Mahasweta Devi was born in 1926 in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to literary parents. Her father, Manish Ghatak, was a well-known poet and novelist of the Kallol movement, who used the pseudonym Jubanashwa. Ghatak's youngest brother was noted filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak. Mahasweta's mother, Dharitri Devi, was also a writer and a social worker whose brothers were very distinguished in various fields, such as the noted sculptor Sankha Chaudhury and the founder-editor of the Economic and Political Weekly of India, Sachin Chaudhury. Mahasweta's first schooling was in Dhaka, but after the partition of India she moved to West Bengal in India. She joined the Rabindranath Tagore-founded Vishvabharati University in Santiniketan and completed a B.A. (Hons) in English, and then finished an M.A. in English at Calcutta University. She later married renowned playwright Bijon Bhattacharya, who was one of the founding fathers of the IPTA movement. In 1948, she gave birth to Nabarun Bhattacharya, one of Bengal's and India's leading novelists, whose works have been noted for their intellectual vigour and philosophical flavour. She got divorced from Bijon Bhattacharya in 1959.
In 1964, she began teaching at Bijoygarh College (an affiliated college of the University of Calcutta system). During those days, Bijoygarh College was an institution for working-class women students. During that period she also worked as a journalist and as a creative writer. Recently, she is more famous for her work related to the study of the Lodhas and Shabars, the tribal communities of West Bengal, women and dalits. She is also an activist who is dedicated to the struggles of tribal people in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. In her elaborate Bengali fiction, she often depicts the brutal oppression of tribal peoples and the untouchables by potent, authoritarian upper-caste landlords, lenders, and venal government officials. She has written of the source of her inspiration:
I have always believed that the real history is made by ordinary people. I constantly come across the reappearance, in various forms, of folklore, ballads, myths and legends, carried by ordinary people across generations. ... The reason and inspiration for my writing are those people who are exploited and used, and yet do not accept defeat. For me, the endless source of ingredients for writing is in these amazingly noble, suffering human beings. Why should I look for my raw material elsewhere, once I have started knowing them? Sometimes it seems to me that my writing is really their doing.
At the Frankfurt Book Fair 2006, when India was the first country to be the Fair's second time guest nation, she made an impassioned inaugural speech wherein she moved the audience to tears with her lines taken from the famous film song "Mera Joota Hai Japani" by Raj Kapoor (the English equivalent is in parentheses):
This is truly the age where the Joota (shoe) is Japani (Japanese), Patloon (pants) is Englistani (British), the Topi (hat) is Roosi (Russian), But the Dil... Dil (heart) is always Hindustani (Indian)... My country, Torn, Tattered, Proud, Beautiful, Hot, Humid, Cold, Sandy, Shining India. My country.
Mahasweta Devi has recently been spearheading the movement against the industrial policy of the government of West Bengal, the state of her domicile. Specifically, she has stridently criticized confiscation of large tracts of fertile agricultural land from farmers by the government and ceding the land to industrial houses at throwaway prices. She has connected the policy to the commercialization of Santiniketan of Rabindranath Tagore, where she spent her formative years. Her lead resulted in a number of intellectuals, artists, writers and theatre workers joining together in protest of the controversial policy and particularly its implementation in Singur and Nandigram. She is a supporter of Budhan Theatre – the theatre group of Chhara Denotified Tribals of Gujarat.