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Caste equations & Indian fiction’s Adivasi problem

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar writes about Footprints in the Bajra, a novel by Nabina Das that highlights some key issues about the representation of tribals in English-language Indian fiction.

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar  29th Aug 2015

Nabina Das.

here are several reasons one could give for revisiting a book published in 2010, one that I read with much interest, wrote about and discussed with the author herself. A well crafted book, Footprints in the Bajra has remained relevant for me even now. Perhaps this is because my own books — The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey (previously featured in Guardian 20) and the forthcoming The Adivasi Will Not Dance — address the basic question of how Adivasis and lower castes are featured in Indian writing in English. The issues here are so complex that only writing through the perspective of a Rupi Baskey or similar (tribal) characters can illustrate some of the concerns we face as writers today.

This is one of the reasons this writer is seeking out and reading earlier books that have treated tribal communities, lower castes, insurgent movements, etc. through a literary lens coupled with social awareness.

To begin with, Footprints in the Bajra is about an issue that has been  haunting the Indian government like a spectre: Maoism. Second, it has  been written in a clever “first  person,  multiple  perspective” style that  brings out the stories (both  inner  and  outer) of all the major characters  and establishes the various factors responsible for the spread of Maoism, besides presenting an incisive critique of it. In doing so, Das writes passages that seem to belong to an insider’s network, so the research that must have gone into this book is commendable too.
Nora, a young Delhi student, is a member of a campus theatre group at her university. The group is invited to perform at Durjanpur, a village in North Bihar, by Suryakant Sahay, “the local headmaster and community leader”. A seemingly venerable man, Sahay runs a school for the poor and unprivileged children of Durjanpur (literal meaning: “bad people’s abode”), a village divided on the lines of caste and religion, where there are “clearly demarcated different levels of existence, which includes a Muslim world, an upper-caste world and a Brahmin world”. Durjanpur is “mainly a peasant and working-class settlement” with most of the  people from the lower rungs of the Hindu caste hierarchy (“a colony of mostly poor lower-caste homes”); the upper-caste Brahmins living in the  “Upper East Side” of the village and the Bhumihaar landlords living in “their guarded little colonies” in a quarter called Chabutara.

Nora is entrusted to the care of an 18-year-old girl called Muskaan. Muskaan lives in Sahay’s house and is an intelligent, well-read and street-smart girl. During her stay in Durjanpur, Nora sees her group successfully bringing together the villagers to the mandap — a place for prayer congregations, social meetings and even civic affairs — for the staging of their play. According to Sahay this marks the first time that “Muslims actually enter(ed) the mandap”. She meets a young man called Avadhut who teaches at an evening college at the nearby town of Banka. Nora likes the “maleness” of Avadhut as he drives her around Durjanpur in his jeep and acts as a guide
and protector.

The very enumeration of familiar local surnames gave a feeling of reading something worthwhile. Not many books in the current literary scene feature the Santhals or other tribes.

However, all is not hunky-dory. While on an outing with Muskaan in the woods outside Durjanpur, she sees a “kangaroo court” that offers “instant justice”. While Nora is frightened at the very idea of it, Muskaan seems completely unperturbed. Nora is certain it was a Maoist meeting they had witnessed, and Muskaan brazenly confirms her fears by confidently stating: “They exist, I know.”  

A book, whether fiction or non-fiction, on an issue as grave as Maoism tends to become either textbook-ish or resorts to sloganeering. This book does neither. In recent years, there have been several good non-fiction books on Maoism/Naxalism, like former IPS officer Prakash Singh’s The Naxalite Movement in India (Rupa 2006), Telugu poet Varavara Rao’s Captive Imagination (Penguin 2010) and journalist and author Sudeep Chakravarti’s Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country (Penguin 2008). The books that have been mentioned above are all non-fiction, their importance stemming from the fact that they present ground realities as they are. Also, these three books have been written by a cop, a Maoist ideologue and a journalist, respectively: three very different starting points. But fiction has the potential to forge a unique intimacy between the reader and the subject matter, and it is here that Footprints in the Bajra excels. It doesn’t seek to approach the Maoist issue from an outsider’s perspective (as the aforementioned non-fiction titles do). Instead, it brings together outsiders as well as insiders and lets each one tell his/her own story.

Das clearly had a clear idea of Bihar’s social milieu in her mind before she began writing this book. This writer, a Jharkhand resident, hasn’t read any recent novel in which the caste equations of Bihari society have been used in such a detailed manner. Sample this passage: “(…) when the government comes hunting us out, they’ll not appoint a Thakur, a Chaudhury, a Singh or a Sharma, but a Murmu, a Paswan, a Yadav, a Gonda. Those that never got a chance in history.” The very enumeration of familiar local surnames gave a feeling of reading something worthwhile. Not many books in the current literary scene feature the Santhals or other tribes. Also, the passage above shows us how the system pits Adivasis against Adivasis. The common man protesting against the injustice being done to him is an Adivasi. The person in the uniform, appointed by the government to stem such a protest, is also an Adivasi.

Go figure!

Footprints in the Bajra travels across time zones and it is understood that a dreamy web like this, spanning Durjanpur and Delhi and New York, could exist only in literature. A work of fiction based on Maoism in the North Indian heartland was eagerly awaited and this book fills the
void perfectly.

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