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Literary Review

Forgotten tales

The Book of the Hunter is about the Shabars, their traditions which are closely and secretly wound up with the forest in which they live and hunt, says UMA MAHADEVAN-DASGUPTA.

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.

In their new adopted home, it is Abhayachandi, the goddess of the forest and of the Shabars, the forest-dwelling tribals, who becomes Mukundaram's muse for his epic Abhayamangal. And the young tribal couple, Kalya and Phuli — who are full of a raw, intense and often painful love for each other — become his protagonists in Byadhkhanda (The Book of the Hunter), the forest-dwellers' section of the epic that Mukundaram at last sits down to compose.

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. For the tribals, with their uncomplicated lives, it is not a difficult thing to leave their dwellings and move on to another home: but how many times, and where will they go when there are fewer and fewer forests? "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.

What has life been like for the Shabars since the days, centuries ago, when Mukundaram wrote about their restless search for Abhaya's forest, a forest that would remain pristine and unravaged by human settlements? 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.

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