The Leafy Sentinel
Mahasweta Devi’s “Arjun” relays the story of Ketu Shabar, a good-for-nothing drunkard who turns the saviour for his tribe. The story is an impassioned rendering that highlights the insensitivity of modern man towards forests and tribals. It portrays, successfully, the role that a tree plays in the life of the tribesmen.
The story revolves around ‘Arjun’, a tree sacred to the Shabar tribe. For the Shabars who were once forest dwellers, Arjun is a manifestation of the divine. Hailed for its medicinal properties, Arjun is the only surviving relic of the Bandihi jungles from the Zamindari era. This leafy sentinel, the Shabars believe, has guarded and protected them since time immemorial. They go around it during weddings and festivals beating their dhol dhamsas. For the Shabars it is a mute symbol of their existence. As Pitambar puts it “that one tree is the entire jungle for us”. However, Bishal Mahato, a politician wants the tree to be cut down at all costs. He entrusts Ketu Shabar with this task. Ketu has his reservations about cutting down the tree that means everything to him but is left with no choice as Mahato threatens to send him back to jail. Ketu seeks help from his friends, and together they hatch a plan to outwit Mahato. They cook up a dream wherein Mahato pays Diga, a tribesman money and instructs him to build a concrete base around the trunk of Arjun. People pour from far and wide to make their offerings to the ‘gram devata’. Evidently, Mahato gets a taste of his own medicine, as the uncanny Shabars use his money to make a permanent base to safeguard Arjun. For once, Mahato feels fear as his city-bred slyness comes a cropper against the combined might and wit of the jungle dwellers.
Easily, one recognises Ketu Shabar as a representative of the dispossessed tribesmen of India. These tribals had, for long, been jungle dwellers and as forests got cleared and trees felled, they are now forced to live in the prosperous village of the Bandihi. Society and the system have continually persecuted, exploited and almost obliterated this handful of tribals from the face of the earth. And when Mahato orders the Arjun to be cut down, it is like obliterating the last mute symbol of their existence. Ketu may be apathetic to politics and politicians but Arjun is so dear and near to him. As the enormity of Mahato’s order dawns upon him, he realises how inextricably linked his life and fate are to that of the Arjun. It wakes him from his stupor and along with his friends, he undermines Mahato’s plans. The Ketu who dances like a maniac round the Arjun at the end of the story is a far cry from the drunk and wayward Ketu at the beginning of the story. Overnight, he reinvents himself as an empowered Shabar even as the majestic Arjun continues its vigil from its lofty post.
The story also brings to the fore the hypocrisy of the politicians. Bishal Mahato and Ram Haldar may belong to opposite political factions but when one orders the Arjun to be cut down, the other happily provides the transport to carry it away. They may hoist different flags, but as Mahasweta Devi sees it, underneath they are like sugar in milk. And one cannot help thinking that the politically apathetic Ketu, for whom wall posters are blankets, represents a typical modern Indian youth.
Again, the Shabars live in close communion with nature, yet paradoxically, they get jailed frequently for clearing forests and felling trees. The story tells us that they do these things at the behest of the Mahatos and Haldars, the politicians who run the country. These politicians run campaigns to save forests and then vandalize the forests themselves. The cruel exploitation the tribals are put to in the story is not one-off. The tribals are helpless – “cut the tree, you got jail; don’t cut the tree you still get jailed”. Alas, to save their leafy sentinels the tribals ought to be uncanny and clever like Ketu and his friends.
Copyright © Manu Mangattu, Assistant Professor, Department of English, SGC Aruvithura
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