Telling the story of the Sabars: Mahasweta Devi’s historical novel “The Book of the Hunter” set in 6th-century Bengal

“The tribal world and the tribal way is complete in itself.” – Mahasweta Devi

Quoted by Gopalkrishna Gandhi in “Swearing by Mahasweta” (The Hindu, 6 August 2016)

MAHASWETA DEVI’S novel The Book of the Hunter (first published in Bengali as Byadhkhanda in 1994), is the latest in Seagull’s excellent ongoing enterprise to bring the powerful oeuvre of the literary activist to a readership well beyond Bengal.

One of Devi’s foremost passions has been to document the oral histories of the tribal communities before they disappear altogether. The Book of the Hunter weaves several elements, from fact, fiction, folklore and history, into its intricate, lovely design. The narrative, which is set in 6th-century Bengal, begins with a fictionalised account of how the medieval Brahmin Mukundaram Chakrabarti, farmer, householder and poet, is constrained to leave his native Daminya and, with difficulty, make his way across the unknown landscape, to the land of Ararha, seeking a new and kinder soil in which his family may put down roots. After devoting long years to the tasks of farming and practicality, Mukundaram’s artistic heart continues to long for creative expression: but he has not yet found the story that he is meant to tell. […]

The novel also tells us the story of the Shabars themselves, and their traditions that are so closely and secretly wound up with the forest in which they live and roam. It tells of Kalketu, the Shabar hero and founder of the Shabar clan; of the forbidden, mysterious abode of the goddess Abhaya; of the gift of hunting that she has given them, the laws that she has laid down, and the consequences of breaking these laws; and of the simple, natural way of life of these “forest children”.

And finally, it is the tragic story of how “mainstream” settlements have pushed further and further into the forests, encroaching not only into the hunting lands and homes of the tribals, but also into the delicate equilibrium of nature itself. […]

“The forests keep receding and the cities keep coming forward”, says the tribal chief Danko Shabar sadly, even as he tries to mobilise his people to withstand these pressures. But relentlessly felling, burning and clearing, the villages and townships have erased more and more forests from the earth. And so, finally, The Book of the Hunter is the story of our world, and a powerful plea for us not to destroy it but to preserve and cherish it — for we have no other. […]

Mahasweta Devi tells us in her preface that the Shabars were, bizarrely, declared a “criminal” tribe by the British in 1871, a stigma that continues to oppress the community in contemporary times. The most notable example of this stigma is the story of Chuni Kotal, the first woman graduate among the Lodha Shabars — but who, Devi tells us, after graduating in 1985, was harassed and discriminated against for several years, culminating in her tragic death by suicide in 1992. It was her tragic death, adds Devi, that truly united the dispossessed tribals. The Book of the Hunter, enriched by Devi’s lifetime of working with and for the tribals, is an important step towards helping “mainstream” culture to learn about and understand the people of the forests — and perhaps, ultimately, the forests themselves.

The Book of the Hunter, Mahasweta Devi, translated by Sagaree and Mandira Sengupta, Seagull, 2002, p.138, Rs. 325.

Source: The Hindu : “Forgotten tales” by UMA MAHADEVAN-DASGUPTA, The Hindu, 7 July 2002
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Tribals are subject to oppression and cruelty even after independence and still picked up by the investigating officers to cover up shoddy investigations

D.Y. Chandrachud (Chief Justice of India since 9 November 2022) quoted in “Members of De-Notified Tribes Picked Up to Cover Up Shoddy Investigations” | Learn more >>

“The British established mode of forest governance imposed restrictions on local forest-dwelling communities. In 1860, the Company withdrew all access rights for using the forests (food, fuel, medicine and selling forest products) since the forests and forest-dwelling communities provided refuge to the rebels during the Sepoy Mutiny.” – Bharat Rural Livelihoods Foundation >>

“Tribal population was spread all over India and most of them occupied wild tracts, hilly and forested areas, away from more civilized centers. In 1880 their population was estimated at about seventy million. They had existed for centuries with their own social traditions and beliefs and subsisted on natural resources. They had preserved their near isolation and way of life until the British administration and policies made inroads into their territories.” Subha Johari in “Tribal Dissatisfaction Under Colonial Economy of 19th Century>>

“Tribal communities have proven that they are the best guardians of the forest and die-hard conservationists”: Illegal mining destroys the life and culture of the conservators of forests >>

“Even though they are responsible for protecting the largest part of the global forest heritage […] a third of indigenous and community lands in 64 countries are under threat due to the lack of land tenure rights.” – Pressenza Rio de Janerio in “Indigenous people are heading to CoP26: ‘There is no solution to the climate crisis, without us’” (Down To Earth, 1 November 2021) >>

Learn more about colonial policies, the Forest Rights Act, its importance for ecology, biodiversity, ethnobotany and nutrition, and about the usage of Adivasi (Adibasi) communities in different states of India: in legal and historical records, in textbooks, scholarly papers and the media >>

Learn from M S Swaminathan – a world renowned scientist – how biological diversity contributes to public health, people’s livelihood and environmental security in addition to food security: his call on fellow citizens to use and share resources in a more sustainable and equitable manner; outlining the long journey from the 1992 Earth Summit to a commitment to foster inherited knowledge through India’s Biodiversity Act and Genome Saviour Award; an award intended to reward those who are “primary conservers” – guardians of biological diversity!

More about the work of his foundation which “aims to accelerate use of modern science and technology for agricultural and rural development to improve lives and livelihoods of communities.” – | Regarding the issues of food security raised above, and the nutritional value of indigenous grains, seeds and millets, read an in-depth report that concludes that “the tribal food basket has always been ­diverse and nutritious” >>

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