Mahasweta Devi, Our Santiniketan

Title: Mahasweta Devi, Our Santiniketan.

Translator: Radha Chakravarty (From Bengali)

Publisher: Seagull Books, January 2022.

I first visited Santiniketan at the age of four, I’m told.

If we calculate the date, that would be 1930, or December 1929. Whether it was that December, or the January of 1929, I don’t know. Ma said it was an awfully cold winter. Shivering all the way on our journey there, shivering all the way back.

How amazing! I used to remember my very, very young days very, very well.

Yet now I can no longer recall that first visit.

I can’t be expected to remember, either. For now, I’m in my seventy-fifth year.

For a long, long time, I lived with Ma, Baba, my mamas, mashis, kakas, pishis, Dadu, Didima, Thakurda (only I called him ‘Dada’), Thakuma— all of them.

Not just them. Also Ma’s kaka, jyatha, mama, mashi, and their children and grandchildren. In other words, I lived with relatives of a hundred kinds, our lives closely entangled. For as long as they were with us, there was constant talk. In that buzz of conversation, one heard people say things like:

‘You were four years old then!’

‘When you fell off the tree . . . ’

‘The time you boarded an aeroplane . . . ’

That was how one got to know about one’s own childhood. So many years since Ma left us—to whom can I narrate my tales of childhood now! What I want to say here is that, although my first visit to Santiniketan was something that really happened, it’s an event I know of only by hearsay.

What we learn of by hearsay can also be true, after all. Way back in 1936, I went to Jhargram. Those days, Jhargram was a sea of sal forests.

Like an island within that sea was a house where we stayed. When Baba was transferred to Medinipur, I got to see a great deal of the Gopa, Jhargram, Salbani, Belpahari of those times.

‘Khuku! In Medinipur we spent our happiest days,’ Ma used to say.

I say the same.

Look, I’ll tell you about my childhood. But there’s no one alive now who can understand what I’m talking about.

Never mind. I must talk about the first time I saw Santiniketan.

Baba had probably joined Visva-Bharati as a member. What was his reason?

Visva-Bharati was Rabindranath’s creation, after all!

Well, Baba had seen Rabindranath several times, gone to meet him as well. This time, he had decided to take Ma with him, and us two sisters too.

If I was four at the time, my sister Mitul would have been no more than six months old!

Trains those days had First Class, Second Class, Inter Class and Third Class compartments. We boarded a Second Class compartment. A pair of wide, leather-upholstered berths below, another pair above.

In addition, the First Class compartment had a wall-mounted mirror, and hooks to hang clothes, raincoats and umbrellas. Fixed to the wall between the two bathrooms was a table with no legs. As far as I can remember, these items were absent from the Second Class compartment. The cushioning of the First Class berths was heavier, and the other fittings much superior. White sahebs and brown sahebs, did they all travel First Class? I don’t know.

That they didn’t travel in the same compartment, was something I heard of all the time. The British were in power then. They were the ruling class.

Gandhiji always travelled Third Class, in compartments meant for common people. Incredible, as it seems today, once I saw Gandhiji too; but let that be.

Anyway, it was high winter then. On the train, Ma and I took the lower berth. A gentleman on the berth above us, another on the lower berth opposite. Baba on the upper berth, with Mitul. Ma and Baba had a massive war of words, I’m told.

‘You take the upper berth with Khuku. Mitul is so tiny, let her remain with me.’

‘Aha! You can recline comfortably.’

‘Mitul is so small, she’ll fall off!’

‘How can she, when I’m with her?’

And so, the verbal battle went on and on. The gentleman on the lower berth interrupted from time to time, saying things like:

‘Aha! Please stop this! The children are asleep after all, so why must you . . . ?’ and so on.

Ultimately, at some point, everyone fell asleep. Look, among all the trains of those days—BNR, INR, this Mail, that Mail, some other Mail—which one we were travelling in, I can’t say. I’m told that the moment we arrived at Bhedia station, it was either our co-passengers who declared: ‘This is Bolpur’, or my Baba who decided, ‘This is Bolpur’. How exactly it happened, there’s no way of figuring out now, after a gap of seventy years. From what I knew of my Baba, I suspect he tumbled out of the train, announcing:

‘This is Bolpur!’

Ma recounted how, as soon as he alighted at the station, Baba cried, ‘We’ve got off at Bolpur, so why is this station named Bhedia?’

‘Bhedia’ was the name displayed at the station, on a square glass chimney atop a heavy wooden stand.

Anyway. The station master emerged. He understood the situation and organized a bullock cart for us. It was lined with  a thick layer of straw, covered by a shataranchi. You wouldn’t know this, but if you sleep on a thick layer of straw with that chequered rug spread over it, it really keeps the cold at bay. Dumka in 1944, Ghatsila in 1945, I remember them very well. In December, we had travelled to those places from Santiniketan.

In that bitter cold, my parents had climbed on to the bullock cart and eventually arrived at Santiniketan. The house behind the Mandir, which I thought of as the Guest House since 1936, is where I think they had stayed.

In the morning, they set out for an audience with the poet. Seated beside Rabindranath was Ramananda Chattopadhyay. I was terribly precocious, and even more artless. Apparently, I asked Ramananda Chattopadhyay:

‘Are you Robi Thakur?’

Tell me, how was I to blame! Dadu-Didima, my grandparents back home, used the name ‘Robi Thakur’. Thakurda, my paternal grandfather, would say ‘Robi-babu’. I mean, he referred to the Poet as ‘Robi-babu’. Baba, Boromama, Ma, my mashis and pishis — they used the name ‘Rabindranath’. No wonder I had blurted out such a foolish question.

Even that anecdote is a matter of hearsay, after all.

What happened after this episode, I can’t recall.

So those were my first glimpses of Rabindranath, and of Santiniketan.

The Santiniketan I saw six years later, when I went there at the age of ten — that is what remains etched in my memory as ‘our Santiniketan’. Like a dazzling feather that has fluttered down from some unknown place. In my mind it remains, enclosed within a box made of glass. I can turn it this way and that, look at it from any angle, whenever I desire.

I can. It’s something I can do, even now. Still, I have travelled a long distance away from my childhood, so the glass box now seems far, far away. I gaze at it and realize that the colours are fading. I realize that, one day, all the colours will vanish.

Of course, they will vanish. Someday, someone will ask me to write about it, and with my dimming vision I will sit down to write. Sixty-four years now. How long will the feather keep its colours, waiting?

The ‘feather’ stands for memories of childhood.

Memories don’t wait either. Memories grow tired. They want to go to sleep.

About the Book: In Our Santinikentan, the late Mahasweta Devi, one of India’s most celebrated writers, vividly narrates her days as a schoolgirl in the 1930s. As the aging author struggles to recapture vignettes of her childhood, these reminiscences bring to the written page not only her individual sensibility but an entire ethos.

Santiniketan is home to the school and university founded by the foremost literary and cultural icon of India, Rabindranath Tagore. In these pages, a forgotten Santiniketan, seen through the innocent eyes of a young girl, comes to life — the place, its people, flora and fauna, along with its educational environment, culture of free creative expression, vision of harmonious coexistence between natural and human worlds, and the towering presence of Tagore himself. Alongside, we get a glimpse of the private Mahasweta — her inner life, family and associates, and the early experiences that shaped her personality.

A nostalgic journey to a bygone era, harking back to its simple yet profound values — so distant today and so urgent yet again — Our Santiniketan is an invaluable addition to Devi’s rich oeuvre available in English translation.

Mahasweta Devi (1926–2016) was one of India’s foremost literary figures from the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries—a writer and social activist in equal right. Author of numerous novels, plays, essays and short stories, she received the Jnanpith Award, India’s highest literary honour, in 1996. She was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1997 for her ‘compassionate crusade through art and activism to claim for tribal peoples a just and honourable place in India’s national life’.

Radha Chakravarty is a writer, critic, and translator. In 2004, she was nominated for the Crossword Translation Award for In the Name of the Mother by Mahasweta Devi.



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