocentric ways of the empire and the ‘nation’ that always victimize the powerless others to facilitate the ‘progress’ of the ‘nation’. She rather has upheld the uncivilized eco-centric ways of living of those ‘illiterate’ tribals whose identity, history, ideology, culture, language and literature are integrally related to their close, symbiotic relationship with nature.

Many of Mahasweta Devi’s narratives are certainly characterized by a mode of resistance on the part of the exploited against the machinations of the exploiters. In these narratives Devi has given a powerful agency to the exploited to voice out their protest against the politics of discrimination in the name gender, class, caste, culture etc. In our present concern “Madhu: A Fairy Tale” we can also visualize resistance but it is a different sort of resistance- “An in-built resistance” (100). It is “a silent satyagraha” (101) against a system that has devastated their habitat-nurturer depriving them of the basic needs of their life.

“The Korjus did not open their mouths…They are supplied with food, but no, they won’t eat….The Korjus won’t eat because once a few thousand acres of sagwana/ saga/ teak forests were felled.” (99-101)

Devi is here outspokenly critical of the imperialism, the establishment, the bureaucrats and the mainstream social activists who instead of understanding the Korjus’ reciprocal relationship with nature and their real problem tried some scientific means to understand their “century-old grievance…” (101). It is quite natural that the heralds of modern developmentalism can never understand the indefinable unique interrelation of the tribal aboriginals and the forests. On the other hand they use Madhu, a Korju, as a specimen to experiment with to conduct “research on nutrition balance in order to unravel the mystery of death due to chronic hunger” (104). Devi is ironically critical of modern technology-oriented ‘progress’ which negated “the Korju myth”(106) by saying that “It was all a fabrication.” (106).

In many of her ‘fairytales’ Mahsweta Devi has reversed the traditional structure of a fairy tale. Going beyond stereotypical patterns of a fairy tale in “The Fairy Tale of Rajabasha” and “The Fairy Tale of Mohanpur” , she has inversed “the structure of a fairy tale….The encatastrophic ending, so essential to the traditional fairy tale is reversed.” (Jain 129). However in “Madhu: A Fairy Tale” Devi has deliberately followed the conventional structure of a fairy tale at least as far as the ending of the story is concerned. The speculative ending of the story very much in the manner of a modern apocalyptic fiction obliquely refers to the catastrophic disaster that the anthropocentric attitude of human society is to bring forth. The unnatural transformation of Madhu from a man into a superhuman figure swallowing almost the entire city of Mumbai is highly suggestive. The system’s attempt to change the life-style of a forest-based community ultimately results in the existential catastrophe of the entire city. Madhu, a common member of the Korju community, got transformed into a gigantic creature first because of the destruction of forests in Korju area and then because of the system’s scientific experiment with a man of nature. Through the eschatological ending Devi certainly and blatantly attacks the environmental collapse that leads men like Madhu either to die in utter desolation or to become a specimen to experiment with in a scientific laboratory. Devi’s eco-centric attitude to life and her critique of the ‘development’ process leading to catastrophic disaster are substantiated in the concluding lines of the story:

“His eye balls mirrored a tall saga tree resplendent with leafs and blossoms. Madhu laughed like a child. Freed.” (108)

So, the story ends on a powerful note when madhu, a representative of the Korjus, finds freedom from the interplay of exploitative forces only after his transformation into a superhuman creature. His ‘lost’ connection with the forest is reestablished and “His eye balls mirrored a tall saga tree resplendent with leafs and blossoms”. The ‘shrunken’, ‘small’ and ‘desolate’ Madhu “laughed like a child” at the end because getting freed from the exploitation of the anthropocentric human society he can now perceive his integral connection with the greens: “After death, the forest reclaims the Korju” (98)

To conclude, through this proleptic tale of anthropocentric exploitation and a silent resistance against it Mahasweta Devi portrays an eco-dystopia where development-sponsored environmental collapse led a forest-based community of tribal people to die in utter desolation. The possibility of their complete extinction as a result of the relentless deforestation as portrayed in the story conveys a very serious message to the human civilization as a whole. Through the apocalyptic ending of the story Devi seems to warn the entire human society that if we so callously and casually continue the thoughtless plundering of nature there will be so scarcity of the basic sustenance of life on earth that one day we all shall have to make a thunderous roar:




  1. This quotation is taken from “The Author in Conversation” (an interview Mahasweta Devi had with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak). Mahasweta Devi: Critical Perspectives. ed. Nandini Sen. New Delhi: Pencraft International, 2011. Print.
  2. All references to the story “Madhu: A Fairy Tale” are indicated with page numbers in parenthesis.

Works Cited:

Arya, Shachi. Tribal Activism: Voices of Protest (With special reference to the works of Mahasweta Devi). Jaipur and New Delhi: Rawat Publications, 1998. Print.

Devi, Mahasweta. “Madhu: A Fairy Tale”. The Politics of Literary Theory and Representation: Writings on Activism and Aesthetics. ed. Pankaj K. Singh. New Delhi: Manohar Publishers, 2003. Print.

—. Imaginary Maps.Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Calcutta: Thema, 1995(Reprinted). Print.

C, Glotfelty. “Introduction: Literary Studies in an Age of Environmental Crisis”. The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. eds. Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm. London: The University of Georgia Press, 1996. Print.

Gupta, Vandana. Mahasweta Devi: A Critical Reading. New Delhi: Creative Books, 2009. Print.

Jain, Jasbir. “Other Constructs: Fairy and Folk Tales”. Mahasweta Devi: Critical Perspectives. ed. Nandini Sen. New Delhi: Pencraft International, 2011. Print.

Sk Tarik Ali is an M.Phil research scholar at Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata,West Bengal. He is a former guest lecturer of English at Panskura Banamali College affiliated to Vidyasagar University. He completed his Masters form Vidyasagar University with more than first class marks. He has qualified both UGC NET Dec-2013 and WBSET-2014.

The Golden Line: Volume 1, Number 2, 2015

Hits: 800