‘Our Santiniketan’ by Mahasweta Devi: An Excerpt
In Our Sanitikentan, 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.
Translated from the Bengali with an Introduction by Radha Chakravarty
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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 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 as well.
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. But the cushioning of the First Class berths was also heavier, and the other fittings were superior as well. 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 some- thing 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.